Stories Tame the Drama Class From Hell (Trip Down Memory Lane)

By Mary Garrett

A most remarkable result of storytelling was the taming of my “drama class from hell,” a very undisciplined group for whom I had been the “bad cop” all semester as my student teacher took them through play production units. This was a very large class, very talkative and disruptive, and worst of all, the African-American students took every disciplinary action as an excuse to claim racial bias. They had convinced me that I never wanted to teach a drama class again (I had only taken this one section of drama, not my area of expertise, to balance the schedule for my department).

The student teacher conquered her impulse to give them back to me early and finished the one-act plays with them. When it was time for her to move on, they begged her to stay and not leave them with “that mean teacher,” but they didn’t get much sympathy from her, and she reminded them of why she was glad to leave.

One student told the rest, “I like Ms. Garrett. I have her in another class, where people aren’t always pissing her off. Oh, I guess I shouldn’t say ’piss’ in school.” I wished that they would let me be the nice teacher I prefer to be, but in truth I was dreading spending the last month of school with this horrible class, and I wondered how well I could discipline the whole group with no “bad cop” of my own to rely on.

I had been looking forward to doing the storytelling portion of this class, the one area in which I felt I had much to give them. The storytelling unit in my short stories class had been a high point; we had even invited a principal to join us. I had used positive short stories to help my juniors face the dreaded MAP tests, starting a week in advance of the tests with stories about persevering through tough times. The stories helped create a better atmosphere with less tension, more confidence, and much less complaining.

The first aspect that made them a little happy was when I told them NOT to memorize the stories word-for-word. They had complained that memorizing was too hard, and I knew they would be relieved.

I also began each day’s work with one of my stories, as a model of storytelling and to show them my “nice” side.  I started with very short Yiddish tales, “The Smell of the Bread” and “The Lost Purse,” recruiting students to play the characters. Laughter and comments like “She faked you out” when the greedy person received his just due were refreshing light moments. Perhaps there was some hope for us.

They fussed a bit when I told them they would be reading silently and taking notes on at least five stories to choose the one to tell, but the promise, “You’ll be able to talk once you have selected something to talk about,” and that twenty-years-of-teaching authority settled them down.

As they read and took notes on the large selection of photocopied stories, all with a focus on positive character traits, (I wasn’t trusting these guys with my books or with wide-open selections), I would pull out the occasional story that I thought might fit a particular student. “You have hidden talents like this beetle. You help others, as does ‘Tante Tina.’” I also suggested that they . . . silently . . . pass along any stories they thought would be good for a friend.

I knew that talking would degenerate into not working at all; they needed a silent room to begin working and thinking. As they read and chose, I could see them getting interested and motivated, and the quiet students who hadn’t been able to do their best in a chaotic atmosphere were relaxing and focusing in the calmer room.

When they had selected the stories they wanted to tell, they storyboarded and summarized on a 3×5 card to get them away from word-for-word repetition of the story. This made them focus on the essentials of the story, and I think high school students enjoy an opportunity to work with crayons and markers again. They were smiling and showing off their pictures by this time. Students laughed as they recognized themselves, or others, in “The Talking Skull” — “Woe is me! Misery! What I said was true. It was my mouth that brought me here, my friend. Your mouth has brought you too!”

They then told their stories to a partner — I chose the partners for them, keeping the cliques from regrouping. They were told to begin with compliments, because we all need them, and then offer any suggestions gently. This was low-stress enough that even the shy students who were still afraid to speak up were able to tell to just one person, and I could tell they were enjoying the stories. We then put together pairs to have groups of four. They asked if they could put those groups together themselves, and they had been doing so well with the project that they were allowed that privilege.

As I circulated in the room, I encouraged and offered suggestions (and made sure they were actually working), and I noticed several whose stories were coming along especially well.  Not surprisingly, some of them had been the most disruptive — that talent and desire to perform does come bursting out.  I invited them to share their in-progress stories with the class. The suggestions for improving already good stories were instructive to all, and the applause and compliments kept them from becoming “bored” and disruptive.

At one point, several students declared that they were ready to perform, but the rest were not. The “ready” students became the team leaders or coaches of a larger group of eight or so, with the assignment to get all students ready to tell. We also established rules for positive listening and talked about the importance of a good audience. “You are fighting because you only looked at my coat from your own point of view” (from “The Red and Blue Coat” — Heather Forest). As we worked together on stories, we saw a bit more clearly from each other’s point of view.

When all were ready, they volunteered for their turns to tell. My most obstreperous young man, one of the militant African-Americans, told first, with pride and enthusiasm. He had the talent, and his telling of “The Black Prince” was wonderful. An earlier phone call to his mother had established the fact that I was not treating him in a discriminatory fashion; a positive “Gold Note” postcard home afterward provided well-earned praise for his storytelling.

The real surprise, though, was his behavior after his telling. He was an attentive and generous listener, encouraging and complimenting not only the students he had coached, but every student in the class. When the final teller, an extremely shy young woman, told her story, the whole class listened as avid fans of her effort, and though her nerves did show, she told the story clearly, and their applause was sincere.

This storytelling experience was so positive that we moved smoothly through the final days of school, and on the last day of finals I was able to tell them (with misty eyes) that I was proud of them and would miss them.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ramona DeFelice Long
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:18:39

    Mary, your positive spirit shines through even the difficult parts of this post. I’m so happy you have this wonderful memory. It’s a good one!


  2. storytellermary
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 21:56:31

    Thanks, Ramona! My former students have accused me of “selective memory” but we really did have mostly fun most of the time . . . and it was remarkable to watch this particular group come around 😉


  3. wvgcj
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 17:26:11

    I love this story. This real-life story of how you changed lives through stories. As a former teacher, my heart is thrilled for your teaching success – and marvel that it emerged from story-telling.


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