Woodring's acting class for teachers is a required course for secondary-ed students
Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
An uncomfortable silence fills Associate Professor Bob Keiper’s classroom as his students look expectantly at each other.
“No one’s ever died doing this,” Keiper says, his resonant actor-voice filling the room. “We’re future teachers so we don’t hesitate when we’re asked to volunteer.”
As usual in Keiper’s “Dynamics of Teaching” class, the awkward silences are broken with nervous laughter, and a volunteer quickly comes forward.
Today’s assignment: Perform a solo mime about adolescents. Justin Schaeffer pops up and becomes a teenage boy sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to play video games with a buddy.
If Keiper’s students today feel a bit awkward about getting up in front of their classmates and performing an extended pantomime, it may help to know they have had lots of company.
For the past 15 years, all secondary education students at Woodring College of Education have taken “Dynamics of Teaching,” an acting class for teachers that emphasizes the non-verbal and vocal communication skills so critical in both the classroom and on stage.
And whether they’re undergraduates, graduates or post-baccalaureate students, they all need at least a B in the course.
Keiper first recognized the connection between actors and teachers when he was supervising student teachers on the western slopes of Colorado while he was earning his doctorate at the University of Northern Colorado.
“These future teachers could plan a lesson, they could develop really good objectives, and everything looked great on paper,” Keiper says. But it often fell apart when they had to present that lesson to the students.
Keiper, a former high school drama teacher who triple-majored in theatre, speech and English as an undergraduate, quickly diagnosed their troubles: stage fright.
Keiper taught acting techniques to student teachers in seminars and elective classes until the class became a requirement about 15 years ago.
Now, Keiper and other faculty who teach “Dynamics of Teaching” help students analyze the resonance and pitch of their voices and consider the positions of their bodies to make sure they’re conveying the same message as the words they speak.
Keiper hopes the techniques will make his students more lively, engaging teachers. Most importantly, Keiper says, they’ll be more effective.
“Monotone is a killer in the classroom,” Keiper says. “Life dies out in some classrooms when it should grow and flourish. Research shows that teachers who are caring, outgoing, spontaneous and animated do better with adolescents.”
Keiper also wants them to learn to take risks and become comfortable being in front of an audience of secondary students. So a lot of class time in “Dynamics of Teaching” is spent in think-on-your-feet exercises encouraging students to think creatively.
One class assignment had pairs of students act out a non-verbal “conversation,” narrated by Keiper, that begins: “Hey!” “Are you referring to me?” “Who else is there?” “‘Hey’ is a little impersonal.” And it gets even more elaborate from there.
Another has students collaborate and use their bodies to depict contraptions such as slot machines and juke boxes.
“We tell students, if you try something and it fails, at least you’ve learned something,” says Keiper as one of his students pretends to be a push mower and the other pretends to mow the lawn.
During class, Keiper throws in anecdotes from his own teaching days, including gritty realities of teaching adolescents – like the time he had to stop a school play in mid-scene when Romeo and Juliet’s braces got tangled.
He also peppers his lectures with tidbits that actors know, such as the importance of “pit air,” and how expansive gestures beside the body and above the waist are much more meaningful than keeping the hands close in.
“You teach and act to the back row first,” he tells his students. “Don’t forget them. Either you’ve put them there or they’ve put themselves there. You have to reach them.”