Immersion weeks are fabulous learning and practicing opportunities for our students. I consider us very lucky to be able to take these weeks, change our usual schedule, and end with something beautiful to share. Last week the elementary enjoyed opera immersion week. Of course a children's opera performed by all the elementary students takes more than one week to pull together, but the students are immersed in the process for one week.
We start scheduling the year prior?scheduling with Youth Opera International for Sanford and Judy Jones to come work with us, booking the theater, checking on housing, and confirming the opera. By January we have received the opera music with planning, casting, and costume notes. We cast roles with each Upper Elementary student singing an audition for us and Ms. Sabrina, our music teacher, begins working on songs with all the students. There are pieces that all students sing, others that smaller groups sing, and solos. At this time we also begin to sort out costumes from when this opera was performed (six years ago) and look at what we need for this production.
Opera immersion week dawns quickly and each day begins with a full group opportunity to sing and move, practicing the group songs and learning dances to go with them. About an hour and a half into our day, groups and individuals move to different rooms to practice songs with Mr. Jones or dance with Mrs. Jones. Those students who are not in a practice session are doing work related to the opera such as recording their practice, working with opera terms, names, and places related to the opera, or practicing on their own. Students must stay aware of the time and be ready to go to a dance or vocal appointment during the morning or after lunch. The schedule is written on a white board and students help each other notice appointments. Students are often called in between dance and vocal appointments for costume fittings and adjustments. Usually there is a group of adults working all week to finalize costumes and props, adjusting as needed for new looks or dance moves.
Just as everyone gets into a rhythm we move to the theater. Suddenly we are out of our own space and need to follow different guidelines for safety. This is the moment when most of the students and adults discover that the theater involves a lot of waiting. Although students are encouraged to bring books, drawing materials, or games, paying attention to announcements while waiting becomes a skill to be practiced and perfected quickly. While at the theater we put greater focus on moving within the space of the stage with our costumes and props. The first time all students are fully in costumes with props is the dress rehearsal which has an audience. After this dress rehearsal we share some notes, eat, and practice any parts that showed need.
6:00 on Friday finds us with excited students in costumes and make-up back stage and equally excited parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and older students waiting in the lobby. Peeking at the students from the wings before the curtain opens I see excitement, concern, costume rearranging, some funny faces being made, and practice with miniscule movements. The curtain opens and suddenly we have performers?students who were flapping arms instead of waving arms are suddenly waving their arms in time with the music, students are dancing and singing with huge smiles. I always tear up when the student who ?couldn't and wouldn't? sing by him or herself steps forward and does a beautiful solo, or when the shy student starts singing through the appropriate laughter her dance elicits, or when the group that struggled to learn a dance performs adorably.
By 8:30 the hugs have been given to everyone, the costumes are returned, and we are sweeping up bits of costume and glitter. All the pieces get packed into cars to be sorted, washed, and returned to storage at school. We are left with a glimpse of what our students can manage, a great peek into their learning in a condensed time frame, and an obvious success from hard work. No one gets a grade, no one is rewarded more highly than others, no one is tested after their stage performance but they have developed greater skills in following direction, speaking, singing, dancing, and stage presence, practiced working as a team, waiting respectfully, and supporting each other. The memories of these weeks are priceless and the Joneses meet people who remember the role they performed thirty years after the performance.
At the end of the week my feet hurt, our classroom is a mess, I have shopped, sewn, and fixed hair more times than I like to think about, I have not given one formal lesson, and yet I think it is worth doing again the next year. These immersion weeks?the secondary does a drama immersion week?teach the children different, maybe untestable skills. They develop these social skills in the classroom, but immersion weeks help them practice the skills and see the results quickly enough to make a connection in their brain. For most professionals every week requires these same skills, working with a group as a team, helping yourself and those around you stick to a schedule with a deadline, learning new skills while retaining information you have already learned, sometimes using that information in a different way, waiting on others respectfully,, and practicing getting along with those around you. Our opera and drama immersion weeks do not really prepare our students for a life in the theater, they prepare our students for meaningful, interesting work?people you would want to work with, work for, and have work for you.