After the middle school MAG (Mixed Age Group) Day at The School- KFI, I spoke with my colleague Akhila Seshadri about what went into the production of a pageant presented by students of her class on that occasion. Over the years, the middle school presentations have become an inevitable part of the school calendar. What began as presentations during an extended afternoon assembly has come to provide a significant learning opportunity for middle school students.
The conversation revealed a vital process by which the children learnt as much about themselves as they did about Greek gods. This article is an attempt to capture some of the salient points of our conversation about the educational process that gave birth to the pageant.
How did the class decide on the theme of Greek gods for this year's presentation?
The entire process began a month earlier. To help the children take charge, we discussed what a middle school presentation should be like and what criteria we should evolve for ourselves. Some criteria expressed by the children were:
- Whatever we present must have something to say to the adult and senior school audience. (The children who presented were ten to twelve yearolds.)
- There must be an element of humour.
- There must be nothing violent or offensive.
- There must be something to think about in the end.
These points were displayed on our soft board and formed the framework for the conversations to follow.
Ideas poured in, some from the students and some from me. Some were imitative of ideas that the other two groups were tossing around. I was keen to ensure authenticity, and we spoke of resisting the temptation to copy from the other groups. We discussed the more promising proposals, slept over them and tried to narrow our options to any three themes, presentations or stories. Finally, one of the students proposed: Why not have the Greek gods come to our classroom—Mahanadi? Another child built on the idea: Why don't we think of different gods and then decide who we want to be?
When you look into yourself, you do uncover what is there … at times it surprises you and at times you smile as if you knew it all along. W hen we look at the ancient gods as we did, when we tossed around an idea for today based on Mahanadi and the Greek gods, we found some amazing things…
How did each student select a god they identified with? Why did you select the pageant as the form of presentation?
I am quiet, shy and quite the opposite of Athena. But I admire her for her wisdom, her creation of the useful arts. When I sit by myself and make small things in the arts and crafts class, I see myself as Athena. I do not need to be loud to be brave, do I?
I wanted to ensure two things: authenticity and a good presentation. The children were simply voicing the first thoughts that came to their minds and not all of them seemed to have a sense of how to make this work.
I decided to set them a task. I wanted them to work really hard on this task and to think it out individually, for themselves. The task I set was: Read up on the Greek gods and the myths associated with them. Understand them and then think about yourself. What kind of person are you? If you were to be a Greek god, who would you identify with?
I did not think that they would take to the task seriously, but they did. They responded remarkably. This was the moment when I felt absolutely confident about working with this theme alongside the children.
Yes. I am Prometheus. I have the gift of forethought and that gets me frustrated. But nothing cheers me more than teaching my creation, the humans. I worry always about the consequences of my actions and I love to teach and explain. I don't think I am terribly smart, but I try my best. Prometheus is inventive and helpful and though my classmates ask me doubts that I earnestly explain, they lose patience and wander off! It does not matter. I have my place.
At this time, the word pageant had not yet entered the conversation. We were still wondering how to knit all the ideas into a story. I shared the children's work with a colleague. I remember telling her that there was remarkable material about the gods and the children. I asked her what kind of a story we could come up with. Should the gods be symbolic, perhaps? She just said: Don't try to make a storyline out of it. Let it be a pageant. There was only one thing left to be done: the children had to see this effort as primarily about themselves and not about the gods.
Zeus, the King of Gods, has a well-kept secret: he is afraid of heights! To meet his fear head-on, he sets himself the task of climbing Mount Olympus. W ith grit (and some cheering from the other gods), he accomplishes his mission. Sitting atop Mount Olympus, brandishing his tennis racquet, he thunders: 'I boast; I like to be the head of whatever I do. I like to take charge. If someone doesn't listen to me, I get angry.'
The dialogues seemed to connect the students' lives with the personality of the god they had selected. How did these dialogues evolve?
I see myself as Hades, god of the underworld, son of Cronus. I can stand up to any challenge before me and I do not give up. And … and NOBODY can beat me in football because of my power and my strength. I feel brave when I play people older than me and once I scored a double hat trick and won a game we were almost losing. Football makes me Hades.
The task that we set them was to visualize the god they were representing and to also think about what they would like to depict and speak on stage. They had to draw the god, think of props if there were to be any. Each child knew what his or her character needed and set about making the props.
Additions and embellishments were for the sake of drama. One of the girls, for instance, held her mother as her role model, and that was brought into the words she spoke:
Is my mother there in the audience? Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, goddess of spring, summer and rebirth. I relate to her for I am adaptable, like her. I love spring for it makes me feel free and I love the fragrance. And my love for my mother is like spring.
What was your learning as a teacher?
I think I am very similar to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and archery. Like me, she prefers keeping thoughts to herself. I am a strong, independent person who cannot hunt, however. She prefers the country to the city and I also share some of her faults like the fact that I refuse to change even when things around me do and the fact that I talk mostly only to girls.
The pleasure of having an idea come alive as a presentation was very real. When the children were the busiest and the demands were strong, I found that they could rise to the occasion.
There were a few difficult situations. Once four children were busy with their own play and were not ready for the dress rehearsal. We did the rehearsal without them. When we came back to class, they had—in a fit of contrition—cleaned up the class and were sitting demurely! I was upset enough to decide that they would not be part of the presentation. But all of us converted this into reminding ourselves about norms and responsibilities.
The entire month was one of many dialogues and deep conversations. There were several instances of children being utterly honest and vulnerable. And each of those interactions was a moment of learning for me. I watched students articulate who they thought they were and, in that articulation, discover facets of themselves they perhaps were not aware of or did not give much importance to.
I see myself as Poseidon because every time I see the sea, I see…. Every time I see the sea, I see it … (nice line, isn't it?). Anyway, the sea is sometimes dull and sometimes a bright blue, sometimes choppy and sometimes calm. And I see no stops to my moodiness. I get angry very fast. So it is the god of seas, and earthquakes I relate to.
For instance, one boy said—very honestly and with great perception —that he was greedy, like Poseidon. I asked him to give examples to help him see situations where this was true. The boy was also generous and loved being in the limelight. I attempted to highlight this aspect in his dialogues as well. I felt it was important that while he could acknowledge that he was sometimes greedy, he should not see himself as being just that. For another girl, knowing what she was did not please her. She did not want that side of herself to be presented. Yet she did not know what to present. Also, she had difficulty in doing the reference work. She just chose a character randomly. I spent some time asking her to think further about herself, to question why she did not feel like depicting the aspect of herself as a helpful person who liked things to be orderly. Somehow, she felt this was not adequate. Some further lines were added, whereby she came through as someone who is not appreciated much.
Hi. I don't share Atlanta's sad story of being born to parents who wanted a boy. But I see myself as an independent and adventurous person. She is not a god, but a mortal. I chose to be her because her life is full of adventures and I feel the fierce independence that I see in her. And there is an urge in me to compete and win.
Another instance was the thrill of watching a bud opening. One of the girls rarely smiled, and spoke barely above a whisper. Through the entire process, there was a remarkable transformation in her. Her participation in class grew, and so too did her confidence. During every circle time, we heard her speak, share and respond. It was an utter joy to behold.
Looking inside, I found that I am a caring person. Shy and yet practical. I like things to be my way. On Mount Olympus, I am Hebe, the cup bearer, the goddess of youth. I love helping people.