Jessica Kennedy, OCT, gives her drama students the freedom to explore and create both onstage and off.
By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
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On May 26, 1924, Fred McGaughey was accused of killing his 19-year-old girlfriend, Beatrice Fee. He got the mandatory penalty for murder - death by hanging. McGaughey's sentence was carried out that December, marking the final execution in Lindsay, Ont.
More than 90 years later, Grade 11 students at the local I. E. Weldon Secondary School revisited the case. By then, few townspeople knew the details and some digging was required. Jessica Kennedy, OCT, had her class comb through trial transcripts, documents, photos and old newspaper accounts. They even took the time to interview McGaughey's great-niece to uncover all aspects of the case, along with its cast of characters.
Probing a murder, and its aftermath, is an engaging topic for a history assignment; but this wasn't history class. Kennedy is a drama teacher and her students were doing research for The Last Hanging, a play they created and eventually performed at Lindsay's former jail, the Olde Gaol Museum.
"In drama, we use different approaches to examine and unpack current issues, history and imagined worlds," says Kennedy, which feeds into her teaching philosophy: Embrace big ideas. Encourage students to consider other perspectives. Foster collaboration. Facilitate community engagement.
Through writing, improvisation, movement and other techniques, Kennedy's Grade 9-12 students tackle topics that could easily fit into other areas of the Ontario curriculum, such as animals in captivity, the sex trade, and issues facing Indigenous communities.
Like most, Kennedy did not develop this appreciation for (or approach to) teaching overnight. While pursuing a graduate degree in theatre at the University of Toronto, Kennedy secured part-time jobs teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults and tutoring elementary students. That is when her love of teaching became evident and she decided to pursue a B.Ed. at Queen's University.
Since making that life-changing decision, Kennedy's work in education has been praised by peers and honoured by the prime minister, as the recent recipient of a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence.
Grade 11 student Hunter loves how Kennedy gives his drama class the freedom to explore. "She lets us have creative control," he says. "We connect the work to things that are really going on in our world."
"Students get excited when they're in charge of decision-making," says Kennedy, who recently started a leave of absence to pursue her PhD in education at York University in Toronto. "There's no greater measure of accountability than to stand in front of your peers, or an audience, and deliver."
In her classes, learning takes on a variety of forms. Many of Kennedy's assignments have involved crosscurricular collaboration, as well as working with community partners. The Coyote Project, for instance, was a combined venture with a photography class. Together, they raised awareness of two issues that resonated with them: missing and murdered Indigenous women and the spike in teenage suicides and attempts in Attawapiskat, Ont.
The drama students met with partners in the local Indigenous community, getting exposure to drum circles and other Indigenous learnings. The students wrote down how they felt about the issues raised. The photography students then created artistic representations of those feelings - ideas like hope, value and having a voice. The result was a multimedia theatre presentation that included short scenes, spoken word and images projected on large screens.
While in-school collaboration is meaningful, getting outside of the classroom can inspire vital connections. Kennedy had her students spend time at a local retirement home, where the residents were eager to talk about their younger years. They shared stories of where they grew up, what they did for a living, how they met their spouses, and more.
The students took notes and documented everything they found compelling on a board. From those ideas, they selected the most dramatic tales and discussed how they might recount them. Their presentation, called Remembering, had moments of both poignancy and levity, says Kennedy.
"Jessie ensures the students have tangible connections to the community," says Danielle Lazzarin, OCT, head of the English department. "There's also a social impact component and message in what her students are doing. It's about theatre, but bigger than a drama class."
Every November, for instance, the drama students take the lead with Remembrance Day presentations. History teacher Erin Matthew, OCT, writes a thematic essay (like "mythology and war" or "post-traumatic stress disorder"), while Kennedy's class turns it into a series of vignettes. "Jessie teaches her students to curate their own cultural experiences and knowledge in a way that's meaningful to them," says Matthew.
"Drama is incredibly powerful as a tool for learning and means of expression because it combines embedded inquiry with storytelling," says the award-winning teacher. "We undergo rigorous research to tell our stories with integrity - whether interviewing people in our community or plowing through statistics on global warming. We ask ourselves ethical questions: ‘Are we telling this story in a balanced way?' That sets the stage for impactful learning."
Kennedy strives to be imaginative in how that learning happens. Some students, for example, aren't comfortable writing critiques or reflections on their work or that of their peers. So she gives fledgling thespians the option to present those on video. To convey dramatic theories and practices, Kennedy focuses on fun exercises. For instance, she has groups develop an original soundscape; they deconstruct what makes a setting sound believable. For a haunted house, students asked what environmental sounds, manufactured sounds and bits of dialogue would create intrigue and realism? This became a lesson in listening, pace, tone, volume and pitch.
"It creates an environment that is totally different," says former student Christine Mepstead, who is in her first year of kinesiology at Western University. "We learned in drama class how sound can be as enticing as anything else."
A tableau is another way to keep things compelling; it's a moment in time that allows actors to tell a story through facial expression, gesture and use of space. But Kennedy likes to add a twist - she'll introduce music that doesn't quite fit, for instance, a children's choir during a war scene. "I love making unlikely pairings to show how contrast can disrupt the audience's perception and create greater depth," says the 15-year teaching veteran.
Kennedy teaches all sorts of students, ranging from those who just need an arts credit, to others who will remain with her for all four years, to PALS (Practical Academic and Life Skills) students with significant learning challenges. For all, the goal is to develop a deeper appreciation for how others think and feel, for which drama is an ideal role-playing vehicle. It can happen in something as simple as an improvisation game, where one student plays a clerk while another plays their customer; and then have them switch and continue their dialogue from the other character's point of view.
But what does Kennedy count as an ideal outcome for her students? "We can consider another person's perspective because we have this awesome guise of drama. We can then transfer that to real life, by identifying our commonalities as well as our differences."
This leads to more openness and understanding. Hunter, Kennedy's freedom-loving Grade 11 student, repeats one of her expressions: There are no "shut-ups" in drama. That doesn't just mean don't be rude, but rather let ideas flow freely. "If you shut people up, you shut off their creativity," he says. "Everybody has a creative spark inside, so we should let people express themselves."
Sidney, another of Kennedy's students, says this makes drama a place where it's OK to take risks - which has had a profound effect on her overall learning. Sidney now offers opinions and raises her hand more readily in other classes, explaining that: "Ms. Kennedy gave me that confidence."
"The ‘no shut-ups' message is a culture-creating move on my part," says Kennedy. "I often say during class that we need to accept all ideas for five minutes. You can think an idea is poor but you're not allowed to dismiss it. Ideas are like playing leapfrog … the idea that you hated might be exactly what gets you to an exceptional idea. Like we say in improv, ‘yes, and….' It leads you to new places."
The Ontario Certified Teacher featured in this profile has been recognized with a teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Jessica Kennedy, OCT, believes that making connections outside of the classroom - for a more hands-on authentic experience (beyond the theoretical) - is essential for greater student buy-in and deeper learning. Here's where to begin:
Tap into history
Foster an awareness of history with a museum or heritage site visit. If you can't go in person, search online for virtual opportunities. Use Google Hangouts to link students to a museum curator. Kennedy has her students use these opportunities to develop stories for their drama projects.
Invite industry professionals (for instance, performers or playwrights) for a class visit, or ask them to connect digitally to impart relevant knowledge, as well as impart inspiration and advice.
Use your community
Build a relationship with a local retirement residence, for instance, have students ask seniors about their youth, how things have changed over the years or if they have any advice to share. In drama, you can use this research for building characters or a presentation. It's a way to learn more about local and world history, and to provoke life lessons.
The Council of Ontario Dance and Drama Educators offers valuable online support, including unit plans and lessons for K-12 in English and French.