By Gretchen Nordleaf.

Gretchen NordleafDuring my time at West Sound Academy, I have experienced one of the most exciting and challenging moments in my teaching career.

Learning to teach and breathe the IB curriculum has been difficult and energizing all at the same time.  As a teacher, it feels like being given this huge puzzle and several specific pieces that you have to solve in one particular way at the end.  Then the IB says “oh, and you can teach how to solve the puzzle to your students any way that you like as long as you follow these guidelines.”  Then it is ready, set, go!

At this point you might be thinking – who would want to do that?  Well, I genuinely believe that the moment a person stops being curious and stops wanting to learn, life will become pretty darn boring.

Agnes de Mille once said, Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.

I am a teacher and an artist.  I actually enjoy the challenge of not entirely knowing, guessing, realizing I might be wrong, and leaping in the dark.  It is incredibly uncomfortable some days, but it is also exhilarating.  Because nine times out ten, what happens when I do leap into the dark – amazing learning takes place for my students and for myself!

When I work with the IB curriculum every day, I find myself encouraging students to think critically, challenge assumptions, and to develop thought independently of political systems and social norms.   I encourage students of all ages to consider both local and global perspectives when presented with issues and concerns across all subjects.

This new way of thought has enhanced how I look at every lesson
and every classroom experience I create for my students.

Peer mentoring in IB Theatre classThe IB blends perfectly with teaching theatre – a world I absolutely love.   Whether in the classroom or after school in the rehearsal space, the global mindedness of the program provides a safe learning environment for all types of students – thinkers, risk-takers, and inquirers alike. There is no right or wrong way to solve the puzzle set before them in the theatre.

Through reflection on our process in theatre, students gain knowledge about the world around them. They become more open-minded because they have to learn to look at the world through a character’s perspective or through the process of creating the physical world of the play or at the reflection of society in the mirror that is being held up to the time period when the play was written.

Building sets for a WSA theatre productionTeaching IB Theatre allows me to teach students valuable life lessons.  Just think, when a student works on the after school play or a scene in acting class they learn the value of being part of a team and an ensemble. When working on after-school production, everyone involved has a different job: actors, technical designers, costume designers, stage managers, and craftspeople who build, where each role is equally important and attracts all kinds of students with different skill sets.

Students are challenged in finding balance in their lives with figuring out time for rehearsal, time for homework and time for family.  They learn to be empathetic and caring because maybe someone is not a quick line study even though they are.  They learn to value the principles of academic and personal integrity – we cannot change a line because we feel like it nor can we produce a licensed play without permission because we want to, nor do we skip rehearsal because it’s a hot sunny day and we want to go jump off the Indianola dock with friends.  

Rehearsal for WSA production of "Secret in the Wings'I incorporate the IB curriculum with my personal philosophy of teaching theatre, which has always been that the creative process we undertake is equally as important as the product.  In every theatre process whether it is in a classroom setting or the after school play rehearsal, students are given the opportunity to grow in self-confidence and self-understanding.  They learn interpersonal skills (communication and collaboration) and intrapersonal skills (metacognition, self-discipline, self-understanding and creativity).

The set piece is done!As a teacher and director, I’ve found that it is my responsibility to provide a supportive, encouraging atmosphere in which young artists feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves and voicing their ideas. It is important to maintain discipline and respect, but I find that if I provide everyone with a secure and supportive environment where input is welcome and a smile is encouraged, the end result is of far greater quality. This philosophy has not failed me yet.

Of course, the actual production makes all of the hard work worth the effort. It is my tradition that on opening night, the production is no longer mine, but belongs to the cast and crew. When a cast and crew have ownership of a creative piece of art that is exclusively theirs to share, it is an amazing event to experience.

Every January, we invite alumni to come and return to our school to share their college journey with our current Juniors and Seniors.  This year I had several students visit my classroom after their lunch hour roundtable.

Designing after school for a WSA theatre productionOne of the first students shared with me, “Oh my gosh!  I cannot begin to tell you Ms. Nordleaf how much IB Theatre has helped me in college.  In my Japanese History class, I was the only student who had any background in Japanese culture, and it was because we studied different forms of Asian Theatre.  AND in my French class, I was able to make connections with the literature we were reading from the theatre history we studied in IB Theatre.  It was crazy.”  Here was a student who discovered that the global perspective of the curriculum had better prepared her for the course work she faced at college.

Another student said to me later in our conversation, “I know I would not be as outgoing and willing to take risks in my college courses if I had not auditioned and become involved in the after school plays.  The experience changed how I view myself and how I interact with the world now.  It changed my life.” 

Closing night for WSA theatre production 'Death by Design'As the students were getting ready to leave, I stopped then for a moment and asked them, “So in the midst of working through the IB curriculum in Upper School, in the midst of writing all the Internal Assessment papers, the study sessions with their peers and the hard work – was it worth it?”  They all agreed unanimously that when looking back on their experience of taking on the challenges the IB Diploma program brought them and then looking at their current experiences in college, learning through the IB curriculum taught them to be courageous, resilient, willing to take risks, and how to advocate for themselves.  They said they felt more comfortable emailing a professor for a consultation and asking for help unlike their peers.  They felt more prepared to write that analysis essay, to find academic sources, and to study for midterms and exams when compared to their college classmates.  These lessons were learned at West Sound Academy because we embrace the IB way of teaching, learning, and thinking.

So, through my challenging and exciting experiences of teaching the IB curriculum, through those times when I follow Agnes’ words of wisdom and let it be okay to not entirely know, or guess, or be wrong, through those nine out of ten times when I do leap into the dark and the amazing learning takes place for my students and for myself – my work does not end there in my classroom. It continues on in the lives of my students, and that is why teaching the IB curriculum is so exciting and rewarding.

My support website for IB Theatre students:  West Sound Academy IB Theatre
My teacher website: Gretchen Nordleaf-Nelson, Educator/Director