March 12, 2021

An AISVN 4th Grade PYP Journey: The Makings of Integrating a Musical Production for Authentic Learning through How We Organize Ourselves.

Author: Mr. Marc Valenti - Grade 4 Teacher

In our quest to become the best school in Vietnam, the AISVN 4th grade teachers and students have undertaken an integrated theatrical production of “Robin and The Sherwood Hoodies.” Integration is the keyword as we are not only integrating authentic learning for our unit of inquiry, “How We Organize Ourselves,” but we are also integrating the arts department (music, art and drama), administrative team, procurement department, facilities and logistics, handymen to help with construction, volunteer grade level staff from the elementary, middle and high school levels, and community seamstresses coming to help teach students how to sew. We must give credit to our Head of School, Barry Sutherland, and elementary principal, Ross Halliday, for establishing a culture of yes and giving full support for this endeavor. By my estimates, there are well over 150 people involved including 120 eager and excited 4th-grade students.

Students designed their costumes

Not only is this the first time we are putting on a full-scale musical production while fully integrating it into a year-long unit with 4th graders, it will also be the inaugural performance in our school’s new Grand Theatre. The theater is currently under construction and due to be finished about a month before our big debut on May 14, 2021. The excitement and anticipation grows every week in our double block 80-minute sessions every Friday afternoon as the students learn how to design sets, costumes, props, websites, social media, TV shows, documentaries, advertisements, playbills, t-shirts, podcasts, and blogs.

Students’ excitement during learning sessions every Friday

If you’re an educator and have read this far, you’re probably wondering, “How did we get to this point?”. One day in early May 2020, the 4th-grade team leader, Devin Frankland, asked our team if we wanted to attempt a student-led musical performance. We all thought it was a perfect opportunity to fully integrate all disciplines and ran with the idea. 

Our music specialist, Jeannie Jackson, had previously done a show from with 5th graders at her prior school and suggested that it may be a good place to start. We chose “Robin and The Sherwood Hoodies.” Over the summer, we formed a small production team including the drama teacher, Carolyn Boras, the arts team lead, Mariella Brunton, Jeannie, Devin and myself. We used the summer to read the script and suggest some changes to make it more relevant to our location in Vietnam. We also spent some time considering how this would all be organized, but didn’t formalize a plan until we could gather with the whole team including new members to ensure everyone was on board and all voices could be heard.

We broke down the year into our units and backward planned the How We Organize Ourselves unit to teach it through “Robin and the Sherwood Hoodies.” We chose “How We Organize Ourselves” because this is a student-led play and they are inquiring into the design process, organization of collaborative projects and collaborative decision making. After we had our lines of inquiry, we broke the production into 5 phases roughly simulating the design and inquiry processes in and of itself. The first phase is an introduction to a musical production. The second phase is the elements of design. The third phase is designing, creating/building, and testing. The fourth phase is taking action and sharing with the community. The fifth stage is reflecting and celebrating. Finally, we created a learning log for students to record their thinking, processes and reflections.

For the provocation, we had  our students try to organize a 2-minute play by themselves in groups of 10. We were happy to say they failed miserably which led to a great discussion about organization, collaboration, and roles and responsibilities. The next 6 weeks they rotated through three stations introducing the students to musicals and acting, costume and prop design, and various media forms. When we asked them to organize themselves again for a 2-minute play they were amazing. They divided up roles, practiced their lines, created blocking and even did some rapping. They were hooked and then the real adventure began: the gradual release of responsibility to the students to take ownership and organization of their musical.

Students performed a 2-minute play

We are currently in phase 2, designing and planning, and it was a little challenging at first getting all of the students to the correct places and formally introducing their roles and responsibilities for the production. We were able to break into smaller groups thanks to the effort of a few people outside of our team. Tracy France, Director of Admissions and Communications, is teaching students about social media use and responsibility. AISVN’s media specialist, Lucky Truong, is teaching a small group how to make a documentary. Our librarian, Danny Glasner, is teaching students how to create a podcast. It truly is taking a village to raise a musical. 

In the end, I know we will make it because we are very fortunate to have the people and talent on our team to make this happen. As I have the most experience with acting on the 4th-grade team, I was tasked with coordinating between the homeroom teachers’ academic needs and the arts department vision. Claudia Yokum and Mariella Brunton are the resident seamstresses. Michelena Mcpherson is our resident Sustainable Development Guru and has helped keep us stay more eco-friendly. A newcomer to the team, John Charrington is a cardboard wizard and has students making theme-appropriate shields and swords. Another newcomer, Antonia Moyle, along with David Arnold and Kanako Suwa are the tech masters bringing us up to date for the 21st century. The 4th-grade art teacher, Rena Wang, was thrown into all of this and welcomed the challenge of being the set designer. And I’d be remiss not to mention our glue and master of all trades Ms. Minh Quach.  

I hope this was an insightful glance into the beginnings of our journey of integrating learning through a musical in a year long project. In my future posts, I will describe in more detail what learning looks like in our classrooms and in our production Friday double blocks. Wish us luck in our endeavor, or shall I say tell us to go break some legs!

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