THE CHALLENGE: How can a high school theatre program change the course of a student’s life? And how can a school use the performing arts to engage students from across the spectrum, from the football star to the skateboarder, the wealthy kid to the struggling refugee. Teacher Patsy Koch Johns proves that whether you’re on the stage or in the audience, theatre can change perspectives and attitudes, and be a force for positive change.
THE CHAMPIONS: Patsy Koch Johns of the Lincoln High School Theatre Department; Principal Dr. Mike Wortman; International Baccalaureate Programme (IB) Principal John Heineman; teachers Chris Maly and Molly Thomas; and teacher and technical theatre director Ben Koch.
THE SOLUTION: Ms. Koch Johns built her theatre program on one main idea: that every child should feel they are fantastic at something, and that it is the role of teachers to help students feel wanted and appreciated. She and her fellow teachers actively encourage every student at Lincoln High to get involved, whether in costume design and set making, or acting in one the program’s 11 annual productions. Her mantra? Go be great. And she truly believes in each student’s ability to do just that.
For some kids, being a part of the theatre program is completely out of their comfort zone. For others, it is a challenge that teaches them discipline and teamwork like none other. For every student it’s a curriculum rich in diversity and accessibility. Patsy believes that keeping kids involved can help keep them out of trouble, giving them a safe haven where they can channel their energy for good. For a recent production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ms. Koch Johns cast 103 actors and technicians, way more than necessary. To ensure that their participation in the production didn’t interfere with their other schoolwork, students have access to a tutor who provides homework help backstage during rehearsals.
The theatre program includes students from all walks of life. This allows each and every cast to better reflect the diversity of their audiences. Tolerance and acceptance of others is a key theme in Ms. Koch Johns’ classes and her theatre students develop strong bonds, whether they come from wealthy or lowincome families, are honors students or football stars. Where most high school theatre programs might have one teacher, Lincoln High boasts five teachers and 12 classes. They actively recruit kids from all walks of life to participate in the program and you will frequently find Patsy walking the halls, greeting each student she comes across.
The school’s International Baccalaureate Programme (IB) also includes theatre. A special IB theatre class takes a hands-on look at the performing arts around the world. Students might try a Middle Eastern improvisation technique one day, and learn about Japan’s traditional Kabuki theatre the next.
Ms. Koch Johns attributes much of the performing arts program’s success to parental involvement. Lincoln High is lucky to have an active group of parent boosters called DMAP, or Drama Mamas And Papas. DMAP hosts an annual Feast of Fools welcome event for incoming freshmen, and parents can often be found helping to build sets or make costumes.
THE RESULTS: High school can be a trying time for many kids, but the Lincoln High theatre department acts as a safe haven, a place where students will be accepted no matter who they are. When an IB theatre student was having difficulties managing her school work, her fellow cast mates stepped in and offered to tutor her in math and even help her with cheerleading.
One student, a senior who enrolled in Ms. Koch Johns’ dramatic literature class his junior year, believes that theatre helped him find himself after a couple of what he described as “socially awkward” years. Taking theatre classes helped him – and dozens of students like him – come out of his shell and gain the confidence that comes with performing on stage before an audience of your peers.
Patsy and her fellow theatre teachers create a sense of community and belonging that is consistently cited as the primary reason students join and stay involved. They instill the idea that hard work and dedication can really pay off. To quote Patsy, “a star is doing whatever your part is, and doing it well.” Whether they’re playing Prospero (the main character) or a sea urchin in The Tempest, you can be certain Ms. Koch Johns makes everyone in the Lincoln High Theatre ensemble feel like a star.RESOURCES: