Behind the Scenes: The Upper Elementary Winter Production

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Every year, the entire school puts on a winter concert just before the holiday break, and every year, the Upper Elementary class comes together to organize, plan, practice, and produce an entire play on their own (with just a tiny bit of help from the adults). The enormity of this cannot be overlooked. Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callander shares all that goes into this weeks-long process, and how it relates to the big picture of Montessori, below. 

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The winter concert is immensely important to the Upper Elementary child. Bracketed by the Thanksgiving holiday and our winter break, winter concert preparations are an integral part of the classroom.  The four weeks of study offers children an intensive look at a historic incident and provides a focal point for the somewhat festive energy that many children possess this time of year, which can sometimes jeopardize their academic pursuits in the classroom.

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To provide a bit of background information on the the Upper El winter concert: each year the children write, direct and perform their own original play, which focuses on either a traditional folktale or historical event. Interested children familiarize themselves with the history, customs and beliefs of a culture and then break the plot into scenes.  In true Montessori form, the classroom elders take the lead writing roles, with younger children participating.

After a few days, the children regroup to stitch together their work on individual scenes and form a contiguous whole script.  As an adult, I help to ensure that the scenes flow and that there are enough roles for all interested students and that there is balance between the line counts.  I occasionally attempt to sneak a joke in that I find funny, but often find that my quirky adult humor makes its way to the chopping block—the student playwrights are very clear on what they like.

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In addition to the script, we also choose music appropriate to our play, which students then perform in our own Upper El band, on the night of the concert.  When I first started at Villa six years ago, I will admit to being a bit perplexed by the musical aspect of the winter concert—the children seemed to be churning out tired old standards with lackluster enthusiasm.  After recognizing their many musical gifts, we decided to go rogue and perform our own music three years ago, with no turning back!  I wish you all could see the intensity and camaraderie present when children play together: many wish that the Upper El band could be a constant element of the classroom!

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I also love how our concert allows children who normally aren’t exposed to music the chance to play an instrument.  Of note, this year, our beloved musical director was unable to join our endeavor, and we have done our work almost entirely in house.  By doing so, the children have collaborated even more throughout and are so eager to practice!  Our only exception is that one song is being supported by former VdM parent and guitarist extraordinaire, Dave Anderson.

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Finally, recognizing that the illusion of the stage is vital to the success of the performance, the children take great care to make their own costumes and design their own sets in accordance with the play.  Children research the terrain, the art, and the fashion of the day.

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Next, they analyze the play’s setting to consider what needs to be included in the backdrops and accompanying props.  Then they choose an appropriate color scheme.  Sometimes, their set designs can be too literal and include every detail.  Last year, I had to use executive order to override the idea of “bloody footprints in the snow” during the Valley Forge scene in our play on George Washington.  Hard battle to fight on my end, but in the end, the children could see why the effect was too strong, and, further, how sets, like plot summaries, must only include the essential main ideas and themes.  Finally, while some children are deliberating on scenery, others are assembling interesting costumes reflective of each character in the play.  While no small task, the costumes add a realism to our performance, both for the actors and the audience!

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This year our play focused on the history of the annexation of Hawaii and the braveness of Queen Lilikaulani.  As a result of the play, children have incorporated a Hawaiian theme into their daily work.  One child researched the Hawaiian language and discovered that there are but 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet: 7 consonants, 5 vowels, and a glottal stop.  You can imagine the perplexed look on the child’s face when she encountered “glottal stop” in her research. Naturally, when she shared this information with her peers, everyone decided to write in Hawaiian in their work logs for the day!

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Children practice the tap dance number, while two of their peers observe; afterwards, the observers provide feedback (including constructive criticism)

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Noteworthy is the ability of the children who are not practicing at the time to work independently while all this is going on around them. This is a perfect example of how Montessori instills in a child the intense ability to concentrate and self-direct!

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Observing the children set up and tune their instruments, set up props in the proper locations, and ready themselves for rehearsal, one could feel the excited energy in the air, as well as a feeling of confidence and ownership.
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Children have also researched the Hawaiian kapu system, which had very defined roles for each member of society—brush the kings shadow and face eminent death, or dine with the opposite gender and have your spirit compromised….  Finally, children did an economic study of the economic export of Hawaii and saw that Hawaii must import most items, which explains why the GDP per state is low.  Some children even delved into a debate on comparative religion between the Greek gods and Hawaiian gods.

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Rebecca in action; she has such a positive energy, and a wonderful way to direct and provide feedback without taking away from the ownership the children feel of their production!

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Needless to say, the winter concert went off beautifully, and these children should be very, very proud. Thank you to Rebecca, Colleen, and Justin, for all of your hard work in supporting the Upper Elementary children in their success!