How a mini grant is having a big impact

Arts and Culture
Taking On Tomorrow: Ep. 2 - Rethinking Theatre Education

Check out how Theatre and Dance Instructor Leah Kirkpatrick is changing the way we think about children's theatre education in this installment of Taking On Tomorrow.

Posted by James Madison University on Friday, October 30, 2015


The faculty senate, with support from the JMU administration, began a mini-grant program this past year to fund faculty initiatives that exemplify the university's vision, "To be the national model for the engaged university: engaged with ideas and the world."

One of the projects to receive funding ($950) was a proposal by Leah Kirkpatrick, theatre education track advisor in the School of Theatre and Dance, to begin a drama workshop for homeschooled children in Harrisonburg.

Q: What is the history of the drama workshop? Did it begin this year?

A: The homeschool drama class was born last year when homeschooling parents approached the JMU School of Theatre and Dance (STAD) about the possibility of some of our students teaching a drama class for homeschoolers. The class was not formally affiliated with JMU beyond facilitating the initial connection of the student instructors with the homeschoolers. The workshop was very well received, and one of the student instructors, Jonathan Martin, decided to dedicate his senior project to creating a more permanent and official linkage of the homeschool workshop to JMU.  After he had shared that project with me, I learned about the mini-grant and decided that it would be a perfect venue for helping to make Jonathan’s vision for an "in house" workshop a reality.


Q: The application for the mini grant states that it would allow two JMU students to gain hands-on teaching/directing experience. Who are the students doing this and how were they selected?

A:  Both of our instructors this year were leaders in the project last year.  I contacted them last year with the opportunity because they are both theatre education students who have demonstrated ability both in teaching and other aspects of theatre through their coursework and extracurricular involvement in STAD productions. Jonathan Martin serves as the head instructor and Chrissy Johnson is co-director and primary instructor for the younger session.


Q: Will there be opportunity for additional student involvement?

A: We have increased JMU student involvement this year by commissioning a new work from student Tyler Cramer (playwright), who will be attending some rehearsals to work on the show as needed.  We also are seeking to mentor some underclassmen by including them as assistants in running workshops. These folks will hopefully step into leadership roles and perpetuate the program in future years.


Q: How many children is the workshop serving?

A: 18 students, ages 7-14 years old.


Q: Are you leading the workshop yourself?

A: No. The theatre education students plan and implement the workshop. One of the impetuses for bringing this workshop "in house" was the opportunity it provided for our theatre education students to work with children.  In the current context of our theatre education track, we are able to offer in-school practicum and student teaching placements in grades 6-12, but we have no placements at elementary schools because there are no drama teachers locally at that level.  The homeschool class allows our students to work with children and to apply all that they have learned in their coursework.  I am very confident in the quality of the work being done by our student instructors.  Often, the most useful thing that I can do is stand back and let them make the decisions. This is invaluable training for their future careers as educators where they will be expected to adapt rapidly to effectively reach all of their students.

That said, knowing that they can come to me to problem-solve at any time provides a safety net for the work that is reassuring. I serve as the faculty advisor, which means that I am on retainer to advise student instructors as needed on a wide variety of topics ranging from best practices for rehearsals, classroom management, recruiting participants, interacting with parents, finding performance venues and more. I check in frequently to assess how things are going and to make sure that instructors have accounted for all of the details. Finally, I am responsible for keeping records documenting program specifics and allocating grant monies.


Q: Why is theatre education important for children?

A: There is a growing body of work supporting the benefits of theatre education. Some of the well documented benefits include increased self-esteem and empathy for others, improved reading fluency and comprehension, improved public speaking, creative problem-solving, critical thinking skills, increased retention of material taught using drama techniques and even increased school attendance when drama is offered.  There are many more benefits that I could cite. Bottom line, theatre is a dynamic art form that should be leveraged whenever possible in the service of children, whether for its own sake as a creative art, or as a learning tool for teaching other disciplines.


Q: What is the main focus of the workshops?

A:  The primary goal of this class is to teach students basic acting techniques (such as how to use their bodies to communicate characters, how to use their voice to portray characters, how to pursue objectives within a scene, how to effectively partner with other actors and how to bring their characters to life onstage). The class also covers basic theatre knowledge, such as upstage/downstage, stage right/stage left, how to analyze a script, and how to effectively work with directors, playwrights and designers to create a show.


Q: Why is JMU a good place to execute this program?

A: Unlike most other theatre programs in Virginia, JMU offers a theatre education track that culminates in pre-k-12 theatre teaching licensure. Our track students are in need of teaching experience, and this program is a way to offer that to them while also providing a unique opportunity for community children. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.


Q: How will the mini-grant help you to achieve your goals?

A: The mini-grant has allowed us to reduce the tuition for the program, making it more accessible to families. The grant also funds my participation as a faculty advisor, which allows me to devote time to supporting the student instructors in their work and evaluating the outcomes of the project.


Q: Is there anything else we should know about the program?

A: The class will meet for 10 weeks and will culminate in a performance of an original one-act play, Jackie and the Golden Comet, by JMU Theatre student Tyler Cramer.

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About this series:

Taking on Tomorrow was created to showcase the expertise, scholarship and research of faculty in all disciplines at Madison. A number of factors determine who will be in the spotlight at any given time and what aspect of their work will be highlighted. In this installment, we feature Leah Kirkpatrick, theatre education track advisor in the School of Theatre and Dance.

To nominate a faculty member to be featured in "Taking on Tomorrow," please e-mail Eric Gorton at Please provide a brief explanation of why you are nominating this faculty member. Self nominations are encouraged.

Leah Kirkpatrick Taking on Tomorrow

Episode 1: Dr. David Slykhuis, College of Education — Maintaining teacher effectiveness amidst constant change

Episode 3: Dr. Paul Bogard, English — Environmental literature closes gap between science and liberal arts

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Published: Friday, October 30, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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