The lives of children are filled with fantasies in which they pretend to be someone more powerful or heroic than themselves. The T.V. and cartoon industry can attest to this issue and the popularity of heroes such as He-Man, Superman and Wonderwoman have permeated generations of youngsters. All too often children meet with a patronizing attitude or contempt if they reveal their secret lives to the adults “in charge”. Fantasies are held in low esteem by adults who view them, and children are likely to wall off their real life from their secret made up one. This unit will deal with fantasies, feelings and self-image but more important it will zero in on how a literary message and a musical can influence the teaching of children in a classroom situation.
Teachers are confronted by an age-old problem. Do we as educators use traditional methods to teach an English lesson, or can we incorporate the students’ spontaneity, creativity and direction to accomplish the same end?
A strong drive in children is their need for approval. They seek adult approval first and secondly, peer approval. This need to be “liked” prefaces the term
. As children grow older, they develop a selectivity about them and it is here, between the early years and adulthood, that we deal with the marvelous mystery called “adolescence”. Any teacher who instructs at the Middle School level will readily understand my point.
It is during the adult years (adulthood) that popularity becomes an elective process, and at this stage of one’s life originality may be viewed as a compliment. If this seems too philosophical, let me bring it back to basics. For example, at my school this year, half of the male students are exact replicas of Michael Jackson, a teen idol. The female students parade the school corridors as “Madonna” clones. Madonna, a popular singer, is 1985’s vision of beauty, sexuality and perfection for young teenage girls. The teacher must be sensitive to the population she is teaching and when presenting this unit or any of the activities herein, realize that each student will benefit from the unit’s ultimate goal.
The other strong drive in children is the drive to create, to make something themselves and to have their creations recognized and understood. It is in this setting that Shaw’s vigorous treatment of a Greek Myth (Pygmalion and Calatea) becomes an appropriate vehicle for teaching, for it so well serves both purposes. In fact, I will be presenting this myth first, and other similar myths and legends before attempting to read Shaw’s
or listening to the soundtrack of
My Fair Lady
. I feel that a brief period of mythological study will be necessary before initiating the actual literary unit.
My Unit will be taught in the Learning Center of a middle school utilizing Shaw’s
as the focal point of the teaching plan. I feel a six to eight week timeframe is necessary. My students are Special Education students from the sixth through eighth grades. Although this unit can be taught to all students whether in the Learning Center or not, it will need to be adapted for the various disabilities of my student population. This allows a great deal of flexibility and gives me, or any teacher, the opportunity to arrange any of the activities listed in a sequence that will benefit the class. The lessons or activities contained in this unit will have a certain degree of impact when taught to students of average intelligence who have emotional problems, the educable mentally retarded students or simply to those students who have a specific learning disability. It will be my task, as a Special Education teacher, to make the appropriate distinctions.
I feel that learning via dramatic play encourages personal achievement in children (especially students in the Learning Center) and thus increases their valuation of themselves. If at the same time, they can be exposed to great authors and playwrights, then we have triumphed! I chose
for various reasons. Most critics agree that
is a delightfully amusing, well-constructed comedy. The Lerner and Loewe version,
My Fair Lady
is a musical triumph. Introducing both to the class is an integral part of the unit’s format.
The ability to participate in organized theater satisfies the fantasy needs of youngsters. This observation may well be applicable regardless of the age of the student involved; and participation in Shaw’s drama (doing a scene or two) allows the youngster to observe adults going through the same kinds of feelings toward creation and immortality that they themselves feel. To get children to understand and participate, by whatever means, in
is to get them to participate in the literary moebius strip, where life and art reflect each other where they eventually become indistinguishable, one from the other.
At the first stage, getting the students to “see the iceberg”, as it were, is a fascinating project. To be able to understand the Galatea myth and then to understand why the myth and the play are in fact the same story would be a remarkably satisfying project for any educator. I feel it is especially important as part of my special education curriculum. The ability to then involve the fantasies of the students by getting them involved in the characters that Shaw creates is the next step in the progression. (see Activity V attached).
I will be presenting Shaw’s
to the class as a reading in the round exercise. Also, I will have the class listen to the soundtrack of
My Fair Lady
. I will be using a cassette tape of the original cast of the musical starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Perhaps, when the unit is well underway, I can also introduce the students to the film version of My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolitle. I will at least make mention that the musical was so popular that film was later made.
I hope the students will be interested enough, while listening to the musical score, to realize how closely interwoven the songs are with the plot. Here the teacher must be the guide. Throughout the musical one can trace Eliza’s development and her attitude towards Higgins. The catchy tunes of Frederick Loewe and the book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner are so exactly right, that it appears to seem as if Shaw himself had been set to music. Therefore, I will rely heavily on “listening techniques” and intertwine them with many of the theatre games listed as activities. This will make it easier for the students to understand Shaw’s work. My Fair Lady opened at the Shubert Theatre right here in New Haven on February 4, 1956 and this simple fact solidifies the New Haven attachment to its success. I think the students too will be amazed to know that it all started right here in New Haven.
My unit needs to develop a focus in the classroom and I can do this only by backing up and restating the dual goal here. My broad goal is to have the students relate to a literary and musical work by a famous author. My specific goal is to have the students in the middle school develop a healthier “self” (self-esteem). How many Elizas are there? My parallel goal is to work through various academic exercises so that the students will be exposed to various literary qualities and develop better listening skills especially for the Broadway musical.
My Fair Lady
was one of the longest running musicals and returned to the Broadway stage with superb enthusiasm and audience acceptance. This too the students will find out and perhaps this will spark enthusiasm on their part for musicals in general. I would hope that by listening to a cassette of the musical score for
My Fair Lady
the children will attain a certain degree of enjoyment and appreciation for its liveliness.
Shaw’s allusion needs little explanation to adults, but the concept needs in depth exploration by children. In the Greek story from which Shaw draws his title, the sculptor Pygmalion creates the statue of Galatea from the clay of the earth. (Much as the Judeo-Christian God created humanity in the biblical version). Life is breathed into his creation by the seemingly kind will of the Gods, and Pygmalion falls in love with his creation. Galatea stepped down from the pedestal into Pygmalion’s arms as a living girl.
In Shaw’s version Henry Higgins replaces Pygmalion and the transformation of Liza Doolitle replaces the breath of life given to the statue. An interesting variation is peculiar to Victorian society. The “clay” in the Greek story is the lower class of Victorian England and the beautiful creation is the aristocracy. Shaw of course took a rather cynical view of his own allegory, but that need not concern us now. Similarly we need not be concerned with the literary argument between Shaw and Goethe, through the medium of theater (Higgins doesn’t have to succumb to Satan to achieve fulfillment through creation; for Shaw purity and virtue are sufficient).
Shaw was particularly skillful in presenting details. His play
is chock full of stage directions and suggestions for a director to follow. He prefaces the play with an entire explanation of a “Professor of Phonetics”; he also supplies the reader with his own personal criticism of the English language. “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.”
To have students focus on the irregularities of Eliza’s speech are secondary to my unit. My goal is to adapt both the literary and the musical version of Shaw’s work to produce a positive feeling among the class and to have my students work through a self-transition. Since my class is a Special Education class linking the English lesson with the concept of self-esteem is very important. Perhaps the mere fact of getting the students to work through Eliza Doolitle is more important than having them fully understand Shaw’s techniques as a writer.
Taking the students through the play is an adventure indeed. The teacher can begin by pulling out the main characters in the play. Eliza is more “alive” at every moment of the play than Higgins ever was. For example in act II the confrontation between Eliza and Higgins’ maid speaks loudly of her energy and independent character. Although she is misinformed as to Higgins’ purpose her personal pride maintains a strong front. The dramatic irony of the Lerner and Loewe musical is easier to understand than the similar proposition in the Shaw play. The surface presentation is that Higgins is the creator and Doolitle the creation. The question is actually, however, who breathes life into whom. Higgins, the pedagogic toady is in fact refreshed and rejuvenated, given a new identity and in effect given life by the life force of Eliza Doolitle-much more so, in fact than Doolitle is given life by Higgins. (See “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” in the Lerner and Loewe version, where Higgins first exposes a “human side” to his character). What is received by Eliza Doolitle is in fact a veneer. Her essential essence is never changed; she remains at all times the refreshingly uncomplex and straightforward character that she was in the beginning. She only presents it differently. For example in the Ascot Race sequence Eliza falls amusingly out of the front that she has been trying so hard to maintain in order to please Higgins, and we once again see her for the unassuming primitive that she is. It is therefore Higgins who is transformed, that Eliza who has transformed him. The positions of Galatea and Pygmalion are unclear in the final analysis, for Higgins has been given life, and experiences pain as well as joy for the first time; and Eliza has acquired attributes for which she has never had any real need, but wears as well as she has worn anything else.
There is something here for all students. They will all get involved in the story, and as the layers of the union are peeled off, all will find something in it that they can keep. Even at a superficial level, the teaching sequences, in which Higgins is the master and Eliza the student will be reflected in the day to day experiences of the school, student and the teacher. If the role of theater is to help us understand life by reflecting it, we come quite close during the rehearsals where one student plays the teacher and the other the student.
After doing the “warm-up” activities and exposing the class to Shaw’s
My Fair Lady
, I might have enough enthusiasm and time left to direct the class in the play itself. This of course would be the ultimate feat and can be accomplished after the unit itself is completed. The performance itself can be an adaptation of Shaw’s work or a staged series of segments from the musical. Little is required beyond some adult direction, a place to meet (school auditorium) and the strong enthusiasm from your students. Although I will have the students working through improvisations, and the activities listed, I cannot think of a better way to conclude this unit than staging the play or parts of it. Once you give students something that really interests them, an idea or a song that kindles their imagination, they are likely to take off with it and “perform”. Therefore, school theatre can be another medium for teaching an English unit.
The traditional role of the school show is to show off a school’s resources and effectiveness. Perhaps that proposition is an overly harsh condemnation of our public school system, but experience teaches that the instruction of students is generally secondary to their showing off of the school’s institutional ability. Theory departs from reality here; we know the theoretical reasons have to do with instruction, but it is often necessary to get a handle on what is actually happening. Schools feel real pressure to stage the “polished” production with lighting, sets and musical score.
A lesser production might lack the requisite seriousness of purpose needed to maintain the school’s vision of dignity. If we consider children’s theater however, it becomes readily apparent that it is not the wooden recitation of memorized lines that renders charm and effectiveness to the production, but rather it is the errors. One player bumps another, or a tongue gets twisted on a difficult line—a teacher’s hoarse whisper from backstage is audible throughout the room. It is at this moment that smiles break out and warm laughter. It is not occurring because adults are cruelly enjoying a young player’s discomfort. Rather it is the vision to the audience of the person inside the fantasy that has broken through at last. As far as demonstrating a school’s resources goes a show is far better if it demonstrates the children’s resources. Children are spontaneous and creative, and they should be allowed to be so.
That is why this play is an ideal medium for the public school. If we can get the students to understand the substance of the play, we can bring out the naturalness of the child actor without elaborate professionalism. A professional actor can give illusion—we do not look for illusion in children, rather we look for the things that they are naturally. I think that the less a child has to worry about lines and cues the freer he will feel and the more spontaneous she will be. In the schools we must understand that it is the child’s lack of professionalism that is an asset rather than a liability in school theater. It is their natural gift for make believe that makes theater for them so wonderful.
How many Elizas do we have in the classroom? Could there be any Colonel Pickerings? Perhaps there is a Freddy or two? This unit may well divulge the secret yearnings of the students involved or simply instruct them in the Shavian rhythm of writing.
Another approach I would use prior to any classroom activities involved with this unit is to introduce the unit as a regular Language Arts Lesson. Shaw mentions what every serious student of the English language is aware of, that the spelling of English words do not have much reasonable relationship to its pronunciation. To the 70% of my Hispanic students this could not be much clearer. This fact makes English difficult to spell and when we do not spell well, we are liable to be looked upon as ignorant, often unjustly. So one ground rule activity for class would be my Nonsense Spelling Test (see Activity III).
“How we are educated by children and by animals!” says Martin Buber in
I And Thou
. We don’t allow animals in our schools, but we do have children. The Pygmalion story works for us on so many levels. The students see the teacher. The simplest see the transformation possible; the more astute see how complex life is, and wonder who is changed and why. We see their feelings towards their creations. The ultimate issue however is teacher to student; for we as teachers face the same irony as did Henry Higgins. When it is all over we can’t really tell whether we have transformed our students or they us.
Backing up once again, I must stress the concept of the myths and its relationship to Shaw’s work. The concept of the myth is not readily apparent to the middle school student of mainstream talents. This portion of the unit is intended to introduce the Special Needs Student to Greek Mythology. It is here that I will begin outlining my activities, which act as Lesson Plans, for the entire unit.