10/28/2012 08:54 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

As War Horse Closes on Broadway, Its Lessons Live On

How many theater teachers does it take to make a 3-foot-tall brown paper puppet walk across the floor?

At first my two teammates and I think we have it handled, but then our puppet starts misbehaving. Our goal, which sounded simple enough at the start, is to get a paper puppet to walk the length of a large studio space at Jazz at Lincoln Center while 150 other participants in Musical Theater International's Broadway Teachers Workshop--and three members of War Horse's creative team--look on.

I'm struggling to keep our puppet's legs in check. He's a scrappy creation, a lumpy brown stick figure we've made by twisting two long sheets of butcher paper together and wrapping masking tape at intervals to form joints. No matter how hard I work to make the puppet's steps believable, his legs jerk wildly into the air at anatomically challenging angles and I scramble on my knees to stay ahead of his lurching torso.

My perfectionist tendencies kick in. This is a lot of smart people to be messing up in front of. I start to sweat. Mercifully, Matt Acheson, War Horse's head puppetry associate, swoops in to rescue us from ourselves.

"Here's an idea," he says, kneeling next to us reassuringly. "Start by just letting your puppet lie still for a while."

My teammates and I reluctantly lay the puppet down, but we feel like we should be doing something. We hover around him, adjusting his arms and legs, fussing and fretting like nervous parents.

Matt seems amused by this. "See what happens when you let yourselves slow down," he says. "You'd be amazed by how long an audience is willing to watch a puppet just lying there, motionless on the floor."

We stand back and hesitantly regard the puppet. I can feel the collective focus sharpening now as everyone around the room stops fidgeting, leans forward, and watches. A long, slow moment passes. Finally one of my teammates breaks the silence by admitting that she's half expecting to see the puppet get up on its own.

"Right?" Matt says, laughing. "It's remarkable. As soon as an audience sees a puppet on stage, there's already built-in anticipation driving the scene. What's the puppet going to do? So use that time. Before you even ask your puppet to move, get still, listen to your fellow puppeteers breathing, and see if you can find a shared rhythm to your breath. And then, slowly, let your puppet begin to breathe."

We follow his directions. After coming back into position and taking hold of our respective parts, we listen to each other until we're all breathing in synch. Then we begin to make tiny movements to simulate the puppet's breath.

At this moment, there is a long, audible intake of breath from the crowd.

"It's incredible," Matt continues softly, "but just by watching a puppet breathing, the audience members are breathing differently themselves. They're actively participating. The puppeteers have barely done anything yet, but the life of this puppet is already unfolding in the audience's imagination."

This is just the start.

All throughout the 90-minute session--whether we're working in pairs on movement exercises, building a 150-voice soundscape evoking a forest at dawn, or combining these elements with puppetry to create a surprisingly moving short scene--this quality of rapt attention remains constant.

Months after the workshop ended, here's what I'm still struck by:

In all of the other sessions I attended over the course of the three days, a talented array of Broadway professionals performed, presented, facilitated and shared ideas while participants observed, took notes, expressed opinions and asked questions--in short, activities that mirrored what most teachers and students spend the bulk of their school lives doing. All of these sessions were inspiring and useful, but the War Horse session was the only one I attended where every single person was physically, intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally engaged the entire time.

So what effect did these different teaching styles have on my ability to remember and retain what I learned? It's probably no surprise that at a remove of several months, I only recall little bits and pieces of the other sessions, while the War Horse experience has stayed with me in potent, full-sensory detail.

Most vivid of all is my memory of walking out of the studio in a daze when the session ended, a single idea repeating itself over and over in my mind: School should feel like this.

At a time when the pressure of high stakes standardized testing in a limited number of subjects has made school feel more fragmented, disembodied, and stressful both for teachers and learners than ever before, this workshop reminded me of what's possible in the classroom when we allow ourselves to be guided by three simple, yet powerfully paradoxical lessons:

1.) We learn faster when we slow down.

Sounds counterintuitive, but it certainly proved true for my team of puppet novices. Once we were encouraged to calm down, connect deeply with one another, and focus on getting the puppet to breathe before trying to make him walk, our stumbling blocks dissolved and we soon had our puppet ambling naturally across the floor.

For teachers facing unprecedented pressure to "hit" standards and quickly "cover" vast stretches of material, slowing down in the classroom--whether to build relationships or break down challenges--can be a tough sell.

But when the alternative is a classroom full of stressed-out, disengaged kids (and--let's face it--adults), time spent cultivating authentic personal connections or breaking down big tasks to their smallest components can actually accelerate learning in the long run. (This concept doesn't just work in the arts; here's a great example of how it can play out in the context of teaching math.)

2.) Experiential learning and direct instruction are not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive.

If the War Horse workshop had started out with the instructions to make a bunch of puppets, build kinesthetic and emotional trust with a roomful of strangers, collaborate on a soundscape and then perform a scene, I'm confident that even the most seasoned theater educators among us would have become overwhelmed and quit. Instead, each step in the process included a short stretch of direct instruction where our leaders explicitly showed us how to do new things.

Critics of experiential learning often mistakenly assume that it requires the total absence of direct instruction, structured expectations or explicit pedagogical support. The most extreme--and I think potentially tragic--extrapolation of this misinformed belief is the argument that students from underserved communities who may be entering school with academic or social disadvantages are unable to learn in experiential or other "progressive" learning environments, and can only benefit from "no-excuses" or "boot-camp" models.

In my ten years of teaching in the South Bronx, where I've occupied two ends of a wide spectrum--from (reluctantly) delivering pre-scripted literacy lessons to (excitedly) facilitating a largely student-run theater program that my colleagues and I were allowed to build on an experiential model, I've seen over and over again that when direct instruction is the only thing that happens in a classroom, kids easily become bored and shut down. Conversely, when experiential learning projects don't include opportunities for students to develop the skills and knowledge they need to carry out their goals, no amount of "experience"--no matter how creative--will hold their interest. But when a mutually supportive balance is struck between experiential learning driven by students' passions and direct instruction grounded in the skills they need, kids become equally hungry for both.

That hunger becomes especially strong when teaching isn't directly solely at the mind, but instead brings together the brain, the body--and most importantly--the heart. Which brings me to my last point:

3.) Heart-centered teaching doesn't sacrifice rigor; it both requires and sustains it.

In an educational culture that often seems to prioritize data, accountability and competition above all else--and defines these terms narrowly--it's become increasingly challenging to openly discuss the emotional element of teaching and learning (thank goodness for Parker Palmer). But whether or not we're willing to trust what good teachers know in their bones, we don't have to look any further for evidence of the positive learning outcomes of engaging emotions than the latest neurological research.

For the puppetry team of "War Horse," engaging the heart is equal parts art and science. When the puppeteers who operate the horses spoke to our audience of educators at the post-show talk-back, they used the phrase "organic mutual complicity" to describe the intuitive, emotional connections they've developed over time with each other, with the puppets and with the show itself. There's no trace of sappiness or sentimentality in their language around heart-centeredness, because at the end of the day, their trust in each other--and willingness to continually re-earn that trust through rigorous work--is the only thing preventing a misstep that could send multiple hundred-pound puppets colliding with each other and crushing people onstage.

As one of the puppeteers explained:

"You know, whenever anyone asks a question to the members of the horse teams about how we achieve the horses' movements, maybe without even realizing it, they almost always direct their questions to Head or the Hind [the puppeteers who operate the puppet's head or back legs.] And we always get kind of tongue-tied. We're like, 'Dont ask us, ask the Heart.' The Head and Hind's job is to create the illusion that we know where we are going and that we're in control, and that takes months of meticulous practice and attention to detail. But in the end, we're not in control at all. We are just trying to stay connected with the Heart. We know that if we both trust and serve that connection, the horses will come to life. Because that's really where the movement of each horse originates. The Heart is the center of everything."

Imagine what would be possible in our nation's schools if our conversations about teaching and learning sounded like this.

Special thanks to Matt Acheson, Greg Pliska and Adrienne Kapstein for an unforgettable experience.

As always, the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school's administration.