In my first year teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade drama, I noticed that when
I asked students to respond to a performance or give feedback to their
classmates, they frequently did not have anything to say or seemed unable to
move past simple comments such as, “She was good.” Generic, non-specific
feedback doesn’t offer performers helpful assessment; they can be left feeling
slighted or even disrespected by their peers, discouraged from polishing their

Constructing and accepting meaningful criticism are important
skills for young adolescents to acquire in their journey into adulthood. Both
stem from a capacity to think critically. Therefore, one of my goals for the new
school year was for students to provide each other with respectful and
constructive feedback after performances in drama class. I aimed to improve
students’ acting skills while teaching them the language and process of critique
in the arts.

Laying the groundwork
I worked to meet my goal
through a number of strategies. To connect the students to our work together, I
started by having each student set a personal goal for himself. We had
discussions that led to a full acceptance of our Social Contract
[consensus-derived group rules]. I also incorporated friendly greetings and
activities into our class. These steps helped provide consistency and build a
trusting community.

Finally, before delving into my course material, I
taught two mini-lessons on the purpose of critique in theater. Afterward, we did
a role play about sensitive and constructive ways to suggest improvement to a

A survey to gauge understanding and progress
In the
first week of the class, I had students complete a survey about giving and
receiving feedback. They took the same survey at the end of the semester, which
allowed me to gauge their growth. This survey contained three questions:

  1. How do you give feedback to someone about their performance?
  2. How does it feel to receive feedback in class after your performance?
  3. What is the purpose of giving feedback to classmates about their performance
    in drama?

I wanted students to understand that it was important to use
specific techniques and language to be respectful and encouraging. I wanted them
to see that feedback should leave students feeling positive, supported, and
safe, and that feedback improves everyone’s understanding of theater

Incremental steps began with acknowledgments
Because I
wanted to foster a safe space to give and receive criticism, we made our
transition into critiquing performance slowly and incrementally, emphasizing the
positive. During the first week of class, I regularly used closing time to ask
students if they had acknowledgments for others. The following week, during our
unit on pantomime, we set up a structure where the performer(s) sat on the edge
of the stage facing the audience during this feedback time. I modeled informally
by adding a compliment or mentioning positive qualities I noticed in the

To prepare reluctant students to provide feedback, I let
them know in advance that I would be calling on them specifically after a
particular performance: “Martin, after Jasmine performs I’ll be asking you to
tell her one good thing you noticed about her performance.” After more practice,
in addition to one compliment, I asked students to name one thing this
per¬former might add or change.

Improvements noted
I noticed an
improvement from the previous year in the quantity and level of detail in
student feedback. In our unit on pantomime, students were able to use the
language introduced in the unit to critique their classmates’ performances.
Occasionally, students raised their hands to offer feedback even when I was not
planning to critique a particular game or performance. I also noticed a few
students say, “Compliments? Advice?” to the audience after they had performed.
Student performers internalized the process of following a performance with
debriefing, and automatically sat on the edge of the stage after performing to
listen to feedback. More importantly, students no longer viewed critique as
something inherently negative. Quite the contrary, they gave and took criti¬cism
constructively-practices that will serve them well later on.

I continued
to use the process of “one specific compliment, one piece of advice” as an
introduction to critique for my drama students, and I continued role-plays and
discussions about critique. There is still progress to be made in students
learning that the purpose of critique is to enhance one’s critical eye as an
audience member. To address this, I plan on setting graduating goals for my
students based on grade level and drama exposure. A 6th grade goal might be to
critique a classmate’s performance, peer-to-peer. A 7th or 8th grade goal could
be to learn to critique not only student performances in class but also theatre
techniques from other cultures and times.

Importance of teaching
behavior skills and expectations

This process has reminded me that it is
important to fully teach a skill or behavior I expect to see. It is necessary to
go beyond just telling students what to do. I need to use mini-lessons,
role-plays, and modeling to introduce specific language and processes to help
students learn and make long-lasting changes in their behavior.

I was
also reminded of the power of my own language as a teacher. In the past, I had
unwittingly set students adrift by asking, “What did you think about this
performance?” and expecting meaningful responses. I now understand the need to
frame questions in a way that directs students to the kind of responses I am
looking for. The entire process reinforced the benefit of “going slow to go

Melinda Russo is a drama instructor at Old Orchard Junior High
in Skokie IL.

This article first appeared in Developmental
Designs: A Middle School Newsletter
, Fall 2009