By Sarah Vander Schaaff

Eight years ago, when I first started teaching drama at a small private high school, I introduced a routine I learned from my own high school drama teacher back in Austin, Texas decades before.

Before class, or a rehearsal, you ask your group to lie down. If the class is being held in a theatre, it’s easy enough to dim the lights and play calming or classical music softly through the speakers.

The idea is to foster relaxation, to let go of the tension and worries of the day, and come to a more neutral place. After a few minutes, the music stops and the lights come to full, and you transition into a vocal warm-up and then a few improv games. The routine may be unique to theatre, but it has its parallels in athletics: you design a warm-up that is going to give you the best shot at playing well.

To say the lying down portion of the class was popular when I first introduced it is an understatement. Instead of strolling into my first period class slightly behind the bell, I had students arrive early. Teenagers were eagerly asking to borrow my CD of Enya so they could listen to the Irish singer at home. Once or twice I had a student doze off accidentally, but most used the time to simply lie still and find a few minutes of peace.

Taking the time to shut out the concerns of the world and become more centered, as we say, was an investment in productivity: the students emerged more alert, focused and attuned to their creativity.

Seven years later, at a different school and in a different space, I introduced the relaxation exercise once again.

It was a disaster. Students fidgeted. They wanted to talk to a neighbor. But most of all, they seemed pained to be separated from their cell phones and the ability to check them. I quickly shifted gears. There would be other ways to prepare for the work of the day, but “relaxing” was clearly counter-productive. These were good and creative students, but I had to adapt.

My experience is only anecdotal, but it made a strong impression on my perception of the subtle changes happening because of technology. Consider this: the students who found it difficult to do the exercise were born six or seven years after the ones who embraced it.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center referred to in a Boston Globe article, “How Young is Too Young for a Phone?” forty-five percent of people 12-17 had a cell phone in 2004.

By 2010, seventy-five percent did.

And the age at which children are getting their first cell phones is decreasing, meaning by the time they came to me for basic or intermediate drama my first group had only possessed a cell phone for a year or so, and it’s possible most of their friends had not yet gotten one.

Compare this with today when the 15 year-old has already spent a significant portion of his or her life with a cell phone and is assured that most of his or her friends are connected, too, sending, according to a Nielson study cited in that Boston Globe article, 4,000 texts a month. (That figure is for girls, boys send on average 2,800.)

When we hand our children cell phones, one of our motivations is to help us stay connected. We want to know where they are. We want them to let us know where they are. And they, most likely, want to know what their friends are up to.

But it’s going to take a conscious effort on our parts, both in our own actions, and in the rules we establish with them when they use these devices, to strengthen the muscles that allow us to do something else: disconnect.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that technology is always the culprit. A few days ago my four-year-old took my phone so she could listen to some music. She discovered a singer in my playlist she’d never heard before and one that she wants to listen to every day in the car.

I can say that listening to Enya in the morning has been a nice change of pace.

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