Saturday, February 4, 2012

On Teaching: The Costume Connection

Connecting Costume Design to Teaching Any Subject

This morning Miss O’ responds to a reader/colleague/former teacher who read her two recent Costume posts in their entirety, although she herself is not theater-minded and is no longer teaching. “Why did you read them?” Miss O’ asked, mystified.

“Because I like to read something interesting on the train,” she said, echoing Wilde’s line in The Importance of Being Earnest. “And I would never have thought that so much went into it,” she explained as we booted up our computers for a day of editing. “I mean, I notice costumes, but I didn’t know they meant something.”

I thought that was really cool. Then she added this, “I don’t see how it would translate to teaching, though, unless I were teaching costume design.”

And Miss O’ stopped in her tracks.

Herewith a post on her unstated (and apparently not remotely obvious) teaching analogies, because sometimes you just have to spell things out. And it’s a fun challenge, because as of this typing I have no idea what I’m going to tell you.


1.     If a character refers to his watch, give him one. If a strand of pearls will show a character’s wealth, give her some nice, plastic pearls. If someone refers to a handkerchief, someone had better have it. Coats in winter, umbrellas in rain, fans in summer. Hats are extremely helpful in period plays. (I hope you don’t think I’m talking like an asshole: Look at the obvious. It’s amazing how many people miss that in all the line learning.)

If a student needs to learn nouns, teach them. If a lesson in modifiers would help put a stop to a bunch of writing problems, even though “modifiers” is not a standard nor mentioned in your curriculum, teach modifiers. If someone needs a bathroom pass, someone better get it. Have the right tools and materials for the work you assign, and don’t start into teaching something until you have them. Look at the obvious. If kids need something in order to succeed at the lessons you are planning—extra background in a concept, practice with spelling, a little historical perspective—give that to them, curriculum “requirements” be damned.

2.     The more you can do with the actual clothes, such as sewing on buttons and bows and frou-frou that stays put, the better, by which I mean “safer”. Jewelry gets lost, or necklaces break and people slide on the pearls. Never good.

The more work you can have kids do in the actual classroom, the better. Homework gets lost. Kids forget to read stories you assign, and then there is no conversation. If I had it to do again, I would have worked more like this and assigned less homework. I do believe in long-range projects, though. That’s so much like life and real work, it would be wrong not to do that. Also, projects allow quiet time, synthesis, creativity, and an opportunity for heart-racing panic, useful by-products all.

3.     Avoid shiny things. They can blind audiences and distract other actors.

Avoid games, movies, and other non-instructional time-fillers whenever possible. Now there is nothing wrong with a 5- or 10-minute “study break” with a brainteaser, but “fun” things unrelated to instruction can really interrupt the flow of learning, especially for kids who need structure (which is most kids).  (That said, we’ve all done it—one class is way ahead because of early dismissals for snow, so that only your first period class got the lesson, and you really don’t want to throw off your schedule, so to catch up you stall first period by showing Casablanca. It happens, but don’t make it a habit.)

4.     Use [whatever it is] sparingly. “Use sparingly” really means “use meaningfully.” What one piece can make the statement you need? A carnation in a buttonhole? a necktie with a good pattern? a hat shape? the right shoes? a feather boa? This is useful in any design but really important when you are on a tight budget and want maximum impact.

Think about this when planning a lesson: We want to do it ALL. Say it ALL. Read it ALL—and there’s something to be said for immersion (in poetry, for example). But there is more to be said for reading the one apt story or essay to develop a theme. Ask yourself: What examples, stories, selections, and assignments will be really meaningful? How can one build upon another—a poem that mirrors a story, the themes of which coalesce in an essay? Work to find those. It prevents a lot of superfluous grading and going over-time on things that don’t matter, causing you not to teach important concepts later.

5.     Most accessories are too small to see, so if you use them, go BIG. Stand in the last row of your House and have someone hold up any accessory and you will see what I mean. To solve this, try gluing three brooches together, or triple the bracelets, double the pearls. Hats? Make the feathers count.

Subtlety often has no place in the classroom. Sure, there’s a time to come in from underneath, a kind of stealth approach, as it were (I did this in literature seminars—letting kids find where they were as readers and then hitting them with questions, examples, and other views to shake it up). But mostly, be direct: pull out specific examples and hit the kids upside the head with them. Being sneaky is not only a time-waster, but also that game of “Guess what I know that you don’t” can come across as condescending and fucking annoying.

6.     And as always, cheap, cheap, cheap, and plastic can really work well.

Paper and pencil. Chalk on a blackboard. Discussion. Exchange of ideas.  This is what matters. PowerPoint is dazzling, and can be really useful, but there is no substitute for engagement on the most basic level. And sometimes, when all your elaborate plans are experiencing technical difficulties, you will have to fake it. And the results can be just as nourishing.

EXTENDING THE EXAMPLE: THE PROJECTS: The Fabric Store; Costume Research and Rendering

On the Fabric Store Project as Analogy

Sometimes, you just need to get kids in the door. You don’t have to turn everything you teach or assign— whether it’s a story or an experiment or a math problem or a historical event—into a THESIS. Every moment does not have to Count with a BIG C toward a giant-ass GRADE. This took a long time for me to learn and I never totally learned it. Still, the Fabric Store Project came to me in the last two years I taught, because it really takes so long to become a good teacher—and by year 15 I was just getting the hang of it. Ah, well.

On the Costume Project as Analogy

Sometimes, you have to push kids far out of their comfort zones and force them to attempt something they never in a zillion light years thought they would EVER do, such as draw people wearing clothes they themselves designed. Make them do it anyway.

And make it doable: Set up the situation to make the work and research possible. Give them class time. Provide any tools they don’t have or cannot get. Remind them every day of what is due, what they will be expected to show, and make them OWN their work. And be KIND.

Sometimes a project needs to COUNT for something beyond a grade, though the grade is the carrot. (I’m okay with grades as carrots, but wouldn’t it be nice if the kids also felt invested in proving something?) The kids should feel terrified, proud, doubtful, astonished, relieved, exhausted. If you can assign one project a year and make it do that, I’d say that’s pretty darn good.

In the drama club, we did three shows a year that mirrored that approach to projects. If in your chosen subject area you never assign that kind of project, you are failing your kids. There, I said it. I don’t care if it’s Algebra, Earth Science, Geography, or P.E. Once a year? Really? You cannot think of one project to count like that, to bring out that level of effort and commitment? I think you can.


“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Polonius, aside about Hamlet, Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Whatever your subject of instruction, the approach to teaching Costume Design can be applied to teaching anything. (I don’t mean to set myself up at the role model of fine teaching, but when you are a novice teacher with bad training or lack of support, my hope is that I might be of use.) If you look at these suggestions in terms of a subject such as Costume Design—something relatively few people teach—you may not find yourself biased and, so, may be open to gleaning some new approaches. The thought, Well, I wouldn’t teach that concept that way, may not so readily encroach onto your reading experience, if you see what I mean.

That’s part of the method in my blog madness.

So allow me to spell out what you might be able to take away from all this and apply to your own teaching area.

§  On Lectures: “I know stuff, you don’t, and here is that knowledge.”
There is nothing wrong with lectures. Sometimes the teacher simply knows things that the students don’t, and no amount of coaxing or elaborate end-arounds can lead kids to a new awareness in anything like a timely fashion. Not everything has to be partner work, seminar discussion, or “discovery.” Don’t apologize. Make the lecture FABULOUS.

§  On Variety: Lecture allowances notwithstanding, you have to mix it up. Effective balance of a class period requires lecture, discussion, partner practice, individual practice, and review. You need a little teacher talk, a little reading, a little writing, and a little class chat. Try to keep the balls in the air. And some days will be mostly one thing, such as all class presentations, or mostly lecture/demonstration, because sometimes things take time. And they just do.

I think that’s enough for today.

Until next time….

(Also, if there’s anything you have been wondering about, or would like me to discuss for some perverted reason of your own, drop Miss O’ a message, won’t you?)


  1. Speaking of costume design, I used to have my students analyze their own "costumes" and tell me what they hoped to express with the clothes they had chosen to wear that particular day. Then I asked them what they wish they could have worn and explain why. Clothes are a form of creative expression, and kids understand this on so many levels. It's nice to acknowledge it and have them apply that realization to every other creative project they undertake.

  2. I could not agree with you more. I was in a teacher inservice (er, professional development seminar) once, and the focus was on tolerance, on not judging the kids. The instructors kept admonishing us to ignore what kids wear and look to the inner child. And I interrupted finally and said, "Clothes are information." No one knew what I meant. "If kids have chosen those clothes, they want to speak through them. If they didn't choose them, that's also information. It's not that we need to judge it, but I think it's a mistake to say ignore it." A science teacher saw what I meant and agreed, and the leader just fell apart, as if I'd ruined her whole presentation. (Part of what makes teaching scary is people actually engaging, throwing off an agenda.)