Thinking outside of the COVID box

Still frame from video of Beechwood Middle School Musical Theatre performing THRILLER

Mask limitations. Mask anxiety. How to do, be and think beyond the mask. 

When we returned to school in person, my world as a drama teacher was totally rocked. I’m a very expressive person, to say the least. Suddenly I had no way to show all of my wacky expressions.

I’m extremely respectful about wearing a mask and its purpose, but I felt lost having a mask covering the majority of my face. I’m all about sharing my smiles and showing emotion with my face, and I’ve got the wrinkles to prove that this face gets a lot of use. Add that to the fact that what I teach centers a whole lot on what a student does with their face! Acting is all about expression - facial expressions speak volumes.

So what is a drama teacher to do? 

Naturally, at first, I wanted to be, well, dramatic. These daggome masks became a despised obstacle. How could I teach pantomime without seeing our faces!??! How could I get students to successfully communicate emotion with a mask on!!??! I admit I had to wallow in my anger for a bit. I even got really sad about this awful deterrent that I felt stood in my way of what I like to do.  But then I realized that I had to suck it up and think beyond. I had to think outside of the COVID box and think beyond the mask!  I thought, “For crying out loud Shannon, you teach lessons on the priceless value of creativity. You can do this! Use your imagination and make this work for you and your students!”

So my focus became, how can we use our body language, our posture, vocal variety, and eye contact to express emotion and characteristics? How could I utilize these masks to help create deeper learning experiences for my students and even create some much-needed fun? 

Well, one day, I heard one of the best songs ever, and as I tend to do as a producer and director, my mind could see the stage, see the screen and it instantly hit me. I’m gonna make these masks work for me! My musical theatre students became zombies.

Yes, you read right. They became zombies and their face masks became their costumes. Yeah baby, we did our own unique performance of Thriller! It was an absolute blast! My 6th, 7th, and 8th graders took on the challenge of using their bodies to express emotion, become zombies and perform choreography.

We stayed COVID safe by keeping our leads spaced out and limiting the time we shot footage. Our zombie characters decorated their masks, aka their costume, and we all experienced collaboration on a unique level as we moved through the production process. Since no live audiences were allowed, they got the special opportunity to learn about acting for the camera.

We created our own music video of Thriller and it was a huge success. The students loved it. My admin loved it (my principal even joined us and is featured as a zombie in the video!) We made COVID work for us, instead of limit us. 

Though I cannot wait to be freed of our face coverings, I have enjoyed the challenge of tapping into skills that go beyond just utilizing facial expressions to convey emotion. With every lesson, my students are connecting on a different and sometimes deeper level by having to do, be and think beyond the mask. We’re learning to communicate in different, unique ways and more focus is put on vocal variety and how to use those vocal elements to really express ourselves. 

In my next exciting adventure of thinking outside of the COVID box, I plan to collaborate with a sign language interpreter and incorporate signing into my lesson on expressive movement. I am thrilled about the opportunity for my students to learn more about this incredible art form. I plan to have my students learn to sign the lyrics of a song. I’ve done this before in some of my big-scale productions and it makes for a beautiful performance and an unforgettable experience for the students. My goal is for my students to gain a deeper understanding of the art of communication, learn how to use their bodies to communicate on a completely different level, and gain an appreciation for sign language. 

Here’s to thinking beyond limitations, using our imagination, and creating success!

Youtube Link: Beechwood Middle School Musical Theatre performs THRILLER - From the Days of COVID 


Shannon Boatwright is a local teacher-artist in Lexington School District One where she currently teaches drama and musical theatre at Beechwood Middle School. She has her B.A. in theatre and dance from Winthrop University and is currently working on her Masters in Education at the University of South Carolina. After ten years living in Los Angeles, CA, working as a professional performer, producer, entertainment reporter, and host on the stage and screen, Shannon moved back home to SC. She was drawn to the amazing world of Arts Integration, training in Greenville with the Metropolitan Arts Council and SmartArts program and via seminars at the Peace Center with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Residencies within the local school districts integrating drama and dance brought such joy to Shannon that she decided to apply to the PACE program to get her teacher certification and broaden her reach.  She’s been teaching privately and in the public school arena now for over ten years. Contact Shannon via her portfolio website.  

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