John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Elephant’s Graveyard

October 14, 2013huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

What kind of manic tear is John on now? Not one at all. This is the title of a play that my wife and I saw the other day, that reminded me of what I already knew, but I can’t be reminded of too often.

Elephant’s Graveyard, by George Brant, was recently performed by undergraduate students at Brevard College. It is based on a true story of events surrounding a travelling circus that came to the small Tennessee town (not too far north of where I live), Erwin, in 1916. Unfortunately, a circus elephant tramples to death a circus worker as the animal rushed to pounce on some spilled melon and inadvertently crushed the head of the poor worker. In a chain of events that evoked for me an analogy to the current shut down of our government, a small faction of the town’s citizens, understandably horrified by this death, decide to take matters into their own hands and kill the elephant. They do so by hanging the several ton creature using a railroad crane to facilitate the execution. The play is an allegorical presentation of mob psychology run amuck and the unintended consequences of ill considered actions taken by attention getting small factions of passionate citizens. As I watched this rendition of the rural south in 1916 I felt magically transported to Washington, D.C. 2013. I also saw retention strategies 101 in action.

So what did I already know but need to be reminded of? How to retain students! I saw the not-so-secret formula in action.

So how to retain students…

  • By engaging them in the total integration of the curricular and the co-curricular.
  • By building a cohesive group of students doing something of socially redeeming value, which they also happen to love (in this case, acting).
  • By integrating into a student peer group a professor, for intensive over time interaction.
  • By integrating the teaching of important life lessons into what the students are experiencing in their real lives outside the conventional classroom.
  • By engaging students in educationally purposeful activities that require the investment of large amounts of time, energy and commitment
  • By creating a learning environment in which students form lasting friendships, with each other and probably the professor too
  • By creating a learning experience in which students develop, learn, master, a set of transferable skills (in this case performing, presenting, speaking, directing, creating, critiquing)
  • By offering them an experience which, literally, keeps them on campus many more hours than they otherwise might be—and then not wanting to leave that campus
  • By creating a group setting where older, more accomplished students inspire and teach those more recently arrived in the academy
  • By having them experience something which surely they will remember, even if it is not on the final exam!

 As I watched and listened to these students:

  • I found I was having almost as much fun as they obviously were
  • Their extraordinary amount of energy and passion amazed and thrilled me
  • I knew I was seeing retention in action
  • I wondered how these dynamics could be replicated for even more students, especially those not participating in theater
  • I was reminded of how and why theater has been one of civilization’s most powerful teaching tools for centuries

I got the moral of the story, immediately, of course and was persuaded that this was surely one of the most meaningful ways to teach impressionable college students what happens when an ignorant mob takes over.

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