Brooke Haycock steps out from behind a makeshift curtain in a fourth-floor conference room, leaning on a wooden cane.
“Education today, different world than it was when we were in the classroom,” the 26-year-old actress says in the character of a certain Dr. Groff, the dean of an anonymous Southern school of education. “Teachers headin’ on up in there now, bless ’em—more than this baldin’ ol’ white dean could stomach. The spotlight, the stress—it’s accountability gone mad.”
Traipsing across the fluorescent-lit room at George Washington University here—there was no stage or spotlight for this small faculty retreat last month—the “dean” continues: “An’ this here ‘highly qualified’ nonsense, why, George Dubya and that federal gov’ment of his gon’ sit up on high and tell us we not highly qualified to teach?”
Tennessee Williams meets John Dewey, you might say, in Ms. Haycock’s one-woman, 15-character docudrama, “Six Degrees of Preparation.”
Despite the dean’s criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act’s teacher-quality provisions, this play isn’t meant to attack the federal law. After all, the playwright has the unlikely job of artist-in-residence for the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group that is among the law’s strongest champions. She’s also the daughter of the group’s executive director, Kati Haycock.
The younger Ms. Haycock, who calls herself an “actorvist,” examines the human dimensions of education policy and practice in her work. She seeks to breathe life into wonkish issues, telling the sometimes painful stories behind the data on student achievement, teacher quality, and related issues the Education Trust has long used in its work.
In “Six Degrees,” the subject is teacher preparation, support, and retention. Ms. Haycock’s keenest interest is in the “belief structures” embedded in schools, districts, and education schools that she argues often lead to lower academic expectations for poor and minority students.
With only slight costume changes—donning a scarf, a pair of suspenders, or a cane, for example—Ms. Haycock transforms her body, face, and voice from the aging education school dean to Lennox, a young African-American man struggling to earn a teaching degree, or to Ms. Barrack, a cynical veteran teacher.
She’s performed “Six Degrees” and another show she wrote, “Dilated Pupils and the Not-So-Soft Bigotry of a Nation,” some 150 times across the country in high school auditoriums, at conferences, and just recently at the US. Department of Education’s headquarters.
Ms. Haycock is also developing discussion guides for the shows. Act 2 of every performance, she says, is a dialogue with the audience. And Ms. Haycock and Heather Peske, a teacher-quality expert at the Education Trust, are planning joint presentations combining drama with data.
“We hope it can pack a powerful punch in terms of provoking people,” said Ms. Peske.
Ms. Haycock, who majored in theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is also working on a new show about high-performing schools with predominantly low-income and minority students.
“Six Degrees” is in part the story of Lennox, a teacher-candidate who has failed the state teacher-licensing test three times. He asks Dean Groff for help, and from there the story weaves in other characters, including teachers from Lennox’s high school days who may well have contributed to his academic shortcomings.
“We had some teachers who were sorta half there, half gone, just hangin’ on waitin’ for their retirement—everyone knew they stopped carin’ a long time ago,” Lennox says in the story. “We had a lotta real young teachers, like I’m talkin’ real, real young, like just-outta-school young. … You can’t help but notice they’re not prepared, and by the time they are, a lot of times, they’re gone.”
The dialogue, and the characters—while mostly composites—are drawn from more than 300 interviews Ms. Haycock conducted with teachers, teacher-candidates, principals, education professors, and high school students in one Southern state. State education officials there commissioned the play. In exchange for allowing Ms. Haycock to perform it elsewhere, she’s agreed not to disclose the state’s name.
The May 11 performance at George Washington University earned a standing ovation from the 20 or so faculty members and doctoral students gathered from the department of teacher preparation and special education. Many offered strong praise, even while suggesting a few ideas for tinkering with the show.
“So much of what you’ve picked up on, I think, is absolutely true in terms of the state of the field,” Jay Shotel, an education professor and the head of the teacher-preparation department, told her.
“I would love to have my own students view this,” said Natalie B. Milman, another education professor in the audience.
“You say the word,” Ms. Haycock shot back, “and I’ll put my duffel bag over my shoulder and come on over.”
Ms. Haycock said she wasn’t trying to paint a dark picture of American education with the play.
“The truth is, you do hear a lot of sad things,” she said in a later interview. “And most overwhelming, which was what ended up kind of directing this piece, was the sense of hopelessness that you got from teachers who aren’t even in the classroom yet. How does that happen? What’s going on there?”
At the close of the show, the Dean Groff character begins to reflect on his own role in Lennox’s situation.
“You know, I heard once that everybody on this here earth is separated by just six people, six degrees of separation,” he says.
The dean recalls recently sifting through old lecture notes he used for years with student-teachers.
“The whole middle of this presentation was filled with every kind o’ misinformation an’ naysayin’ there is out there ’bout kids like that,” he says. “I had statistics on poverty, school mobility, race, and school achievement. . . .
“Was it someone in one of my classes saw that presentation and went on to teach Lennox? Was it somethin’ that I had said, made them make a set of assumptions about that boy?”