The students in Cynthia Tehan's introductory drama course are hard at work.
Their assignment is to write a script that gives the message "Say No To Drugs" and to practice their skits. Later, they will perform in the school's media center. The best skits will be videotaped and shown to all Gulf Middle students over the school's own news station, WGMS, during "Say No To Drugs Week" Oct. 24-31.
Groups of students are busy rehearsing. They use props, oregano for marijuana, flour for cocaine and toy guns for the real thing. Rap music plays on a cassette tape player, creating a party atmosphere while a police siren wails from another corner of the room. Some students work without props. They open imaginary doors and drive invisible cars, putting to good use the lessons learned earlier in a unit on mime.
In one play, a drug dealer entices teenage boys into drug use with free samples. Later, an undercover police officer arrests them all. In another skit, a girl leaves a party drunk to go buy more beer and winds up in a hospital after being injured in a crash.
Tehan critiques the action, reminding the students to "face your audience, talk loud, and make it clear to the audience who your character is." Overall, she is pleased with the messages her students intend to convey to their classmates.
Tehan has been a teacher 18 years. She started the drama program at Gulf Middle School four years ago.
"We were the first middle school in the county to offer this program. Now four other middle schools have joined us," she says.
"These kids are at a great age for this. They are so enthusiastic and have so much interest and energy. Most of them aren't afraid. They all want center stage," she says with a chuckle, "so you might as well give it to them."
Throughout the year, Tehan's students will study acting methods. Their tests will be the performances they give before their classmates.
A talent show is planned for November. In May, all drama students will take part in a play written by Tehan. Poetry With Pizzaz, a mixture of older and modern poetry, will be performed at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge High School.
"The kids really love performing there," she says. "It's such a beautiful facility and the kids feel so professional."
Tehan also intends to expose her students to the different aspects of the arts through various field trips. Next month, they will see Tom Sawyer at Ruth Eckerd Hall. In the spring, they will travel to Kissimee to see the Medieval Times, a fair with an ancient theme.
Drama classes might be a way to open doors for students that otherwise would remain closed.
"These students are encouraged to go and see the arts," Tehan says, "not just perform."