Dramatic difference: how one teacher showed her students the spotlight

A high school teacher in Kenya wanted to start a drama program to build confidence. But would students too shy to speak in class be able to take center stage?


Dramatic difference: how one teacher showed her students the spotlight

A high school teacher in Kenya wanted to start a drama program to build confidence. But would students too shy to speak in class be able to take center stage?


This is the story of a teacher taking a risk to broaden her students’ horizons and the transformative power of theater. Starring young women from a rural village in Kenya who stepped into the spotlight, it just as easily could be set in any classroom where students yearn for an outlet and a voice. It’s a story in four acts.

Act one: The challenge

Caroline Makena Kinyua stood with her back to a clean chalkboard, open faces peering up at her over empty notebooks. It was her first day as a teacher and she’d landed at Kisaruni, an award-winning high school built by WE Charity in Kenya’s Narok County on the edge of the Maasai Mara.

This was an opportunity she’d been working toward her whole life.

Growing up in a village on the slopes of Mount Kenya in Meru County, Kinyua’s childhood home was surrounded by tea plantations as far as the eye could see. Her parents were farmers as well as teachers, soil and books forming twin pillars of her upbringing. From a young age she pictured helping to advance girls’ access to education, in the way her parents had encouraged her.

But standing in front of her new Grade 9 class, she found students too shy to speak in class, too nervous to make eye contact.

“My students would give one-word answers,” she recalls with the patience of a teacher. “They’d shake if called on.”

Leadership is baked into the philosophy of Kisaruni. It’s part of the DNA of the school. Kinyua saw older girls on campus confident in themselves, ready to take on prominent roles in their communities. But before the girls get to Kisaruni, she explains, “they aren’t taught to express themselves or give voice to their feelings.” It’s a journey to instill confidence. “We build them up.”

“My students would give one-word answers,” she recalls with the patience of a teacher. “They’d shake if called on.”

Every first-year teacher needs to find their style—how they relate to their students and what tools they use to motivate them. Kinyua remembered the wisdom passed down by her father. He occupied a towering place in their community. Whenever a student struggled with their classes, he’d find a way to encourage them to carry on. His words have guided her life.

“He told me we are all judged by the difference we make in peoples’ lives,” she recalls, “and that I will be remembered by my actions and deeds.”

With that in mind, she combed through her own life experience to see if there was a way to accelerate confidence-building in her 9ers. She’d been on her drama team in high school and had seen the spotlight help her fellow classmates, and herself, blossom. Theater demands commitment and motivation and the pay-off of a successful performance on stage can translate into confidence off it.

She wondered if the same experience could benefit her students. And bringing theater to the school was a chance to prove herself as a first-year teacher.

Now all she had to do was convince the principal, devise the program, cast the play and get students too shy to speak in class to perform on stage.

Act two: The play

Kinyua met with the principal during her first days at Kisaruni. A nation-wide theater competition, open to high schools all over Kenya, was only weeks away. She explained that drama offered the younger students a chance to develop their confidence more quickly. She wanted to enter. The new extracurricular was approved.

“The response was amazing,” she recalls. “The girls celebrated, lining up to audition.” That line included many of her Grade 9 students and older students as well, all eager to take the stage.

Eager, that is, until they saw the script. The play Kinyua settled on was 50 pages, with long complicated scenes full of dense English dialogue. It would require students to learn monologues, craft costumes and choreograph stage directions. The students—and their novice teacher—grew nervous. No one auditioning had ever seen a play before. Kinyua worried she’d been too ambitious. The prospect of one of her students freezing on stage or forgetting their lines began to feel all too possible.

But just as doubt began to seep into Kinyua, the campus transformed into an artist’s workshop. She selected a 22-member cast that began scurrying to and from class with their heads buried in scripts. The budding student-actors ran lines before school started, over lunch and after the final bell, squeezing practice in between classes, debate groups, sports and clubs. They converted the dining hall into a makeshift auditorium. Kinyua calls their rehearsals “an evolving process” and she witnessed the students pouring themselves into their characters as the inter-school competition loomed near.

The competition was organized into tiers: first sub-county for local schools; then county, for groups from across all of Narok; followed by regionals and nationals.

Opening night beckoned, and with it the students’ first time performing away from the comforts of their campus. Would the spotlight prove too bright?

Act three: Opening night

They’d rehearsed and run lines, practiced their staging and performed for fellow students. But nothing prepared them for the rush of standing in front of a 300-person audience.

Right before they took the stage, Kinyua gathered her actors into a huddle. She reminded them of how far they’ve come—the older students, of their journey since Grade 9, the younger ones of the inherent strength of their voices. “I’ve never seen such talented girls,” she told them, the thrum of the audience audible through the curtain. “I believe in you, now go do your best.”

Kinyua’s seat was in the front row. During her students’ performance, she only ever grazed the edge, hovering above it while she gestured along with her actors. They didn’t miss a beat. They hit every line.

Murmurs began around Kinyua, people whispering about how talented the young women were and how professional the production. “I couldn’t believe it was the same girls,” she remembers thinking. When the play ended, the young women took a much-deserved bow in the spotlight to booming applause. Their faces were eclipsed by smiles. “They were even better than in rehearsals.”

They filed into the audience to watch the other performances and let the thrill of being a spectator wash over them for the first time—itself a novel experience for young women who’d never visited a theater.

Then came the announcements. The girls held hands as the PA system turned on, all their hard work and weeks-old aspirations hinging on the moment—“Ladies and gentlemen, the winning play goes to Kisaruni girls!” The joy was as overwhelming as it was instantaneous. The girls sang and danced. There were tearful hugs and whispered words of praise.

The win came as a surprise to Kinyua. But it validated her belief that not all learning happens on campus. Still, it remained to be seen how the experiences would translate to the classroom—and how they’d do on a bigger stage.

Act four: Spotlight on Kisaruni

Days after their first win, Kinyua’s production headed to the county-wide competition. The audience was bigger—500 people this time—and the competition stiffer. They went up against students who grew up speaking English, watching professional theater productions and going to the movies. No matter. Their hurdles to get to the stage only added to their passion while on it.

They won again.

With the title of best in county, the students traveled hundreds of kilometers to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya, to perform in front of 1,000 spectators at regionals. They faced off against schools that had honed their theater programs over years, in an auditorium that was the biggest room many of the Kisaruni students had ever set foot in. They didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter, says Kinyua. The play had served its purpose.

From monosyllabic answers in class to sharing wisdom in front of a group, one student shared: “The secret is to believe in yourself."

When the bus pulled into Kisaruni, carrying the elated young women and the trophy from their first competition, students lined the driveway to greet them. The actors had sung the entire hour-long journey home. Now, their classmates’ voices added to their chorus.

The waiting students ushered the actors into the dining hall, asking them to relive the experience and share their lessons. One girl stood up confidently and looked over the audience of her peers. From monosyllabic answers in class to sharing wisdom in front of a group. “The secret is to believe in yourself,” the young woman said. This moment, to Kinyua, represents the power of theater.

In the days that followed, students began stopping Kinyua on campus to ask when they could audition for the next play. Others have started bringing their own poetry to class, eager to share it.

Sometimes change is slow, building layer upon layer for years. Sometimes it happens all at once. Kinyua took a chance and started a drama program. Now her students know they have a voice and the entire school knows they can stand proudly in the spotlight.

Jesse Mintz
Jesse Mintz
Jesse Mintz

Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.