Carnegie Mellon University
October 23, 2019

Teacher Helps Students Heal Through Theater Arts

By Pam Wigley

Pam Wigley
  • College of Fine Arts
  • 412-268-1047

There are likely few teachers who have witnessed how the arts can help to heal wounds that little else can. One of those teachers, Melody Herzfeld, saw firsthand how tragedy can be overcome through the healing power of the arts.

Herzfeld is the fourth winner of the Excellence In Theatre Education Award (EITEA), accepting her honor at Radio City Music Hall in June 2018. She is the theater teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. To many, the name of the school is familiar because it was the site of a deadly shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, during which a former student invaded the school and killed 17 students and faculty members, wounding many others in the process. During the incident, Herzfeld hid 65 of her students in her office/classroom until authorities lead them to safety.

Melody Herzfeld accepted the Excellence in Theatre Education Award in 2018 during the Creative Arts Awards portion of the Tony Awards ceremony.

From this tragedy, Herzfeld found a way to help her students express their emotions and grief as they dealt with the incident - through theater and music. In the week following the shooting, Herzfeld helped them to craft an original song titled, "Shine," which they later performed at a CNN Town Hall. Her students once again had the opportunity to highlight their talents when, during the 2018 Tony Awards at which Herzfeld was honored, they performed "Seasons of Love" from "Rent."

In looking back at that experience, Herzfeld said she felt tremendous pride and joy at what her students overcame. Her theater students were some of the first to be interviewed by news outlets; their classroom was yards away from where the events unfolded.

"I saw through them that theater education changes lives," she said. "When everything happened at our school, such a negative light was shone upon our students because of one former student. But then someone said, 'Wait! Our kids are speaking up because they learned how to do that in theater class — they were given permission to be themselves and to feel strong about what their beliefs are.'"

The events of Feb. 14 did not define Herzfeld's emergence as a teacher of note. She has a history of successful work with student performances from the time she joined the high school in 2004. Under her direction, the department has developed award-winning theatrical productions, and the school's Thespian Troupe 4879 has earned numerous honors from the annual Florida Thespian Festivals.

"There was so much good before Feb. 14, 2018," Herzfeld said. "And the Excellence in Theatre Education Award validates that. Getting this award was like getting recognition for every drama teacher out there who has positively influenced a student."

She remembers Tony Awards weekend as "welcoming" and recalled that everywhere she went, Broadway's best were congratulating her. She was especially happy to share the weekend with family and friends, including the person who submitted her name for the award: Monica Andrews. "To think that she took the time to write that letter means a lot to me," Herzfeld said.

She has enjoyed reaping the benefits that came with the award, things that have directly helped her students. First, a master class that Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama provided in fall 2018 at the high school. Conducted by Professor Don Wadsworth, who was joined by alumna and actress Chante Adams, the class was especially helpful to Herzfeld's students, she said.

"Having people from Carnegie Mellon share in a meaningful way what they know and then providing advice to the students was so valuable," she said.

Herzfeld also sent two students to the School of Drama's Summer Pre-college Program. It was a new benefit to the teacher award winner in 2018; students attended in summer 2019.

In 2018, Tanzil Philip & Ryan Senatore's teacher, Melody Herzfeld, was the fouth recipient of the Excellence in Theatre Education Award. The award comes with a grant of $10,000 for the teacher's theatre program, and prizes such as a full scholarship to two students of the schools choosing to attend the six-week CMU School of Drama Pre-College Program.
Finally, the winning teacher receives a $10,000 gift for his/her theater program. With some of those funds, Herzfeld purchased a laptop and software that helped to create original projections for her 2019 productions.

She urged people to submit the names of their teachers for consideration for the EITEA.

"Recognize what your teacher did for you. It brought a light to the work that not only I did, but also the work that thousands of theater educators do," Herzfeld said.

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