[ Teaching & Learning ]

Welcome to the stage!

Niagara Falls teacher builds space for students to be their authentic selves

By Molly Belmont


headshot of Meagan Millar

heater teacher Meagan Millar just wants her students to be themselves.

Kids are forced to be someone they’re not all the time, said Millar, so creating a place like the theater, where they can be real, is important.

“You can just be yourself and leave all your baggage at the door, and the kids really buy into that,” Millar said. “It’s amazing to see what develops from there.”

Millar, a member of the Niagara Falls Teachers, discovered the power of drama when she was a child. She grew up in Niagara Falls, auditioning for roles at the community theater. When she got to high school, she was excited to finally be able to take drama classes at school under the able direction of drama teacher Kate Muldoon.

Millar went on to earn her BFA in Theater Performance from Niagara University. Upon graduation, she toured the country doing children’s theater. She discovered she liked kids and, more than that, they liked her.

She came back to the Niagara Falls City School District 11 years ago, first as a teaching assistant, then as the performing arts teacher in the elementary schools.

Over the course of the last five years, Millar has created and implemented the new drama curriculum for three of the district’s elementary schools. She also established a drama-focused after-school program at the middle schools, where students produce full-scale musicals each semester. Past productions include Lion King Jr. and Frozen Jr., which were performed in front of sold-out crowds. These programs will complement the high school drama program, led by theater director Dennis Wilson.

“Meagan has done an excellent job working in our newly created ‘sister school’ performing arts position,” said Daniel Weiss, president of the Niagara Falls Teachers. “The Niagara Falls District’s commitment to ranging outside of the typical box of student opportunities, all the way down to the elementary level, has created a positive impact and excitement for students in a disproportionately disadvantaged community.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median household income for the Niagara Falls district is $32,857, and 39 percent of families are below the poverty line.

The district also reports chronic student absenteeism and below-average graduation rates, but district leaders and educators hope that efforts like this will turn that around.

“Kids come to school for all kinds of reasons,” Superintendent Mark Laurrie said. “We have to meet kids where their interests are.”

Still in its infancy, the drama program is already starting to deliver. Students, who cannot participate in the plays unless their grades stay up, are logging more class time and improving their marks, Laurrie said.

The classes also have an important social-emotional role to play. Millar starts each day’s theater class with open sharing, when students can talk about what is going on in their lives. Often, Millar will explain how their experiences can inform their acting and become part of their “actor’s toolbox.” The circle time also helps Millar spot students who may need extra support and builds trust between students.

Millar has seen it happen time after time onstage; students coming out of their shells, taking risks and growing as a result. “I have so many kids tell me, ‘I thought I wasn’t good enough, but you taught me that I am,’” she said.

students in the Lion King Jr. play on stage for a cast and crew group photo

Students in the Niagara Falls School District have performed several musicals, including  Lion King Jr., under the direction of Niagara Falls Teachers member Meagan Millar.