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Effective Educator "Fun and Ordinary"

09/19/2012

Written by Donna Boen, editor, Miamian alumni magazine

Howard Blanning, Effective Educator 2012
Howard Blanning, Effective Educator 2012
photo: Scott Kissell
If Howard Blanning’s life were a play, he’d title it "Fun and Ordinary."

"I like being ordinary," insists Blanning, assistant theatre professor, Miami’s resident playwright, and Miami University Alumni Association’s newly named Effective Educator. Although flattered that his former students nominated him for the award, he’s not all that comfortable in this particular spotlight.

‘One man in his time plays many parts’

Not surprisingly, where he’s most at ease is in front of a classroom. Having taught at Miami since 1984, he’s quite practiced in the role. Soft-spoken and slightly disheveled, he walks around the room in his trademark tennis shoes while he reveals little-known nuances in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Passionate, yes. Ordinary? Some of his former students might beg to differ. One such student is Cheryl Ruschau ’03, among his nominators for the award, which he is receiving Homecoming Weekend.

“He was capable of inspiring us without appearing to make any effort toward that goal,” she explains. “One particularly memorable theatre history class, we were all in our upstairs Presser Hall classroom waiting for him to arrive. When it was time for class to start, we heard a voice shouting to us from outside. Howard was standing on the lawn and shouting the lesson up to us through the open window. You see, the lesson that day was about medieval religious theatre, and he wanted us to experience the feeling of being cloistered up in our classroom, unable to have face-to-face contact with the outside world.”

‘All the world’s a stage’

Perhaps it’s ironic – perhaps not – that he wanted his class to feel cloistered when he has spent many of his winter, spring, and summer breaks showing student groups distant places.

A native of Indiana, he spent part of his youth in Egypt and has traveled widely – teaching through exchange programs in the Czech Republic, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. His first year at Miami, he founded the Thrall Children’s Theatre program and for many years since has toured with numerous student casts to schools in economically challenged areas of Ohio. They also have visited the Czech Republic, Korea, Taiwan, and Russia, performing his operettas while he accompanies them on his banjo.

When Blanning handed Megan Haven ’08 a flier for a study-abroad trip, she told him she couldn’t afford it. One of nine kids, she was putting herself through Miami. Believing she would benefit from the experience, he helped her find the funding. Once on the trip, he made sure she could cover the expenses.

“Dr. Blanning was right, I did benefit from the trip greatly,” Haven says. “I had thought I wanted to go into stage management after graduation. But the trip showed me my true passion – teaching theatre.” She is now the drama director at Hamilton (Ohio) High School.

‘Full of wise saws and modern instances’

Blanning points to Haven and other students as the ones who deserve praise, and not him, as they are what make a teacher effective.

“They ask, they inquire. They go beyond the class content and that tends to inspire you,” he explains. “It’s nice to see our students, like Meg, end up teaching in the classroom and then going to visit their classes.”

He offers tips for new teachers, the first being advice he heard from the late Phillip Shriver, a longtime Miami president beloved for his own oratorical style in the classroom.

“Dr. Shriver, he was the one who spoke to me and my gang when we came in, and he said, ‘Don’t try to teach everything on the first day.’ I also think it’s a good idea to trust that your students are willing to be encouraged to get the essence of the course.”

Click here to watch a short video of Blanning.

Blanning with students
Blanning with students
photo: Scott Kissell

Backstage with Howard Blanning

Blanning began to write plays, mainly because he was “bored stiff,” while in the U.S. Army as an interpreter in Saudi Arabia 1972-1975.

He serves as an ongoing director and dramaturg for the Street Theatre Co. in Seoul and Miryang, South Korea. Twice he has been a Fulbright professor in the Czech Republic, a guest research professor at the Korean National University of the Arts, and an exchange professor at the Taiwan National College for the Performing Arts.

As he teaches less and retires more, he wants to keep writing. “I think I’m OK at it, but I very much enjoy when my students write something that I feel is successful in a long-term way."

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