Let Their Voices Boom
In the ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown University we formed collaborative partnerships with artists and teachers. The idea was that the artist would help the teacher to learn how to integrate the arts into the literacy classroom, thereby giving the teacher a new way to think about education. The teacher would help the artist structure or organize all their creative energy in a way that might be shared with a classroom of kids or in the community.
It was an honor to work with artists and teachers in cities around the world for ten years. I saw talented educators facilitating art making experiences and teaching literacy in schools in Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and across the United States. So when last week one of our teachers, Jessica Robertson, here at Habla asked me to help her create a performance with her students that are between the ages of eight and thirteen, my thoughts went back to a project we did five years ago with a group of educators in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
The artist we worked with, Erminio Pinque, is the artistic director of a performance and puppet company in Providence, Rhode Island called Big Nazo. We were working on a project in Len Newman and Richard Kinslow’s classroom. Len and Richard taught a classed called “Newcomers” — it was a class that helped students who had recently arrived to the United States develop their English and the other skills that were necessary for succeeding in schools in their new country.
The students had been writing stories about their home countries and how they traveled to the United States. Len and Ricard were brilliant at facilitating a language process that enabled the students to write long narratives filled with rich descriptions and dialogue. Now Erminio’s work over several weeks was to help the students tell their stories on stage to the Central Falls community. With Erminio, the students developed life-size portraits of themselves using cardboard and paint. They also created set-pieces consisting of the symbols and objects of their stories.
It was time to put it all together, but how would we have students new to the country perform their stories in English, on the stage in front of seven hundred other students and faculty? Erminio had an idea. He brought in a digital recorder and he recorded the students telling their stories. If they messed up, no problem, he would pause the recorder and let them start again. At home he edited all the student stories and brought “clean” audio versions of the story in next week. He told me, “This is an amazing way for the kids to feel a sense of fluency–we can edit out the mistakes. Then we bring a couple of big speakers in, hook up the digital player, and their voices will boom over the auditorium. The students will sound confident and it will free them up to tell the story with the puppets on the stage.”
Last week, here in Mexico, when I was faced with a room full of very energetic kids and a long script they had developed with their teacher, recording it seemed like the best solution. The students had spent the semester reading stories about “wild things.” They wrote their own wild thing story, and now they were working with an artist to create sculptures of the creatures they had designed. The work on the sculptures was taking, of course, longer than expected, and we still had a performance to create. I took groups of students into a separate classroom. We practiced their script once, then recorded it. During the practice session the students were having a tough time concentrating. They were missing lines, laughing when someone made a mistake, asking questions, moving around. However, when I hit RECORD, the students were completely focused. They didn’t make any mistakes during the recording session. This brought back to mind the research of Shirley Brice Heath on community-based arts organizations: when the risks are high, students rise to the occasion.
The next class I hoped to add movement to the audio recording. We gathered the students in our main performance space and I began to give orders. We needed to rush so I thought the best thing to do was to just push really hard and get through the script. Bad idea. Kids this age don’t rush through a performance process and I had to learn a lesson I knew already (but need to be reminded of consistently): the students need to own the artistic process. Even though the kids wrote the script, the performance was my idea. I knew never to force the process to get to a product, but here I was, doing it again, pushing, pushing, pushing. After class I was frustrated. I didn’t know what to do. The parents were expecting a performance and we didn’t have time to create one. I couldn’t create a process where students would develop their own performance; we only had one class left.
Then it occurred to me. We have the performance already. Instead of calling the script a “play” we called it a “radio show.” We recorded some sound effects with the kids, asked them what music they would like to see in their radio show, and then with a little Garage Band editing on the Mac we had a complete show to present to the parents.
For the peformance, each student presented their wild thing, read a monologue from their characters perspective, and then we played the radio show.We wanted the kids and their families to read together so we gave each family only one script and an amazing thing happened: the kids sat in their parent’s laps, and listened and read together. Since the script was in English, and many of the parents only spoke Spanish, the kids translated for their parents and told them the story. It was a touching ending to the semester and we learned some important lessons.
What did we learn from this experience?
1. Pay attention to what others are doing around you. You never know when you will need an idea in the future. I used Erminio’s idea five years later (and used the photo of him recording kids in this blog!)
2. There is always a solution, and it’s usually right in front of us. It requires a shift in how we’re thinking about the problem.
3. Never give up and never cancel an event (we debated canceling the performance). We can always make it happen as a community.
4. Never rush students in an artistic process. If there isn’t time for a rich process, do something else.
5. Don’t try to create something new at the last minute. Look at what the students have already created. Use it.
6. Teaching a perfect class is always wonderful, but it is the worst classes that teach us the most. After those classes pull yourself up and ask, “what can I learn from this, how can I be a better teacher next time I step into the classroom?”