Gabrielle: Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 4/22/13

Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 4/22/13

Rodney Wilhite and Gabrielle Idlet lead a class of English language learners in a playwriting exercise.

Teaching Artist, Gabrielle Idlet: Just a few short weeks into our Word/Play Curriculum Development Program for ESOL students at Har-Ber High School, we’re really gaining traction working with two classes of English language learners, and the experience has been very rich. The classes Rodney and Erika Wilhite and I are teaching are filled with diverse young faces, excited Latino and Marshallese and Indian kids working hard to fuse words with ideas out loud and on the page.

Mrs. Harrell, in whose classroom we work, engages actively with kindness and encouragement, nudging students to employ learning they’re getting in the rest of their course work. One week, we read Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” and found out that the kids had just completed a Civil Rights unit. Their sensitivity to the nuances of oppression appeared even more vividly when we returned the next week and read a scene from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The kids picked up on the nuances of racism in what is unsaid, in actions and subtext, and Mrs. Harrell encouraged them to reflect on ways they may have been treated similarly.

I’m 43. Looking back at the schooling I had at their age, I find it hard to imagine any teacher confronting racism so directly with questions that empower students to recognize how such ugliness may operate not only around them but to them.

Equally exciting was watching the students write short dialogue pieces in which a conflict occurs “between the lines.” This is a subtle exercise. It requires writers to use what painters and photographers would call negative space, to write the doughnut around the hole, with the unwritten part containing the power and meaning in a scene. Students came up with some hilarious conversations about parents refusing to allow them to go to parties, guys nervously asking girls out on dates, friends resisting friends’ indirect nagging to borrow their cars. Humor seems to be a terrific tool for loosening up the imagination, and Rodney and I were impressed with how quickly the students grasped the concept and dove in with creativity and enthusiasm.

With Gabrielle's guidance, students work enthusiastically on a Word/Play project.

In one exercise, we played a StoryCorps interview in which the mother of a murdered son talks with the man who, at sixteen, killed her child, and it is revealed that the two have formed their own mother-son relationship. It’s a moving and startling conversation. We then worked on plotting what might have happened earlier on to allow the mother to develop empathy for the person who committed that devastating crime. Students came up with a complex set of circumstances that built upon one another to cause the mother to feel empathy for him. Imagining divorce and illness in the family, economic desperation, and the temptation of a gang as providing alternate “family” for the teenager, they created a chain of events that enabled him to become real. Black and white became gray. It was quite thrilling to see the group envision plot points that made the young man take shape as a human being. 

I grew up in a Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and even as a kid I was aware of the challenges families faced as new immigrants. As I grew older, I began to recognize the level of privilege I benefited from as the child of Anglo parents. My comfort with – and feeling of ownership of – the English language allowed me a kind of ease in the world that my peers did not experience, and that privilege has followed me into mid-life. It means so much to be able to contribute to the opening of these vibrant young people to language as a tool for discovery and play.

The 2013 ESOL Word/Play Curriculum Development Program is funded in part by an Arts-in-Education grant from the Arkansas Arts Council.

Martin Miller