Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 5/10/13

Teaching Artist, Gabrielle Idlet: With her connection with the students and familiarity their histories, English teacher Candis Harrell, has been a terrific spark for creativity. We launched the final phase of Word/Play work based on a photograph.  The old black-and-white image captures a pair of kids leaning against a car, the girl sobbing and the boy cackling. It’s a great starter for young people’s imaginations, since taunting is, after all, part of the mix when we’re struggling to get through our elementary and secondary school years. (At least it was part of the mix for me! If only someone had told me the cruelty of kids toward one another passes, and grown-ups, even when they don’t like each other, generally treat each other with manners…. But I digress.)

Students determined that the kids in the photo seemed to be brother and sister, partly because they seemed unusually comfortable leaning against what might have been their family car, but also because the ragged, raw emotions they displayed indicated an intimacy one wouldn’t expect with non-family. (Another digression: Lo, how I wish we had three hours with every class every day! It could have been powerful to use writing exercises to explore the nuances of intimacy with family in a room of high-schoolers. But we were on a mission. We had plotting to do, and that’s no small task.)

Together, we drew a plot diagram on the board, deciding that the moment captured in the picture was the inciting incident and figuring out what it might have led to, playing with causal relationships between events. When one classroom of students was slow getting going with ideas, Mrs. Harrell jumped in and asked whether the children in the photo might have had to leave somewhere to move to a new place. Of course! The group burst into brainstorming, coming up with things that might have happened to lead them to where they’d arrived – divorce? Why? And then what happened? Did the mother have a pattern of finding bad guys? So, what did that cause? Maybe the mother meets a new man and he is as bad as the last, and he tries to harm the daughter? Then what? Things became increasingly dramatic as the mother attempted to protect the daughter and an accidental shooting occurred. Eventually, after justice was done, forgiveness and reconciliation emerged.

Leaving one place and moving to another: these kids needed only to have their own intensely emotional experiences tapped for their creativity to explode. It was wonderful – and quite educational for Rodney and me – to see that such a simple adaptation could yield so much.

The other class had a hard time imagining the location they were looking at in the picture: row houses, stoops. Someone mentioned New York, but that didn’t resonate with the students, since it appeared they had not visited New York. Mrs. Harrell asked one student, a boy from Mexico, whether it could be Mexico City. Her suggestion, again, cracked things open. Rodney insisted that, though the children in the photograph are Caucasian, they didn’t need to be White for our purposes. Suddenly we were developing a narrative about a pair of middle class kids living in Mexico City with family problems – a stepfather who favors his son, a mother who fights with him about that. The son, laughing with a snarl, had a sociopathic streak and had stolen a key the daughter thought she’d lost. The stepfather blamed the daughter, became enraged, and chaos ensued, culminating in the mother and daughter moving out to stay with the grandmother. As with the other class, these students determined that the man should be forgiven once he figured out that he’d been wrong. Nice to see the heart winning over our universal impulse to enact vengeance.

Our time was limited, but we got a lot done. We left the students with three scene options from which to pick one, and they were to write that between our class and the next week’s. Mrs. Harrell and Mrs. Nance, the other faculty member helping guide students through our residency, had students create storyboards for the scenes and come together in small groups to write the ones they’d selected. The visual integration and drafting of scenes using story arcs was quite successful. In both classes, the reconciliation scenes had the most takers, which was surprising considering the thrilling possibilities that go along with a climax involving conflict.

The collaboration of teachers in the residency work meant so much. Mrs. Harrell’s ability to make suggestions that resonated with the students cracked open the class discussion in ways Rodney and I might not have figured out how to do, especially with the newness of our work with English language learners. Mrs. Harrell’s and Mrs. Nance’s dedication to the work we’d initiated made all the difference. We were invited to read the scenes to a larger group at the end of the residency (typically, the students themselves do the reading, but they wanted to see their work performed by the visiting artists they’d worked with). Story arcs were evident, dialogue was varied and natural, and what they’d written was quite moving. And the students wrote fascinating, emotionally complex scenes in which shifts took place in characters’ thinking, rage gave way to compassion, loss remained but love returned.

What a powerful experience it was to learn from these young people. The vulnerability and boldness of creative work by young people is always exciting. For Rodney, Erika, and me, it was a new and profound experience to work with students who were reaching not only through the barriers all of us have to expressing what feels true and real inside us, but also through the barrier of a new and sometimes intimidating language. The students’ courage to do that work and share their writing with others is what ignites us as teaching artists.

At the reading, several students were permitted to break the usual no-cell-phones rule so they could capture their scenes read aloud. How wonderful to see “cool” seventeen year olds let down their guards and glow with pride over their hard work.

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