Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools
It’s amazing what we are able to accomplish at schools where we have been in residency with the Opera for All program for two years or more. I’m realizing this as I remember my first tough days at Clinton and Von Humboldt a few years ago. No one knew me, opera was still a new realm for the students, and it was a struggle to establish order in the classroom, much less play acting games and sing songs and write stories. We are now facilitating learning with the students that would not have been possible then, meeting the goals of our program at the very highest level, and it’s very exciting and rewarding for us all.
I’ve spent the past three weeks developing a script with the students at Clinton and Hampton schools for the opera they will perform. They have written song lyrics and melodies before, although that was a first for them last year. They made their own props for the first time last year, too. This year, I added the step of working with them on concepts of narrative and dialogue in order to write the script for the show WITH them, rather than writing it FOR them to tie their songs together. We have learned that the kids are more invested in rehearsing and performing material they themselves have created. Being a writer myself, I was interested in attempting this with them and complementing their classroom curriculums, since writing is a basic and vital skill.
But this was a challenging task, and involved a lot of reasoning and logic. We already had songs written by each class. First we had to come up with a story, a big picture plotline, based on this year’s field trips theme, that would tie the little sung stories together. Then I had to teach them the difference between narrative writing and dialogue; telling about action, which is usually very boring for an audience, vs. showing the action, which is more dynamic and involves no narration. This is a distinction that even adult scene and screen writers sometimes struggle to execute!
We also had to establish for the audience, in each scene, where the kids were, why they were there, what they were doing, and how this related to the previous song/scene, as well as the overall plot, in five minutes or less, which demanded that they be concise and logical in their ideas and dialogue, once we started writing it! I was asking a lot, but to my surprise, the kids were very engaged in the process, perhaps in part because I really did use their ideas, and partly because I think I was challenging them to be creatively academic.
Much of the song material we were piecing together was seemingly unrelated; a trip to outer space and new planets song, museum animals coming to life song, and a song about an imaginary kingdom of chocolate and mirrors at Hampton, for instance. (these were song themes created based on visits to the MCA and study of the solar system in place of an actual field trip to a planetarium). I first worked with the kids to brainstorm ideas that would answer the “W” questions.
Ms. Ochoa’s class decided to create a character who didn’t want to be on the field trip, touched the wall of chocolate in the museum because he was “bad”, and was thereby transported to the mirror realm in their song. Having learned his lesson about good vs. bad motives (the theme of the song), he decides to raise money for a field trip for another class at school, Mr. McFarland’s. That class had a less challenging task; how to get into outer space while at a space museum (discover new planets with a telescope there; find a space capsule there that works) and how to help the last class in their song about animals who come to life at a museum.
One of Mr. McFarland’s quieter students, whom I suspect is learning disabled, came up with the fantastic suggestion that we bring animals back from outer space. I did not want the animals killed, and so another often reticent, head-down-on-desk student said that they only appeared dead, but were actually frozen and would thaw out at the museum just in time to scare Ms. Paz’s students! “You know, global warming!” he said. This class has had opera before, so they knew why they were writing and came up with the most ideas. Then, Ms. Paz’s kids, the youngest, just had to get the animals onstage and end the opera. I was especially touched that some of the kids who often seem to be struggling with mood or learning issues were interested in participating in this creative process.
After having outlined these ideas in class discussions and journal entries at both schools (i.e., creating narratives, or what some of the CPS teachers called story maps), I taught the kids how to turn narrative into dialogue. They had to create conversations that communicated details about the characters and setting quickly and clearly while also giving themselves fun yet direct things to say! This was harder for some classes than others, but I ended up providing very little editorial help in terms of changing their material, doing most of the teaching work in helping them learn hierarchical thinking steps.
The students at Clinton were similarly engaged, coming up with more detailed ideas than we could accommodate in our brief opera. Many kids, when assigned, also wrote entire scenes with dialogue on their own for homework, one of which (written by a child who played a role in last year’s opera) I used almost verbatim because it was so clever, and so appropriate.
I marveled not only at their creativity, but also at how eager for new information and skills they were. I don’t think they would have accepted the thought problems I was tossing their way a few years ago. They have all seen operas now, even if they have not all themselves been in one yet; they know what they are working towards, so asking them to write scenes was not a totally abstract concept.
Just as importantly, judging by the smiles and waves I get from former and current students at these schools, I believe that they have come to associate our visits with exciting and fun learning, times during which their imaginations and ideas take center stage. They know us and trust us; something that in some neighborhoods is perhaps more valuable than we can know. It is so sad when kids appear defeated (by parents who are themselves defeated, by overworked teachers, by poverty and all the associated disadvantages) at such a young age. I see that discouragement sometimes in the faces of students who do not yet realize that all of their ideas, in this context, are truly valid and valuable, who self-silence themselves with half-hearted answers or tentative hand raising or “never minds”.
Even despite what appears to me to be in some cases an internalized expectation of failure, many students are still willing to visit outer space, risk walls of chocolate and mirror mazes and brave alien animal attacks, with us, as well as to attempt new intellectual challenges. Giving free rein to those imaginations, while also teaching them skills that will enable them to harness and communicate their ideas to others, and the confidence to do both, is what our program is all about.