Pronouns and Performance

Innovative Program Uses Theater to Develop Students’ Language Skills

More than two years ago, veteran TV and film character actor and director Tony Plana gave a speech at the Sontag Prize in Urban Education ceremony. The Sontag Prize, created by Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Riley during his tenure in the Boston Public Schools, recognizes outstanding teaching in mathematics, English language arts and other disciplines. Plana’s vision was to use theater as a way to help English language learner students, and the program he described was called Language in Play (LIP). Plana had developed LIP over the course of two decades at the East LA Classic Theatre.

Enter David Lemay, a Lawrence native and rare individual with both the teaching and acting bugs. When he was younger, he worked as an Augustinian Volunteer, honing his teaching skills in the Bronx. He returned to New England to act in a dinner theater group before taking a one-year teaching contract in South Korea 10 years ago. As a performer at the English Village, a South Korean government experiment in which “edutainers” ran a theme park devoted to improving English language skills, he played a lost pirate, an English magician and Wally the Walrus. When his contract was over, he returned to Lawrence and started teaching at the Arlington Middle School. In 2014, he heard Plana’s speech and saw the possibility of merging his own love of teaching with theater.

The 25 or so original students in the LIP program saw an average improvement of 20 to 30 points in their MCAS scores.

In the second year, student enrollment doubled to 50.

Class begins and ends standing. Here, the students unite before leaving for the day. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Class begins and ends standing. Here, the students unite before leaving for the day. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Weeks before the start of the current school year, Lemay, 36, learned that not only would his program grow, but the entire school would be involved. In two years, he had gone from working with 25 students to the whole student body of about 565. “It was a whirlwind,” Lemay admits, adding that it would not have been possible without support from the school administration and nearby Merrimack College.

Arlington Middle School Principal Robin Finn, a strong advocate of the program, says that for younger students, it is designed to supplement classroom learning. As planned, the students will work with Lemay over the course of four years beginning in grade 5. The activities become increasingly personal. Participants move from using theater to understand the books they are reading in the classroom, to filming and editing their own news shows. Finn notes that this process develops communication skills and encourages socio-emotional learning, as well.

The Rev. Richard Piatt, director of the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College, was involved in Arlington Middle School’s adoption of LIP from the outset. Known as Father Rick, he provided logistical support, fostered community involvement and implemented a for-credit internship program for Merrimack College students working in the program.

Piatt says this isn’t simply an amusing program that kids happen to love but one that was developed to address specific issues within a specific community. It is, he notes, “for children who do not have the advantages that many others do. And it’s about giving them the opportunity to become the great citizens I know they can be.”

When students enter the classroom for the first time, there are no chairs. Students are asked to walk around the room and then, standing, announce their names. “It’s their first performance,” Lemay says. And starting with names is important: Even if the students are unfamiliar with English, they begin from a place of comfort and certainty.

Lemay, a seasoned actor and gifted educator, tries to goad a student into losing focus during a theatrical game. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Lemay, a seasoned actor and gifted educator, tries to goad a student into losing focus during a theatrical game. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

I visited the classroom to see for myself, entering to the sound of applause as seventh-graders finished performing their scenes. “Bring it in!” Lemay shouted, and the students put their hands together before erupting with a chant of their team name. Many of the groups Lemay teaches have given themselves a team name that’s related to the school’s alligator mascot. As unexpected as this might be, the students, often transplants from sunnier regions, relate to the image of an alligator in New England.

The next class, fifth-graders, entered. They stood in “zero position” — their arms at their sides, feet together. This stance helps students draw their attention inward.

The circle widened while Lemay did his best to break their concentration. He clucked like a chicken. Some students immediately burst into laughter. These students sat and the game continued.

Lemay growled and mimed and stared ghoulishly until six students were left, standing with clenched jaws, trying their best not to laugh at their teacher’s antics. They had won the game, and now it was their turn. The others stood, and the victors began their march around the circle, hoping the participants, including Lemay, would be forced out.

After another warm-up game, this one involving the construction of a human machine — a nod to their studies of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike — the students were given 30 minutes to finish their scripts, followed by 10 minutes of rehearsal. The class concluded with a performance. Two boys eagerly assumed places behind a camera, documenting the event.

When they were finished, the students circled around for final words from Lemay.

“What you did was not easy. …” he began. The fifth-graders put their hands in the circle and shouted their slogan: “Gators never give up!” before scrambling for the stairs.

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