The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 16, 2007


Kindergartners in Suzanne Comeau's class show how the animals burst out of the lost mitten. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

Carlisle students learn many lessons through dramatic performance

Exciting theatrical activities of all sorts are going on at the Carlisle School. From kindergarten to eighth grade, students are experiencing all the aspects of theater including role-playing, singing, set design, improvisation and dance. Carlisle teachers are putting much of their own time into creating these experiences.

Benefits of theater activities

Theater activities are encouraged in the Massachusetts Frameworks. In the 1970s the use of drama as therapy gained popularity and today it is a well-established method to assist personal growth. Drama is used in schools to reenact history and understand the lives of others through role-playing. Rehearsals and performances require structure, patience, reading, writing and imagination. Students gain confidence in public speaking and practice organizational skills. They participate in physical exercise as they dance or use their bodies to portray ideas through improvisation. Theater is a fun, team-building educational tool which gives students valuable ways to express themselves and support each other.

Kindergartners use their own words

Have you ever watched a class full of kindergarten kids acting as friendly or ferocious forest animals trying to squish their way into a lost mitten? This is the plot of Jan Brett's book, The Mitten, adapted by the Carlisle School kindergarten team. At a recent performance in Suzanne Comeau's classroom, parents waited with camcorders at the ready. Each student chose the animal they would be, and chose their own words to describe the animals, Comeau explained to the parents. The simple play begins with a student entering as the first animal to snuggle up into the lost mitten, which becomes progressively filled with a variety of animals such as deer, bears, bunnies, and badgers, stretching the mitten to the bursting point. Alas, it is the tiny little mouse that tips the scale, blowing all the animals out of their temporary shelter, which the students show by jumping up and out of the mitten. After the applause died down, the whole class showed great patience as each actor took a curtain call.

Every spring, the first grade does a rainforest play, celebrating the ecology and diversity in the rainforest. The play reinforces information about the rainforest the children study during regular classroom instruction.

Second, third, fourth grades

For older elementary children, plays are performed by individual classes rather than the entire grade. The second-grade classes perform folk-tale plays near the end of the school year to coincide with their folk tale unit. "It is a very important part of the second-grade curriculum because it ties in so many different facets of learning," explained second-grade teacher Peter Darasz ("Mr. D"). "The second graders look at different folk tales from around the world and compare and contrast these folk tales." Darasz says the students become aware of other cultures, and learn to work in a "cooperative fashion" to produce their play. "Doing this play ties in beautifully with the second-grade year-long theme of C.R.A.F.T.Y. which stands for Cooperation, Respect, Acceptance, Friendship, Teamwork and it all ends with YOU."

Gene Stamell's third-grade class performed his annual Thanksgiving play in November. Stamell explained that the song, "It's A Tale About Turkeys," is one of the more popular in the play. In May his class will perform "Jacob Two Two," "a play I wrote based on the book Jacob Two Two Meets The Hooded Fang, by Mordecai Richler." He said the class also performs "various skits" during the year. Fourth-grade teacher Liz Gray has her students do a "social studies-based play in June."

As part of the Musical Theater class, members of the lights committee, (left to right) Kaitlyn Peterson, Michaella Coughlin, Rachel O'Keefe, Elisabeth Sorrows and Katherine Sorrows check their lighting design for the musical Go West. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

Students run the committees

A new after-school class, Musical Theater, is being led by music teacher Megan Fitzharris for children in grades six, seven and eight. The class adds drama experiences to the curriculum of the Show Choir class offered formerly. Learning and performing are going hand in hand as students rehearse their parts in the musical Go West on Fridays from 2:40 to 3:05 p.m.

Fitzharris is no stranger to theater. She has directed the seventh-grade play multiple years (she took a break this year). She stresses that the class is not intended to compete with the seventh-grade play.

The Musical Theater class is tied into the curriculum, this year supporting the fifth-grade history studies. The students reviewed a collection of plays and chose Go West, a musical reenactment of the westward expansion in the U.S., and the quest for gold.

At a recent rehearsal the students practiced speaking in clear, strong voices. Fitzharris reminded them to throw their voices so the back of the theater could hear them. While they rehearsed, the costume committee met in one hallway discussing the colors they might use for each character, and the number of costume changes that each person would have. They politely listened to each other as they shared ideas. In the opposite hall the lighting committee had finished timing themselves as they dashed from the stage to the lighting booth, and were kneeling with heads together looking over a lighting chart.

The class is a year-long committment, Fitzharris stresses. The students run the support committees — costumes, lighting, makeup — and each student must be on two committees. They will perform Go West in June for grades one to five, and for the parents of the 36 cast members.

Horton hears a musical

The seventh graders are in their third week of rehearsals for Seussical (performances March 14, 15 and 16. ) The seventh-grade play is organized solely by parents, and funded by the previous year's Spaghetti Supper. It is an inclusive theater experience for seventh graders: every seventh grader who auditions is given a part in the play, and students are encouraged to participate on committees such as costumes, makeup and props.

Seussical is a musical romp through Dr. Seuss's stories, weaving plots into one adventure. With the Cat in the Hat as the narrator, the audience follows the story of Horton through twists and turns with green eggs and ham, lovelorn hearts and a mysterious hatchling. When both Horton and the community of Whoville are threatened, Horton's friend JoJo's inventive thinking saves the day. Stage direction is by Anne Marie Lubovich, musical direction by Kathryn Denney, and dance direction by Carlisle fifth-grade teacher Michelle Carlson.

Improvisational theater

Seventh-grade Special Educator Rick Thompson began an Improvisational Theater class this fall. The actors develop scenarios through cooperative experimentation and exploration. Open to middle school students, the class runs from 3 to 5 p.m. on Friday afternoons. "I think improv can be magical and can create a psychological muscle," Thompson explained in an e-mail. "This muscle supports individuality and the strength to stand in one's individuality. I hope I can give some experience of that to my students."

Thompson begins the class of 15 students with theater relaxation activities, and group interaction/support games. In one exercise, the students run one by one to the center of the exercise room and act out a portion of a machine, connecting to each other as they join in until, with lots of noise and movement, the whole group is functioning as one giant machine.

Fast thinking and creativity

"Improvisation or improv hinges on cooperation and intuition," Thompson said. "Most of our workshop will focus on exercises to develop these two. The intuition piece is created by getting out of the 'head' or reasoning mind and getting into the body, heart, guts, where the instinctive impulses are." Students develop scenes as they rehearse, adding new lines, new ideas, and discussing actions as they work. Playing off each other takes a lot of listening and patience. As they work out ideas they have to think fast on their feet, and support each other as they create.

In one scene, two students pretended to be overwhelmed by too much caffeine, with one actor grieving for their injured cat. When kids develop scenes through improvisation, the emotional content can be more real for them and potent because they pull out feelings from their own experiences. Thompson said, "Intuition is the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning."

Many lessons taught through drama

The Massachusetts Arts Curriculum Framework states: "As students perform and create, they make use of imagination (the ability to form mental images) and reflection (the ability to synthesize ideas)... by their approach to artistic work and can communicate awareness of these thinking processes orally and in writing." Students may enjoy and long remember their theatrical experiences at the Carlisle School without ever realizing just how much they are learning.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito