Learning what’s not on the test: Minneapolis Children’s Theater reaches and teaches kids in poverty

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Last year, a student shared a sad and personal story with his class, during the Neighborhood Bridges session. The fourth grade public school class came from a high poverty area, and many students would be called “at risk.” And yet, “I could feel the class connecting and the community support building,” said Bridges teacher Emily Zimmer. “I remember that moment because the whole class held him. They knew how to listen to him.” A little girl put her hand on his shoulder. This, in a fourth grade class where students rarely touch each other. “He took a big risk at that moment. And she took a big risk, and the rest of the class honored them,” Zimmer said.

As much as the students learned how to express themselves as actors and writers, “they learned how to see and hear each other,” Zimmer said. “That’s one thing I felt in that classroom. Theatrical skills are also social skills. Standardized tests can’t measure those — but they’re important for your whole life.” The Bridges program “opens up a space for students to share really personal things,” Zimmer said.

“There’s no place for your story on a standardized test,” said Zimmer. Should sharing stories, developing social skills, critical thinking and exercising creativity be part of the school experience?  Or is it more important to focus on quantifiable, measurable progress in math, reading and science? Is increasing achievement on standardized tests so important that schools cannot afford to spend time (or money) on the arts or creative expression and critical thinking?

A space for critical literacy

Though Minnesota is among the states that received a waiver to the No Child Left Behind Law, the new state plan is still constructed around the Minnesota Comprehensive tests in reading, math and science. The new waiver takes into account improvement, how the state has done in terms of the achievement gap, and high school graduation rates, but does nothing to remedy the problem of teachers teaching to the tests. The new state plan continues to raise up the importance of test scores over student’s mastery of other subject areas such as social studies, the arts, and most importantly critical thinking.

That’s not to say that other subject areas aren’t part of the state’s curriculum standards. A whole host of state curriculum standards for the arts were developed by the Perpich Center for Arts Education and implemented in 2010/2011. For instance, students in fourth and fifth grade must be able to describe the cultural and historical traditions of music including the contributions of Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities. High school students must “integrate linear and non-linear software including video- and sound-editing software to create original products for expressive intent.” Could you do that in high school? Can you do that now? It certainly would be neat if every student were actually being taught these standards. The reality, though, is that they are not. Schools are so overwhelmed with the standardized tests, even with the waiver in place, that they have no time or incentive to teach state standards beyond what is tested. 

Programs such as Neighborhood Bridges Program allow a space for critical thinking and learning that isn’t getting tested with the standardized tests. Students in the Bridges program learn how to express themselves, how to empathize with others, how to communicate and think critically, all skills not tested on standardized tests. However, they are also gaining literacy skills, which do translate to standardized tests.

The program has created its own assessment measure, in cooperation with The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, based at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. Using teacher and student surveys, as well as tests designed by CAREI and CTC, the evaluation measures writing, knowledge and skills in theatre, retelling and dramatization and critical literacy. Evaluations from 2010-2011 show that students improved in those areas between the fall and the spring of that year.

How Neighborhood Bridges works

Maria Asp, director of the Neighborhood Bridges Program, said it began in 1997 under Peter C. Brosius’s tenure as artistic director of the Children’s Theater. Brosius founded the Bridges program with Jack Zipes, a cultural theorist and fairytale scholar, who is now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. They created curriculum to “identify the roots of social issues in stories and then work through those issues in a group setting,” according to a Neighborhood Bridges brochure.

What started as two classrooms now reaches more than twenty classrooms annually. The program includes a 31-week Core Bridges Program (grades 2-8) that meets weekly. In two-hour sessions, students engage in creative writing, storytelling, theatre games, scene work and group discussions culminating in a public performance on CTC’s UnitedHealth Group stage.

According to CTC press materials, other workshops and residencies (for ages three to high school) last from two hours to several weeks. Bridges also provides professional development and training for teachers. The Early Bridges program modifies the curriculum for ages 3-6.

“Bridges is a critical literacy program,” said Asp, using theater as a tool for critical thinking, with the possibility for transformation and change. “We get kids to question everything,” Asp said. 

The Bridges program goes through different stories: fairy tales, tall tales, Greek myths, etc. They always start with fairy tales because “they are so problematic,” Asp said, “and they’re all around us in western culture.” 

Each story is first told in a “traditional way,” and then re-told in a different way. The students then get to tell the story in their own way. They begin to see sexism, classism, racism in stories, resulting in “narrative transformation,” Asp said.

“We’re creating a culture based on risk taking,” she said, “about listening to other people and opening up your thinking. Changing your mind means you’re alive. It’s less about finding the right answer and more about how to ask questions you are curious about.” 

Each class has a writing portion, a storytelling portion and an acting portion, as well as a focus on building community in the classroom, and honoring individuality. As soon as a student writes a story, they get up and retell it. “The narrative is never fixed,” Asp said. “It’s about opening up. We play a lot with perspective.” 

Generally, the teachers stay in the same community over multiple years. “It takes a while for families to trust you. We’re intentional about keeping artists at the same school,” Asp said. “We can’t fix the problems of poverty, but we can give them a space to talk about what they need.” 

Working through the challenges  

 When I set out to write about the Children’s Theater’s Neighborhood Bridges program, I immediately thought of my friend Emily Zimmer, who has been teaching in the program around 10 years and whose story began this article. Over the years, she has told me stories about the amazing program that works with high poverty schools in the Twin Cities, using theater and storytelling as a way to build empowerment, creativity, social skills and literacy in young people.

As we talked about the program, I realized after a while that she was feeling upset. It had been a hard year. Working with students from impoverished area can take its toll on a teacher, especially in a theater class, where personal stories, sharing and emotion are all part of the learning process.  

“The children’s lives are so challenged, as well as the schools,” said Sandi Agustin, another teacher artist, adding that the Bridges program “is really honest in that it stays student-focused.”

Sometimes, the teaching artists need to remind themselves that they aren’t there as a parent, or therapist, or social worker. “We are there to use art as a way to express themselves, along with the teacher,” Agustin said. When emotional or crisis moments come up in the class, the teachers try to redirect the class. The team approach — working alongside the school teachers and administrative staff — can sometimes serve as a sounding board, finding out how address to situations as they arise.

For example, when the students are sharing their family stories, it sometimes happens that a student might bring up a story that includes violence. “What we want to do is acknowledge the story,” Agustin said. “We say that’s a difficult but honest story. We acknowledge it, and acknowledge the student, and thank them for telling that very personal story.”

The Bridges program has a saying: “What happens in Bridges, stays in Bridges,” and Agustin said that part of the challenge is to not let the student obsess over a personal or traumatic event that they’ve shared in the class.  She draws from the student, asking them how his or her family dealt with that violence, or how we as a community, or as a country, can deal with violence. 

Often the Bridges program turns stories inside out, asking who has the power. “We really try to critically think beyond the emotional impact of their own lives,” she said.

For students who are starved for attention, or are the class clown, she looks to see how that can be used to create theater. “We put them in the driver’s seat,” she said, “instead of telling them to be quiet.” 

Agustin said she encourages the students to make connections between their personal stories and the stories that they are working on in class. For example — does Little Red Riding Hood deserve to be raped and eaten? 

As a teacher, it can be very difficult to cope with some of the stories that come out of the work that she does. Her first year at Bridges, the school where she was working was going through a lot of trauma. She described the atmosphere as having 25 helium balloons in her classroom, with 18 of the 25 having some sort of tether, while the other were floating around the room. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “My spirit dampened just from all of their lives in the trauma.”

After that, she took a year off. “The school was just under a lot of stress,” she said. “I just had to take some time off.” She asked herself: “Should I be doing this?”

After taking a year off, Agustin returned. She still gets notes from students that were in her class a year ago. Sometimes, Agustin runs into kids that she’s taught in previous years. “Bridges is something that sticks in their mind,” she said. “You feel satisfied when there are so many challenges, that something stuck, that there was something positive.” 

Classroom teachers: Getting excited about Neighborhood Bridges

A key part, Agustin said, is getting the classroom teachers excited. “If they feel like they are creative and like they are contributing differently than they are supposed to on paper, maybe there’d be more retention in schools, and more camaraderie.”  

Mee Vang, the classroom teacher who worked with Agustin at Jackson Elementary in St. Paul last year, said she had a great experience. “I learned a lot from Sandy and from the program itself,” Vang said. “It really showed the students how to act in a certain way — in their own way, in their own style,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of the arts in the schools now. Having CTC be a part of their curriculum is great.”

Jackson Elementary has a large Asian population, as well as Hmong, African American, Hispanic and some Somali students. “They use a lot of critical thinking,” Vang said. “It lets kids think outside of the box. It also lets them think of things that could happen in their own life.” 

Her students have so many different levels of learning abilities, but the Bridges programs lets the kids shine in their own way, Vang said, “even the kids that are not at grade level.”  The program allows kids to not have to worry about whether they are doing things right or wrong, but shine in their own light, Vang said. “Every kid should have a chance at that.”

Billy Menz is a third grade teacher at Lyndale Elementary, who has had a Bridges residency in his classroom for the past two years.  He said the most beneficial thing about the program is that it tells kids that it’s okay to take risks. “It teaches them to be creative with their bodies, and with their storytelling. There’s a lot of laughter. As the year grows, you sense them getting more confident.”  

One student in Menz’s class shared a family story from the war in Somalia. When a student shares a story like that, Menz said the class talks about it and processes it.  “The student is sharing because they want to share something about their life,” he said. “It’s important to have a strong community. We sit in a circle and tell stories, and the kids act out each other’s stories. It takes a safe space to do that.”  When the student shared their family story, another turned to him and said “That must have been hard for you,” Menz said. “You have to use the moment. You can’t put it off until later.”

Menz’s daughter, Ellie, is 9 years old, and was in Bridges when she was eight. “I really like it,” she said. “We got to act out a bunch of plays. It was also fun to share our creativity of acting.”  

Her favorite part was rehearsal, and when the students would critique each other. Her least favorite part, she said, was being in front of a huge audience. 

Menz said the program has a lot of peer reflection, which he thinks is a good way to “build natural leaders,” who aren’t necessarily the kids who are academically where they need to be. The leadership becomes their avenue to shine, he said.  

The place where the program could improve, Menz said, is to address the needs of ELL learners more.  While it exposes the students to stories orally, they don’t have to write the stories all the time.

For Brian Grandison, who has been teaching in the Bridges program for five years, the program reaches kids in a different way than the way he was taught in school.  “I didn’t fit in. I didn’t do things the right way. I had opinions,” he said. Now, he teaches that those are assets, not detriments. He also said that the critical thinking, ensemble building and creativity developed in the Bridges program teach kids to make connections between ideas, and to formulate their own opinions.  

“We live in a world where everybody is talking in absolutes,” he said. “Bridges teaches people how to work with each other. When you listen to the debates, everyone is standing on principals, that are getting further and further away. The reality is, we all have to bend or break.” The Bridges program, he said, teaches kids how to share, and how to work as an ensemble. 

One of his students, who is on the autism spectrum is “intellectually off the charts,” Grandison said, but had work to do socially.  He had other students who maybe didn’t test well, but knew how to reach people. “That’s one area of Bridges that it reaches out to different kinds of intelligences,” he said. 

In Bridges, there is no wrong way to tell a story. Sometimes guys get to play the princess, or a girl can play the prince. They begin to question the stories: why is the youngest daughter the prettiest? Why not the oldest? Why is the stepmother always bad? 

The Bridges program, Grandison said, emphasizes empathy. “Right now we are living in a culture that doesn’t preach or value empathy.”

Grandison asks the students, “What do you think? This is your story. Here are the rules. There is a structure, but within the structure you have a lot of freedom.” As an African American man of color, “too many times they don’t have access to that,” he said. “Someone else is always telling them what they should think.”