TELL! (Theater for English Language Learners) is a National Endowment for the Arts funded project in Arts in Education.
The program provides 120 fourth grade students at Maryland Elementary in Vista, CA with theater experiences aimed at increasing language acquisition and reading comprehension.
Here are the demographics for the students of Maryland Elementary: 62 percent are homeless, 72 percent are English language learners, and 96 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
I was at the school just this week and am simply awestruck by the enormous potential the kids all have and show via this program. As you can read by the demographics—kids at this school come into learning with a fair amount of challenges. Many at 10-years-old have responsibility for watching over younger siblings. Many of the kids come into the program having not been afforded previous arts experiences.
TELL! begins with a chapter book: Clementine, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee. I chose this book and series because it is extremely engaging and funny, and most kids can identify with the main character, Clementine, who is always getting into trouble, and believes since she was named after a fruit, her brother should be named after a vegetable and therefore only ever refers to him as celery, radish, spinach, broccoli, etc.
Despite being in the principal’s office nearly every day, and constantly getting into trouble for things like cutting her friend’s hair (but it looks wonderful!) Clementine‘s world is full and filled with supportive adults.
The kids began the year by reading the book and learning theater skills to act out the content, become the characters, and of course to aide in their English language learning. The goal was to have them write their own play based on a “Clementina” in the second part of the year.
To work out ideas, theater artists in residence worked closely with the kids once a week developing theater and reading skills. As a bonus, Sara Pennpacker, the author visited!
She played a “why why why why” and “how how how how” game with the kids to help them develop story ideas. Low and behold, the kids ended up writing in a new character, Luciano, who is Clementine’s cousin from Mexico who comes to visit her and is thrust into a school and neighborhood where he struggles with his English.
The story, whether or not the kids know it, clearly has been a wonderful way for the students to explore their own experiences. And in doing so, we have seen kids get really invested in reading, communicating, writing, and being on stage.
Kids who began the year as nearly non-speakers or even as selective mutes, have become front and center on the stage. The amount of confidence that can be seen blossoming is truly inspiring.
I’ve never ever met a kid without potential. I have met so many kids without opportunities. Programs like DREAM and TELL! as well as the so numerous arts-based programs throughout the nation (and beyond of course!) provide kids with the possibility to reach their potential and demonstrate just how wonderfully capable they are.
When seeing the kids perform, speak, communicate, write, practice, and be thoroughly engaged, my heart feels full. Then, I begin to wonder how we can better market what we do.
If we can begin to crack that nut, that of marketing what we do, so many more kids would have a shot at opportunity. As a group, those of us in arts education are doing wonderful things that open the spaces to kids’ creative energy.
The key to re-establishing a foundation toward arts for all children is to find successful modes of marketing what we do and changing the habit of indifference toward arts education.