“The students inspire me and challenge me every week in so many wonderful ways,” said Laura Mann Hill, the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). Mann Hill is involved with the CTC’s Neighborhood Bridges program (NBP), “a nationally recognized literacy program using storytelling and creative drama to help children develop their critical literacy skills and to transform them into storytellers of their own lives.”
Students at Marcy Open School, where many Northeast residents attend, are among those participating.
The NBP was founded in 1997 by Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, and Jack Zipes, Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. They work with Twin Cities area classrooms, reaching over 500 students annually. The program consists of Neighborhood Bridges: 3-6 grade, Building Bridges: Kindergarten and Early Bridges: Pre-K. The NBP is also recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for arts education.
According to Kiyoko Motoyama-Sims, the Director of Community Engagement at the CTC, at 2400 3rd Ave. S, Minneapolis, schools currently working with the Bridges Program have priority to renew their partnership for the following year. “This is because we believe in a long term relationship and the program enriches if the teaching team, a classroom teacher and a teaching artist, stay together more than just one year,” said Motoyama-Sims. “This means kids will receive quality instruction due to the stability of the teaching team. Long term is also important as we would like to be a part of the culture in each school community.”
Motoyama-Sims also explained how principals in each school make a decision about which grade level should receive the Bridges Program. “They usually make a decision in collaboration with the classroom teachers, as the teachers’ commitment is one of the most crucial elements for the success of the program.”
This month the Neighborhood Bridges students will be sharing messages of peace throughout the metro as they perform Peace Plays for their school communities and families. “Through storytelling, writing, and acting, students have been exploring and discussing the causes of war and imagining possibilities for peace through deep listening, respect, collaboration and understanding,” said Melissa Ferlaak, Senior Marketing and PR Manager for the CTC.
According to Ferlaak, the idea for this student-created work began after the 9/11 tragedy, as a way for students to actively participate in peace-inspiring justice. The plays have been performed every year since for the last 15 years.
“We hope that they can develop their self-confidence and thinking so that they will grasp why disputes arise and how they can resolve them in a peaceful and humane way,” said Ferlaak. “By using metaphors that can be applied to the conflicts surrounding their lives, we want to open the eyes of our students to all the conditions that contribute to war and engender hope that they can play some sort of role in preventing wars through non-violent action.”
Twenty-seven public school classrooms from four school districts will share their original work on the topic of nonviolent conflict resolution. “That’s over 675 students using their voices to spread the message of peace throughout their communities,” said Ferlaak. The NBP has also been replicated in 14 cities across the nation with pilot programs in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Jamaica.
Neighborhood Bridges is a year long program that starts at the beginning of the school year and includes two hour weekly sessions for 31 weeks. The teaching artists and students from Bridges also get to attend CTC productions as a part of the program. The year closes in the spring with the Crossing Bridges Festival which takes place at the CTC and brings together all the Neighborhood Bridges sites to perform original plays that they developed, which are separate from the Peace Plays.
“I started working with the Bridges program about 15 years ago, but because of teaching different grade groups I haven’t always done it every year,” said Rhonda Vopava Geyette, the fourth grade teacher at Marcy Open Elementary School, 415 4th Ave. SE, Minneapolis. Her class is one of many working with the NBP this year.
Vopava Geyette explained how her students are deeply engaged in learning. “Without a doubt my favorite part is watching the kids grow and learn. They get better at speaking up. They analyze the tales told and look at the story from many different perspectives. Whose voice is not heard? Perspective talking builds empathy. That is a very needed life skill.”
Mann Hill from the CTC, has been working with Vopava Geyette’s fourth grade class in composing their Peace Play. “The Education department at CTC are the most creative leaders I know. Their true focus is about empowering kids and applying critical learning skills,” said Vopava Geyette. “CTC uses traditional fairy tales to focus on a social theme. In education right now there is a trend that rigid standardized curriculum is the key to passing a test. But in the Bridges Program the child is the focus, and critical literacy, which is teaching a child to think, question, and dream.”
The teaching team read various peace stories for their students, who had to decide which story to base their Peace Play on and take a vote. “Once the class decides, we have two weeks to create our own version of the story,” Mann Hill said.
Through storytelling, acting, improvisation, discussion and writing, the peace play is created and the students only have one week to rehearse it before they perform it for their families. “Asking questions, writing about their own ideas, and acting out an original play, it helps make it relevant to their lives,” Mann Hill said. “It makes them think about bigger problems and issues in our lives and how, as a community we start to solve them.”
The Peace Plays are the midway point in a year-long process that is very collaborative. “The teacher and I are a team and the whole process is student-driven,” said Mann Hill, “the program is like a bridge from the theatre into the community.”
The Marcy Open School fourth graders performed their Peace Play performance on Thursday, Dec. 15 for family and friends. And the community will get a chance to view plays from all the schools working with the NBP this year at the Crossing Bridges Festival which will take place at the CTC, May 3, 8, 9 and 16 at 6 p.m. All are welcome, no tickets or reservations required.
“Rhonda and all the teachers we work with are truly amazing to collaborate with,” said Mann Hill. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I think that when I look at Marcy, I see the world and it gives me hope for what our world could be.”
Below: Marcy Open School’s fourth grade class rehearses their Peace Play. Set in a state park, the characters are families, park rangers, animals and trees. No one takes responsibility for a littering problem that results in a forest fire. In the first photo, their CTC teaching artist Laura Mann Hill directs the scene as the families and park rangers argue and blame one another. Their message? “Take responsibility for your actions, don’t let pride override your decisions, and everything in this world is our problem.” Next photo: Students partake in warm up exercises before rehearsal. Last photo: After some debate and discussion, students write down lines they created for their parts. (Photos by Liz Jensen)