Wednesday, February 25, 2009

St. Patrick students learn to act out

Kids gets special arts classes thanks to grant

BY MARGARET SAMBOL  February 16, 2009
Students at St. Patrick Catholic School in Barrhaven are learning to find the drama in stories and to project their emotions outward. In just a few days, actor, director and writer Eleanor Crowder and storyteller Katherine Grier have managed to have a big impact on the kids.

Eleanor Crowder/Katherine Grier

“We learned how to use our voices and cool techniques to warm our voices up where you vibrate your face, and your arms and your ribs,” says Grade 6 student Chelsea Atwood.
“We learned how to project our voices,” adds classmate Gabriel Correoso.

“We learned to write music to a song – like a remix – to a story,” says another Grade 6 student Emma Bissonnette. “I loved the games: geometry, gears and spotlight.”

Crowder explains that gears is a game to teach the students how to m
ove a lot of people safely and in a dramatic fashion. Once they learn the skill in the game, they don’t have to think about it and can instead focus on developing their character.

“It was all signals with the eyes,” Chelsea says, explaining how the students had to learn how to move on stage without touching each other and without speaking.

“You can’t bump into people or you’re out,” adds Emma.
The games help Crowder move much quicker into more advanced skills.

“It lets them be successful at something which is difficult,” Crow
der says.

The artists have been working with classes from Grade 1 to 6 at
 St. Patrick so each lesson is tailored to the level of the students.

Grier began by telling the children stories that resonate with them because of their use of universal themes and myths that they understand innately.

Then Crowder was able to build on that base as she taught skills to dramatize the story and the characters.

“My job is to get some material into them so the others have stories to work with,” Grier explains. Each class has been entrusted with a story to keep along the theme of stewards of God’s creation. “They’ve taken their story to Eleanor who has been able to take aspects to work with movement and theatre.”

Without much time, Grier works on ensuring the students grasp the shape of the story using imagery and by challenging them to put themselves in the story and look at it from a first person view. The exercise of feeling and seeing what the character does is an excellent preparation f
or drama.

“By the end of the class, they were doing very expressive, full body movement,” Crowder reports.

Grier tells traditional stories that have been handed down over generations.

“Stories are interesting because they are about us; us under 
different circumstances,” Grier says.

One story she passed on is the Kindly Ghost, an old folk tale from the Sudan. The main character is abandoned by his brothers in a drought, but through kindness wins the help of animals and a friendly ghost. His goodness is rewarded when he gets a pouch that grants wishes and he uses it well, but his brothers steal it from him and use is wrongly. But those animals he had helped return the favour and help him retrieve the pouch and restore the land after the brothers’ wishes had damaged it and the brothers are justly banished.

“They soak it in,” Grier says, noting that themes such as justice, right and wrong and bullying resonate through the ages.
Crowder’s lessons focus on teaching the children to express themselves, through voice, movement and body language.

“I find theatre to be the most powerful thing you can do – it’s the most effective way of communicating,” Crowder says, explaining her passion. “Acting is a natural as breathing.”

However, if children aren’t exposed to drama, Crowder sees that they stop exploring their capacity and begin to think that they could never do it.


Teacher Ann Powers applied to MASC for the grant to have the artists come into the school.

“I love the arts and I wanted to ensure the students have a rounded experience,” Powers says.

And it’s not over yet. Another two artists, dancer and choreographer Maureen Shea and eco-sculptor Marc Walter will be spending a week with the student
s in mid-February.

Marc Walter/MaureenShea 

Powers says she applied for the grant hoping the children would develop an interest in the arts and discover their own gifts and talents.

“The arts help children who are less prone to academics find their voice,” Powers says.

As well the teachers are learning new skills that they can use to continue to develop an appreciation of the arts in their students.

Grade 6 teacher Tina Dougan says she’s already used some of the games in different ways in her classroom. One game required the students to focus to jump back and forth from solo to group activities and another had the students visualizing the character they are reading about in their novel.

As well, the arts lessons tie in well with the curriculum in developing language, comprehension, visualization and drama.

She says her students have been very receptive to the stories as well as the theatrical games.

“They’re learning to put themselves in a scene and dramatize it effectively,” Dougan says. “It’s opening them up to what being dramatic means. They have a better idea of what that entails and how to bring it out of themselves.”

MASC is a non-profit organization that connects artists with schools to promote the arts.