Playwrights at age 8, opera stars at 10

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It’s a week before school recesses for winter break, but Leola Stuttley’s 3rd-graders at Brownell Elementary are working hard to finish writing their play.

Each of the 22 students in Room 214 has a part. Most are animals who have just escaped from a zoo in Spain; one is a human, the zookeeper, who is plotting to trap them.

First, the cast members go over what they’ve written so far. Then, Charles Michael Moore, a playwright from ETA Creative Arts Foundation, solicits more lines to wrap up the story.

“The story is stuck here,” he says. “What does the human have to do next? What should he do to get the animals back?”

The class decides the human will offer to drive the uncaged animals to freedom. He will suggest that, first, the animals return to their cages to pack their bags. Then he will push a hidden button to lock the cage doors behind them.

Moore then goes for the mood. “Think about how happy you are,” Moore says. “What are you going to say?”

“We’re free at last!” shouts the boy playing the wolf.

“Good. Give me another line. I need another line—some escape lines,” Moore urges.

“It’s good to be free,” cries another boy who’s a bear.

More cynical, the student camel says, “I don’t trust him.”

By the end of the 60-minute session, the animals have persuaded the zookeeper to unlock the cages.

“Shame on you, human being,” says one animal. “You had a chance to help us, but you blew it. This is something that will haunt you for the rest of your life.”

“I am so sorry that I tricked you. Please forgive me,” sighs the zookeeper. He again presses the button and lets the animals go.

The playwriting project covers a lot of academic ground, says Moore, who works with 2nd- and 3rd-graders. “They learn how a story develops. The process. They learn the terms involved— characterization, blocking. They learn memorization. They write the stories out, so they’re working on their spelling, structures and punctuation.”

In the last seven years, arts have become a way of life for all students at the small Englewood school—just 405 students, 90 percent of whom come from low-income families.

In kindergarten and 1st grade, Brownell students learn about world cultures by working with artists from Muntu Dance Theatre. In 2nd and 3rd grade, Moore takes over with storytelling exercises that focus on language arts and social studies and that introduce foreign language vocabulary. (Many of the animal characters in the 3rd-grade play are referred to by their Spanish names.)

By the 4th grade, Brownell students are collaborating across classrooms to write, produce and perform in an original opera. After completing the opera project, Brownell 5th- and 6th-graders are well equipped to produce their own dramatic play.

Everyone a star

Teachers at Brownell are avid supporters of the school’s arts integration programs. “I’ve seen this make children more verbal, more ready to express ideas,” says Stuttley. “In other schools, if they express ideas, they’re knocked down and told to shut up. By the time they reach 4th and 5th grade [here], they all think they can be a star.”

Special education teacher Gloria Buckley says the arts can be especially beneficial for her students, some of whom join regular classes for storytelling. “Some of my kids are so withdrawn,” she explains. “Some of them don’t speak well. Doing storytelling helps them learn to imagine [and] use higher language skills.”

Brownell is one of the school partners in the ETA/Muntu Arts in Education Consortium, which is part of a citywide network called the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education. In the five years since the affiliation began, Brownell’s test scores have risen significantly.

In 1992, Brownell’s 3rd-graders were reading more than a year below grade level, posting an average score of 2.7 on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. By last year, 3rd-graders had narrowed the gap to only four months below grade level, scoring 3.4.

Sixth-graders advanced even more, going from 5.4 in 1992 to 6.3 in 1997, five months below grade level.

Most dramatic is Brownell’s progress on the state’s writing assessment. Last year, 92 percent of its 3rd-graders met or exceeded state goals in writing—a rate higher than district and statewide averages. Sixth-graders did even better, with 97 percent meeting or beating state goals.

One reason Brownell scores high in writing is Mary Jane Riopelle, a staff teacher and alumna of the Chicago Area Writing Project, who teaches writing at all grade levels.

In an 80-minute session for the opera project, Riopelle coaches 60 4th-graders through a variety of plot options for this year’s performance about Paco, the bull. Students must figure out how to rescue Paco from a bullfight and return him safely home. “No violence,” Riopelle cautions.

National attention

The opera is the crown jewel of Brownell’s program, attracting the attention of CBS’ “Sunday Morning Show” and “Amistad” librettist Thulani Davis, who met this fall with 4th-graders as they plunged into writing an opera of their own.

Principal George Huff takes Brownell’s success in stride. The results produced by the school’s can-do attitude catch many outside observers off guard, he says. “We’re not a specialty school,” he notes. “We’re not a magnet school. We’re just a regular school that set out to prove what you can do with good people.”

“Some are surprised that Brownell does an opera,” Huff adds. “There are no areas that should be off limits to us. It really expands our children, exposes them to a facet of the arts they may otherwise not be exposed to.”