Len Newman and Richard Kinslow's English Language Learner Class at Central Falls High School
Central Falls, RI
The stage is set with 20 English language learners, their teachers Len Newman and Richard Kinslow, their ArtsLiteracy Project mentor John Holdridge, and a visiting performance artist Erminio Pinque. Working together over the next three months, they will develop a theatrical performance based on various texts and on students' personal stories. Students will write about their lives, their dreams, and their hopes for the future. On performance day, the students will share their stories and demonstrate their skills to the whole student body at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
By participating in the ArtsLiteracy Project (ArtsLit), these students and their teachers have learned new strategies for literacy development. Based in the Education Department at Brown University, ArtsLit offers a year-round professional development program that links literacy development to the performing and visual arts. Artists and teachers work as a team to plan classes that engage students in reading, writing, and showing their understanding of text. The goal is for teachers to build a classroom community in which adolescents develop the skills and habits of mind to convey meaning through--and recover meaning from--print text.
As ArtsLit Director Kurt Wootton says, "From a literacy perspective, we're particularly interested in the idea of visibility because students' reading processes are generally invisible. When a student is reading a book, silently, it's difficult to tell how they understand it or even if they understand it. The arts are one way of making these invisible cognitive processes visible."
Today's activity, Rehearsing/Revising Text, is the fifth phase of the Performance Cycle ( http://www.artslit.org/handbook.html) that serves as an instructional model to teachers and artists who participate in ArtsLit. Through the Performance Cycle, teachers guide students in reading and comprehending text, writing original scripts, and producing a quality performance. Teachers say this work is "exhilarating." As one student describes it, "Performing leaves you with questions, and you want to find the answers, so you keep reading."
This afternoon when the students gather for class, they walk into a classroom where desks and chairs have been pushed into a surprising, untraditional configuration. Class opens with an even more atypical activity-all students rise to their feet and sing an African chant, clapping rhythmically as Newman moves around the inner side of the circle. Next, each person in the circle enacts a favorite activity. The group's energy runs high, and students smile and laugh often.
After the warm-up activity, Newman removes students' stories from a binder of hand-written drafts, drawings, and typed copies. As he delivers each printed story to its student author, he makes a friendly comment about individual progress. Immediately upon delivery, each student reads his or her story silently and intently. For some of the students, it is the first look they have at their stories as finished documents. They carefully prepare to read these stories to the class.
Students read aloud, and the class is transported to places around the world. Each story shares a memorable life event and makes a reference to the place where students spent their childhood before moving to Central Falls. Their readings reveal that although they are in their late teens, these students have spoken English for only a few years or months, some for several weeks. Few students have problems pronouncing or decoding the printed word because they know the text they have created, but most struggle to project their voices. After each story, the class applauds enthusiastically, and teachers comment on individual progress.
The stories paint recollections of the natural beauty and communities they left in places like Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Colombia. The students bravely share meaningful moments in their lives. One student reads about being a youngster who drove and crashed the family car. Another reads about being a playful little boy unaware that his young mother was on her deathbed. Students show quiet respect and awe when a story is a tribute to a family member. While reading the story of his mother's death, the student breaks into tears. Tenderly, one teacher and several fellow students surround and console him.
After they each share their story, Newman leads the group in a transitional activity. He directs the class to take out their yellow folders, which contain scripts for a performance of Silverstein's The Giving Tree. In small groups, students take parts of Silverstein's story and rehearse scenes. The next assignment asks students to add "blocking" movements that communicate the meaning of the scene.
After a quick run-through, the class goes to the auditorium, walks on stage, and practices the sequence again with the addition of the blocking movements. Newman and Kinslow debrief the rehearsal with the class, noting how well the students' technique has conveyed understanding of the text and how much more the students could project their voices in a performance. This is only the second time that the students have rehearsed the scenes, and they express pleasure with the progress they have made. Newman reflects on the high level of student engagement in both activities: "This was a most extraordinary day!"
Many of these students have left one community to find another in this tightly knit class and in the ethnically diverse city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. This is the only high school in Central Falls. The smallest municipality in Rhode Island at 1.3 square miles, Central Falls is also one of the most densely populated cities in the country and the most disadvantaged community in Rhode Island.
Central Falls ranks the highest in the state for the rate of community-wide Limited English Proficiency (29.5%, compared to the state average of 6.2%). It ranks lowest in the state for overall student performance. Other factors that place the student population at risk for educational failure include a mobility rate of 44%; a graduation rate of 58%; and a dropout rate of 42%. Ninety-six percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunch programs, 20-30% receive English as a second language educational services, and 20-25% receive special education services.
As disheartening as these statistics may appear, other facts about this community are more encouraging and indicate the great capacity for Central Falls to benefit from and support literacy work. Central Falls is rich in cultural traditions and community values. In this small, tightly knit neighborhood, almost all students walk to school. Most families know each other and participate in social and religious activities together each week. A growing network of community organizations is available to support in-school and after-school work, and the district's administrators and teachers are committed to making connections between these local organizations and Central Falls students.
The school district has demonstrated a commitment to improving teaching and learning. Exemplary after-school programs already exist. In school, administrators show strong support for curriculum development in both literacy and the arts. They have developed and put into place a Core Literature Curriculum that focuses on integrating the arts into core academic subjects. School staff in particular have been champions of the ArtsLiteracy Project.
Teachers Len Newman and Richard Kinslow have been working with artists and Project mentors in ArtsLit since 1998 and now are sharing their knowledge with others. These two veteran teachers use Artslit methodologies so regularly that it has changed their classroom culture and Artslit is at work in their classroom on any given day.
In fact, Len Newman recently traveled with his binder of student stories and drawings to Washington, D.C. He had been invited to share the results of this year's class with researchers from the Arts Education Partnership (AEP). Newman's work with ArtsLit received national recognition from AEP, a partnership which "affirms the power of the arts to enliven and transform education and schools."
Kurt Wootton's description of the ArtsLiteracy Project strikes a similar note: "We are in the business of transformation. Transforming students into readers, writers, and performers. Transforming teachers into artists. Transforming artists into educators--In our organization, what we have realized is that the most important thing we can do is to take care of the teachers, artists, and students we work with, and to create a space where transformation can occur."