Theater and Literacy Education go together like bananas and chocolate, like glue and construction paper, like the ocean and salty air. Those are similes, get it? Maybe I should help you out by doing a little dramatic presentation? Just kidding.

But seriously, theater just naturally lends itself to teaching kids how to read because dramatic interpretations bring stories alive in a way that makes the whole process really fun. By simply turning a book into a short play, kids get physical and visual reinforcements to the words. They learn through the repetition of lines, which are written down for them in script form. By speaking, re-reading, and acting out the words, soon the words on the page become more familiar to them.

In Minnesota, there are tons of organizations that aim to use theater to teach literacy, which is great, because Minnesota also happens to have one of the most diverse populations of immigrants and refugees in the country. It also doesn’t hurt that we have the Minnesota State Arts Board, which received a financial boost recently from the Legacy Amendment money. MSAB takes special interest in Arts Education, and funds many programs throughout the state that aid all kinds of learning experiences for children, and especially literacy.

A great resource if you are interested in using arts to teach literacy is The Arts Literacy Project which is operated through Brown University’s Education Department. Their website offers a handbook which details The Performance Cycle, a method for teaching literacy. The Performance Cycle builds on research that there’s a causal link between arts-learning and academic performance. The model encourages personal reflection and artistic expression in response to texts, which the website says encourages a deeper understanding of meaning. A number of local organizations use the Performance Cycle, including Teatro del Pueblo, where I used to work as the Educational Coordinator.

The Arts Literacy Project was started by Jan Mandell, an arts educator from St. Paul. Mandell teaches at Central High School and directs their Central Touring Theater, a troupe of high school students that tour performance pieces developed from youth themes and issues. Mandell also leads workshops at conferences, schools, and community centers, and her influence is undeniable in the arts education scene both locally and nationally.

In Mandell’s work, connecting with issues and concerns that relate to students lives is integral to teaching. Along the same lines, The Children’s Theater’s Neighborhood Bridges Program aims to educate through interaction, through dialogue. Rather than force-feeding a preconceived doctrine, the Bridges program aims to use storytelling, theater, and creative writing to engage students. Their website quotes psychologist Jerome Bruner as a guiding statement for their work: "I conceive of schools and preschools as serving a renewed function within our changing societies. This entails building school cultures that operate as mutual communities of learners, involved jointly in solving problems with all contributing to the process of educating one another."

Beautiful, huh? And, yes, I know that last sentence was a fragment. The point is that I love this idea of engaging students creatively but also through feelings and political points of view. Because that’s what theater is all about, really. It’s a back and forth between audience and actors, just as the act of reading is always a dialogue between author and reader. Or at least it should be. When students are draw on their own experience and live the text through movement, scene work, and personal reflection, they are able to hone their skills both as readers and as communicators.

Tune in next week for more about using theater to teach. Feel free to post your own ideas below in the comment section.