CULTURE KLASH: Untethered Exercises

By on June 21, 2017

Dual immersion program’s play spotlights emerging social justice warriors.

Student artwork created for the play ‘Bridges, Barriers and Borders/Puentes, Paredes y Fronteras.’

JACKSON HOLE, WY – During the dress rehearsal for Jackson Hole Middle School’s sixth grade dual immersion program play, language arts teacher Michelle Rooks wasn’t convinced the show would come together. Then a student named Miranda approached her to dispute one of her lines: “I keep messing up on this line because I think this conjunction is wrong,” Miranda said.

Miranda had only moved to Jackson Hole a year ago. English was still a new language for her. Rooks wondered what she meant.

“The line is, ‘It’s hard here, but I can’t go back,’” Miranda continued. Instead she wanted it to say, “It’s hard here, and I can’t go back.”

The “and,” she explained, added another layer to what makes life as an immigrant so difficult—the fact that immigrants can’t return to the place they once called home.

And that, Rooks says, is part of what made the play, Bridges, Barriers and Borders/Puentes, Paredes y Fronteras such an effective learning tool.

“When I really think about what worked so well, spending a week reading the same lines [repeatedly] … doing this play forces us to slow down, and re-read things and talk about it again and again; have [the students] actually visualize what they’re reading.”

“The point of the project was more than a play,” echoed Spanish teacher Ann Mertaugh. “It was about cooperation.”

The play was the culmination of a unit called “The American Dream,” which asked students to question, “what’s the promise of the American dream” and consider that such a promise might not be accessible to everybody.

“The argument was how do we end discrimination, what do we have to do?” Rooks said.

Students chose one type of discrimination that they had either experienced directly, or witnessed firsthand, and wrote a series of three essays about it: one explanatory, one narrative, and one argumentative. Once the essays were complete, Karin Wadly picked each essay apart, pulled lines from them and reassembled the works into a full-length production. The final product was 33 pages. The play was supported in part by the Art Association’s “Art in Translation” program and pARTners, who also helped the students create posters and protest art.

Sydney Smith described the entire project as being like a donut (she loves cooking, so most of her analogies are related to food). The facts and the research were the ingredients. Students mixed those facts together to create a dough, or understanding. They baked them into essay form. And the play was the glaze on top.

For her essays, Smith chose to write about sexism. “I’m the only girl at indoor soccer,” she said after the play, still basking in her 15 minutes (or 60) of fame. Before the unit, she had perhaps considered discrimination, especially in sports, but she lacked the language to talk about it. And she learned about other types of discrimination, too.

While “Art in Translation,” the Art Association program that partnered with the school’s dual immersion program, focused on immigration, Rooks found that a lot of her students chose to write about disability.

One of her students had a revelation during the unit: “I used to think I was dumb,” Rooks recalled him saying. “And now I understand this thing. I know it’s my disability, not that I’m dumb.”   

The play was broken up into 12 scenes, each choreographed to represent physical barriers, bridges and borders, as the title suggests. In narratives about border crossings and immigrant hardships, students lined up to form a physical border in the center of the stage, and split off as each student read a line that served to literally break down barriers.

“Walls aren’t real. Walls are what we build in our minds,” one student read.

“Shouldn’t children of immigrants have a say in what is said?” questioned another. “Maybe it could be a bridge, not a border.”

One scene, “People not Numbers,” asked the audience to listen as students rattled of statistics: white women make 80 percent what men do; African American women just 63 percent; 66 percent of women face abuse in their lifetimes; 368 people died crossing the border last year.

Eso no está bien!” (this is not OK) students chanted in unison. Then, “Somos personas [we are people], not numbers.”

That the students wrote the play themselves, and based it on personal stories, required a level of empathy and understanding that might have otherwise been lacking, Rooks said. “This is somebody’s story who’s in here,” she told the students during rehearsal. “Show a little respect.” And they did.

By the time they were called to stage last Tuesday night, each student read their lines with authority and dignity, even if they fumbled through some.

Whether the students take these lessons home with them is another story, but Rooks is hopeful. Art, she said, is a powerful way to explore heavy topics. “If we can continue to give kids opportunities to write about things and explore things,” Rooks said, they will continue to learn.

But  it will require patience. Sometimes, learning about justice and discrimination requires unlearning a lifetime of cultural influence and understanding.

Kids are overwhelmed with conflicting messaging at home, in the media, and at school. Often, they don’t understand when something is wrong.

“As a culture, we’re confusing,” Rooks said. “I often jump to the assumption that they know it’s wrong and say it anyway, versus, ‘he doesn’t know what that means and we need to teach him.’”

Students and teachers alike must understand that the process of learning, and unlearning, isn’t always going to be perfect. Both parties will make mistakes. The important thing is that they keep going.

“Words are powerful when we know that we either stand up against them, or for them,” Rooks said.

Indeed, after 12 scenes exploring the type of language that holds people back, the play ended with a question: “What is the language that allows people to fly?” PJH

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