In The Classroom: Students Take Flight in Theatre Residency

News • Urban Gateways News

In the Classroom is a new monthly feature created to take you inside a different Chicago-area classroom, introduce you to the Urban Gateways Teaching Artist who is working there, and share with you the experiences of the teaching artist and their students.

“Birds, Wings and Flying Things” – that’s the theme that the students of Hamilton School (K-8) have been exploring this year. It sounds like a science lesson, maybe even history, but it has also been the focus of a 20-week Urban Gateways Artist Residency at the school.

Hamilton is one of the schools that participate in Urban Gateways’ Cultural Education Program (CEP), which is a multi-year grant partnership between UG and selected schools through which students and teachers receive training in one of four specific arts disciplines each year: dance, music, theatre and visual arts. The goal is to give educators the tools to make connections between the fine and performing arts, social sciences and language arts.

This year, Hamilton students and teachers are exploring the discipline of theatre, and for the past few months, they’ve been doing so with Teaching Artist Maia Morgan.

Maia is working with 11 different classes, at least one from each grade level, all focused on “Birds, Wings and Flying Things”. “It was stimulating and interesting to re-invent the theme for all 11 groups of students, making sure the content was both age appropriate and would engage them for the full 20 weeks,” said Maia when talking about the challenges of the residency.

So how did Maia and her students re-invent the theme? Here’s a look into a few of Maia’s classes:

  • With 2 classes of kindergartners, Maia focused on fireflies, bees and butterflies. One class explored the idea of metamorphosis, leading them to a personal reflection on how they have grown up. The other class examined the question: “What makes little things important?”. They started by asking “What do fireflies do? Butterflies? Bees?”. Then finally, they asked “What do kindergartners do?”, and how does that make us important. As one of her students noted, “Even though I’m little, I’m still big to a bug.”
  • The second graders studied birds and literature, focusing on three children’s books: Make Way for Ducklings, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and Stella Luna. As they studied different kinds of birds, they also reflected on all the different people in the world and asked the question: “What’s cool about being different?”.
  • With the fifth through the eighth graders, Maia delved into the mythical story of Icarus, which lead to a discussion about disobeying your parents and when do we start making our own decisions. With the sixth graders, she took it a step further, and asked them to share a time when they had “crashed” or tried and failed. They had to write about the experience, and then write what a wise grandparent might say to make them feel better.

Each residency began with Maia presenting the students with books, poems, and essays that related to the theme and portrayed the type of writing she wanted to elicit from her young writers. They studied the works then embarked on writing exercises that explored sensory detail, comparison, character and point of view. She also led the classes through theatre games that worked on the basic skills of physicalizing an emotion or a character, collaborating and ensemble building.

After 9 weeks, Maia gathered all the writing from every student and assembled 11 different scripts; one script for every class – making sure that each student’s writing was represented. “When all the students’ work is juxtaposed, it becomes a revelation. And when we read the plays aloud, it’s exciting for the kids to hear someone else present what they wrote. It becomes more of a collective effort,” commented Maia.

This residency will culminate on June 2 with each class presenting their play, which will have been written, directed and performed by the students. “We are now rehearsing and staging the plays,” shared Maia. “They are getting up and embodying it. We keep adding layers, and it keeps making sense in a new way.”