Jacob Watson and the Heroes of Piccolo Elementary

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” – CS Lewis


What makes a hero? Is it being able to fly faster than the speed of light? Or is it being able to hide stealth in the shadows, and capture a villain effortlessly with a web of insurmountable strength? We’re bombarded so often with a Hollywood image of heroes, we can be blindsided to the fact that there are actual similarities between ourselves and this ideal of super human perfection.

But thanks to Jacob Watson, an Urban Gateways theater artist, the students at Piccolo Elementary in Humboldt Park now understand just what the creators of our favorite heroes wanted us to realize about their characters: Even if these characters seem like stronger and more invincible versions of ourselves, we all have one similar characteristic with them, and that is the ability to find courage within ourselves.

“We explored the topic of heroes/heroism, and that being a hero doesn’t actually mean you have magic powers. We read and imagined stories of kids who are heroes because they believe in their own abilities, or because they are brave, or because they help others,” Jacob said. While placing emphasis on the topic of heroes, Jacob was also able to incorporate exercises in his theater residency that encouraged creative writing, storytelling, and problem solving.

“Warming up our actor’s tools with the activity ‘Lion Face, Lemon Face.'” -Jacob

The students participated in activities such as tableau, which is a form of improvisation that begins with the students making frozen images with their bodies. By studying the images of their peers, students thought of new ideas and created new scenes. They also held character talk shows where they interviewed their peers (who acted out parts from their play) in order to learn more about the characters they were depicting.

By the end of the program, Jacob saw a huge difference in the confidence of his students, and in how they approached their stories. He saw a remarkable difference in one shy student in particular.

“I remember one day making up a story for the group that involved a girl protagonist (most of the class were boys), to see if she would volunteer for it. She did, and she performed the whole story very bravely. From then on, I saw her take tiny risks each day,” Jacob said.

For Jacob and many others who teach through the arts, seeing improvements like this in students can be direct proof of how an education in the arts can have a significant impact on the development of a child. Not only did the children at Piccolo learn a valuable way to express themselves through art, they also became more comfortable performing in front of others—a characteristic that Jacob recognized would be an area for growth when the program started.

Students and a teacher create a frozen picture (tableau) of a setting from their play

The students were eventually comfortable enough to perform in front of an audience, and demonstrate what they learned in their very own showcase. Their final play tells the story of a group of superheroes who courageously fight crime separately, but in the end choose to maximize their effectiveness by fighting together as a group. The moral of the story was to have courage and to help others, the exact characteristics the students themselves displayed during their own program- the very same qualities of a true super hero.


Working together to communicate a secret object (eyeglasses!)

Congratulations to Jacob and his students at Piccolo on their incredible work!

Thanks to the Pauls Foundation for their support of Urban Gateways theater programming!