Anna was a Theatre teacher who loved watching her students grow. This year, for the first time, she would teach a Theatre I class of ESOL level one and two students. Anna was excited about this new opportunity, but she was also nervous because she did not speak very much Spanish. Her students did not speak very much English, because most of them had just arrived in the United States within the last few months. Anna was sure that their learning journey together would be full of surprises!
French was another subject that Anna had previously taught, so she used her knowledge of teaching vocabulary with illustrations and repetition to introduce the language of the Theatre to her students. She took them to the school auditorium and showed them the house and the stage, with its multiple rows of chairs, drapes and lighting instruments. Her students quickly learned how to move from downstage to upstage, to cross from stage right to stage left.
Sometimes Anna would ask her students how to say words in Spanish—often the Spanish words were similar to French words, so Anna could connect the languages in her mind and increase her knowledge of Spanish. Her students were kind and patient with her limited Spanish; they would smile when she combined French, Spanish and English all at once to create new ways to communicate—sometimes they would tell her what NOT to say! They laughed together.
As the school year continued, Anna thought about an “Identity Project” that she had implemented in many Theatre I classes over the years. Theatre is rooted in stories, and she thought that her students had important stories to tell; she wanted them to know that their stories were important for other people to hear.
The “Identity Project” evolved into a “Cultural Heritage Project,” through which students could celebrate their home countries and cultures. At first, the students seemed very nervous about sharing their stories, but she reassured them that their stories were important. Anna started the project assignments carefully, with just a few questions, such as:
What is your favorite thing about your country?
What is your favorite food from your country?
How do you feel when you think about your country?
The answers to the first question created images in Anna’s mind of rivers, beaches, parks and playing soccer in the street with friends.
The answers to the second question were more puzzling for Anna; she had never heard of a pupusa. Over and over again, this word, pupusa, appeared on her students’ papers. Anna had to know what it was—so she did what everyone does in the 21st century: she Googled it. Her students gathered around the computer and verified the picture and recipe.
The next day, Anna asked the Culinary Arts teacher if she could switch classrooms with her for one day. When the teacher agreed, Anna went shopping for ingredients for the pupusas. She bought red beans in a bag to soak overnight, but she also bought canned beans—just in case. She bought the masa harina flour and white cheese and oil at the grocery store, according to the recipe she and her students found online.
The day of the pupusas arrived! Anna wasn’t really sure what to expect. One of the students brought in soft drinks for the class. When Anna started to measure the ingredients according to the recipe, one of her students stepped up and took the bowl and measuring cup out of her hands. After Anna reminded her student to wash her hands, the beautiful young lady began to mix the corn flour, salt and water into a doughy mixture that she formed into pancakes. Another student started opening cans of beans, while another found a frying pan and began to warm up oil in it on top of the stove. One of the students started forming pieces of cheese into balls. Anna offered the beans she had soaked overnight, but they were too hard—too duro.
Looking around the room, Anna wondered what anyone would think of her teaching strategies; did it all seem too chaotic, too much of a curricular stretch? She decided it was too late to entertain these thoughts anyway, so she looked around the room with fresh eyes.
A student who had difficulty engaging in her class activities was standing at the stove, flipping the pupusas with the dexterity of experience. He looked more confident and content than she had ever seen him.
Another student who often interrupted her instruction was quietly smiling, focused on the cooking process being conducted before him.
Several of the girls were giving advice about the pupusas; both young men and women were creating memories of old traditions in a new location.
Anna didn’t want to waste the opened cans of beans—there were too many opened—they would never use all of those beans in the pupusas before the class was over. She cut up an onion, sautéed it the way her mother’s Louisiana cooking had taught her; she added the beans and some salt and pepper. There was a little garlic too, and some chopped green pepper, so she threw it in and announced: “Tengo gringa frijoles! Who wants some of my gringa frijoles?”
The students laughed and came over to see her sauteed bean concoction; some of them even tasted it and approved. All of them smiled. The beautiful young lady student gave Anna a pupusa; the quiet, dexterous young man standing by the stove asked, “Do you like it, Miss?”
She liked it very much.
At the end of class, everyone helped to clean up. Everyone had at least tasted the pupusas and seemed to enjoy themselves. Just before they left, Anna tried to tie their experience into the Theatre curriculum: “Now, when you remember that Theatre is story, you will think of our class today—la dia de los pupusas—esta la historia de nuestra classe.”
One of the students responded, “And the gringa frijoles!”
“I have a story.”
The answers to the last question for the Cultural Heritage Project in Anna’s Theatre class were the hardest for Anna to the read: “I miss my family.” Over and over, the answer was the same: “I miss my mother, my grandfather, my cousins, my sisters and brothers, my aunts, my grandmother, my uncles, my father.”
She created a new assignment: What is your favorite memory from your country?
The answers wove a rich tapestry of memory in Anna’s mind as she read them—
I help my grandfather in the corn fields.
I miss my old school.
I help my grandmother make pupusas.
I am sad at the violence in my country.
I wish my country was not violent, but that is in the hands of our Divine Creator.
My friends and I went to the river and fished all day.
One student would not write about her memories. Anna asked her, “¿Porque? Tu historia es importante.”
“¿Porque? Porque no, Miss—no.”
Anna did not press her again; she was a good student who tried hard in class. Anna trusted that the memories might be too painful. She had no wish to hurt her students.
Most of the students created a power point of their Cultural Heritage Project. Slides of flags from Honduras, El Salvador and Peru were projected across the classroom screen, followed by maps, macaws, colorful foods, beaches, historical buildings and tourist attractions. A few students drew pictures on posters representing aspects of their homeland; one student created meticulous sketches of American businesses that were established in his home city of San Salvador. Anna printed out some of the slides and put them up in a display case near the auditorium; her students were pleased to see their work in the display case, but also appreciated being anonymous.
The principal sent out a notice that visitors were coming to the high school; there would be a short assembly with a few student presentations. Anna volunteered her Theatre I ESOL class; they would create a short script from their Cultural Heritage projects. She wasn’t exactly sure how this would happen, but she trusted that together, she and her students could share something meaningful. The visitors were interested in student stories, so it seemed like a good educational opportunity for Anna’s students—and they would have to use acting skills from the Theatre curriculum!
Together, the students and their teacher created a simple, fifteen minute script that gave each young person the opportunity to say their name, their country, their future hopes and dreams. They also told about what they missed—their families, their friends, their schools, the parks and rivers of their homelands. The students also said: “I am learning to love my new country.” Anna was very proud of them. Her students had taught her a lot; they had grown together.
One of her most dynamic students came off the stage and looked disappointed after the presentation. Anna asked him why—“¿Porque no estas feliz?”
“I think I did not do very well, Miss.”
“No esta importante estar perfecto. Esta importante tratar. Tiene una buena voce! Es muy bien.”
“I was so nervous. I am still nervous.”
“But you did it. Estas uno bueno actor.”
Anna knew her Spanish wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. She was trying hard to communicate and the boy was comforted; he seemed to understand. He smiled and walked away to go to his next class.
“Your students were amazing! My choir students who performed were practically in tears—so was I—it was so powerful.”
“I am so proud of your students—they did a great job! Their presentation was so moving.”
The next day, Anna spoke with the students about how important their presentation was, and how proud she was of their courage to stand on the stage and speak in front of strangers. She told them how important it was for other people to hear their stories. She asked them (in her broken Spanish) how they felt before and after the presentation—they all said: “Nervoso!”
“Perro esta perfecto.”
Anna spoke of her father, who had passed away several years earlier, but was still in her heart, giving her strength and courage. She told her students that the stories of their homeland were something that would always live in their hearts.
Two of the school administrators came into the classroom; they had seen the presentation and understood the value of it. They had offered to get burritos for the students as a special treat; they also spoke in Spanish and English about how much they appreciated the presentation and how it touched their hearts.
After the administrators left, the students played charades in English, using their non-verbal acting skills. They made lists together of popular movies and television shows from which to choose for the game. It was the last class before Spring Break.
As the students left the class, one of them asked, “¿Donde esta mi embrasso?” Anna gave the sweet young woman a hug, then shook hands with a young man as he shouted, “Goodbye, Miss!”
The dynamic, nervous young man gave her a hug and said, “Thank you, Miss.”
Anna knew that she would carry these students in her heart for a long time; then she began thinking about the next Theatre Education adventure they would have together…
On the last day of school, the perfectionist, nervous young man, the “bueno actor,” told Anna something very special that he wanted her to know:
“When you come to a new country, a new school, and you have a teacher who believes in you, that means a lot. You did that for me, Miss, and I thank you.”
Theatre is built on stories; your students have stories to tell. Help them to believe that their stories are important.