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Bring a Poet (or Dancer) to Class

A performing artist draws kids into learning via the lively arts.

THE HILL THAT RISES ABOVE Harlem’s Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School is crowned by the neo-gothic sprawl of City College. The streets below reveal a neighborhood on the brink of change. But for the school’s Latino, African America, and immigrant students, learning is still a challenge. That’s why Stephanie Berry, an Obie-winning theater, film, and television actress, takes such pride in the after-school workshops her theater group, Blackberry Productions, gives at the school. “Culture energizes the spirit,” says Berry. “Studying the arts has a profound impact on academic development and socialization.”

Berry’s own experience taught her the value of the arts. In high school, she took an acting class, and a new world opened up. “Theater was therapeutic for me — a release of pain, confusion, and anger,” she says. To support herself and her daughter, Kisha, while she learned her craft, Berry taught at an alternative school for 16- to 24-year-olds. Through trial, error and instinct, she created an arts-based curriculum that is the foundation for what her theater group does today.

Those early experiments showed Berry the importance of tapping into students’ own experiences. “The kids were dropouts,” she says. “They had misplaced anger and energy.” It was hard at first to establish order in class. Then she had students push back the desks and improvise. Soon she had the boys running through basketball moves — in slow motion. Then, using metaphors and similes, they wrote what they felt during the game. The girls explored the principles of symmetry required to braid perfect cornrows. “If you talk about what’s immediate to them, students get interested,” Berry says. Her lessons always came back to academic essentials.

Poetry That's Close to Rap. Principal Larry Wilson invited Blackberry Productions to Bread & Roses two years ago to restore an arts component that had vanished in recent years. “I started with a poetry workshop because it’s close to rap,” says Berry. Next came dance and martial arts. Blackberry has taken students to a musical about the Reconstruction era and staged a play that connects hip-hop to the history of African American music. Wilson feels the Blackberry teachers understand how children learn. “I’ve seen introverted students become confident academically,” he says. “Their creative expression is showing up in English class.”

Abiodun Oyewole
, who teaches the poetry workshop at Bread & Roses, “is one of the country’s leading poets, but he is also a master teacher,” says Berry. “He’s very charismatic and patient, and I feel working with him builds the students’ self-confidence. He meets them where they are and validates what they have to share.”

To Berry, the workshops are a first step toward what she hopes will be more opportunities in the classroom. “Checking off answers on a test doesn’t work for everyone,” points out Blackberry’s managing director, Berry’s now-grown-up daughter Kisha Skinner-Spence: "The most troublesome kids can be the most dynamic if you expose them to the arts."

Hanna Rubin is an editor at Dance Magazine. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Spring 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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