PORT CHESTER, N.Y. — Inside Kelly Budde’s language arts class at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School, 11-year-old Carlos Vazquez was starring in the lead role of the Hairy Frog in the original production, “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.”
Vazquez jumped to center stage, strummed his air guitar and sang out: “I can’t get noooooo satisfaction!”
From the other side of the classroom, a group of students in the role of the “bald generals” tried to arrest the Hairy Frog. Vazquez, as the frog, jumped into an imaginary pond before they could get him.
“You Go Frog! You’re the Man!” shouted the other students as the townspeople.
In this riotous classroom filled with budding thespians and English language learners, the goal of this lively theater exercise was to teach literacy, boost vocabulary and help students master the new Common Core language arts curriculum. It has proved popular with most of Edison’s more than 430 students, but principal Ivan Tolentino says it is particularly beneficial to the 40 percent of the student body who are English learners (as many as 95 percent of Edison pupils speak another language at home).
Historically, English language learners, or ELLs, have been low-income, immigrant students who struggle with statewide assessment exams. Given the tougher requirement of Common Core-aligned tests, Tolentino hopes the new theater instruction will improve their proficiency in written and spoken English.
“Our number-one issue is use of language because they’re not exposed to it at home in their native language or in English. The academic language isn’t there,” Tolentino said. “So with this, they build vocabulary. They get to use the language in a real setting. They use critical thinking skills to design their own plays and come up with their own storylines,” Tolentino said.
Over the past decade, the number of English learners in New York State has swelled to more than 214,000 students, speaking more than 160 different languages. And their academic achievement continues to lag behind native English speakers. With the new Common Core standards requiring more rigorous math and language arts skills at each grade level, schools with large populations of English learners, like Edison, are searching for innovative strategies to help those students succeed.
Last year, only 2.6 percent of English learners in New York State reached proficiency levels on the ELA test, compared to 31.4 percent of all students, according to the New York State Education Department. Ultimately, the fact that you have a 3 percent pass rate on the exams, it’s forcing schools to look at their curriculums, and forcing schools to look at their ELL populations more closely,” Tolentino said.
In September 2013, Tolentino tapped Kelly Budde — an English as a second language (ESL) teacher with a theater background — to create scripts and lessons aligned with the Common Core-EngageNY ELA curriculum. Budde later received assistance from a teaching artist — a theater specialist with educational skills — who visited the school from The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College.
Budde said she has seen significant improvement in the literacy skills of the fifth-grade students, many of whom are recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America.
“Some of them wouldn’t get up or didn’t want to talk. Now, even the students who were the struggling readers, they seem to be the ones that like to get up the most and speak. There is no fear anymore,” Budde said.
For years, teachers have used “Readers’ Theater” to supplement the traditional teaching of required texts, Tolentino said. But, Common Core has pushed ELA educators that use theater to adapt. When Budde began her new job, she decided to customize the concept for Common Core standards by writing her own scripts and lessons for each grade level so they would align with the EngageNY ELA curriculum.
In September 2014, Tolentino discovered that the Neighborhood Bridges program, managed by The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, was placing teaching artists in underserved schools for a 10-week residency to bring theater and storytelling arts into ELA classrooms. Soon after, Tolentino arranged a meeting with Ian Driver, education manager at The Performing Arts Center, to discuss how the program could help meet Edison’s ELL objectives. After funding was secured from two private foundations, the program began.
“When Neighborhood Bridges heard of what we were doing, it was a natural fit to partner with us,” Tolentino said.
Starting in October 2014, teaching artist Stephanie Kovacs Cohen began working with Budde to assist with Edison’s fifth-grade ELA classes. Through the collaboration, Budde expanded on her Common Core lessons and learned new techniques for other grades. The program culminated in January with Edison’s fifth-grade students taking the main stage at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College.
Driver, who oversees several education initiatives at The Performing Arts Center, said the new Common Core standards have prompted changes in the Neighborhood Bridges program.
“We began the program with the specific aim of impacting narrative and descriptive writing in the ELA classroom alongside the theater and critical literacy components of the program,” Driver said. “However, the arrival of the Common Core has impacted the time and importance of focusing on these fictional writing skills. To that end, we have adapted the program to focus on real-life stories, and a natural evolution towards research and social studies curriculum has grown.”
For English learners, Driver said the theater offers an innovative way to teach complex stories with difficult text structures.
“Oral stories told and shared with many visual aids and props allow for increased cultural literacy; that in turn offers a safe and informal environment for students new to the English language to speak in comfortable and bold ways that may not be possible during the more familiar curricula,” Driver said.
Budde, who has taught at Edison Elementary for 13 years, said English learners require more creative strategies to master language and literacy. So far, Budde said, the use of theater has proved effective in helping students tackle more rigorous reading passages and texts.
“It’s not just ‘practice reading comprehension and answer the question.’ They’re not getting enough out of that,” Budde said. “In our class, we have to tell the story and then they have to answer the questions based on the story. Then, they have to put up the story. They have to get up and do it, and they internalize it.”
Budde said some of the material for her plays emerged from books such as “Esperanza Rising,” by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Other scripts came from collaboration with social studies teachers on historical topics. For second-graders, for example, Budde wrote and directed plays inspired by Greek mythology. For fifth-graders, the basis for “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” emerged from lessons on the civil rights movement.
Tolentino said the difficulty that many English learners face in mastering complex academic language stems partly from their low socio-economic background and limited exposure to more sophisticated conversation and dialogue.
Before coming to Edison, Tolentino was founding principal of The Active Learning Elementary School in Queens, a public school with a majority of low-income immigrant families whose first language was Chinese.
To help those students become more familiar with English, Tolentino started a Saturday Academy, which took students on field trips to sites across New York City. There was no academic work involved. The only assignment was to converse in English about the trip. Tolentino said he hopes to start a similar program at Edison.
Located in a working-class suburban neighborhood 30 miles northeast of New York City, Edison Elementary is a full-service community school that receives Title 1 federal funding. To meet the needs of their families, the school serves breakfast and lunch, operates a free pantry, offers medical and mental health services and provides adult education classes for parents.
“Our building is open from 7:50 a.m. when kids come in for breakfast, and then the building is active until 9 p.m., and practically every room is being used,” Tolentino said.
When asked whether he was concerned about how his English learners would perform on statewide assessments, Tolentino shook his head and said he had other priorities.
“Test scores?” he asked. “The first thing that I worry about is living conditions. We have 50 to 60 families that depend on us for their groceries. So, my main priority is that my kids have a safe home environment and are getting enough to eat.”
Even so, Budde is convinced that theater class is making a difference in helping English learners tackle concepts they will encounter on assessments.
Budde explained how fourth-graders reacted when she introduced a script based on the Native American version of “Cinderella” called “The Rough-Face Girl.” Students smiled and let out sighs of amazement when they realized the story was similar to a passage from “Yeh Shen,” the Asian version of “Cinderella” they had reviewed on a mock exam.
“So they were able to make the connection … that’s great because all these similar themes run through, and if they’re able to do that, then hopefully, that will transfer when they are actually taking those tests,” she said.
Due to the popularity of the new ELA-theater class at Edison, Budde has quickly become one of the school’s most popular teachers. Edison’s fifth-grade students, like Carlos Vazquez who played the Hairy Frog, said the class has changed the way he views learning.
“We do so much. We work on acting skills. We work on scripts. We play parts. It helps my English and it does it in a fun and educational way at the same time,” Vazquez said.
Joendi Espinal, 10, who played one of the bald generals in the play, offered a more critical view of Budde.
“She’s a teacher, but she’s funny,” he said.
Echoing sentiments of ELA teachers across the nation, Budde said she is aware that state assessments will likely not reflect how much her students have advanced this year. Yet, she measures advancement in other ways.
“When I see them grow from someone who couldn’t talk, couldn’t read, struggled on every word they had to say, for that student to get up and start performing, it’s a huge impact,” she said.