Neighborhood Bridges uses teaching actors and unusual twists to bring stories out of even the shyest schoolkids
Jack Zipes believes a good story is better than the truth.
Zipes is founder of Neighborhood Bridges, which brings teaching artists into local elementary school classrooms two hours a week throughout the school year. All are professional actors who Zipes teaches to sharpen kids’ wits about literature and the events in their own lives through storytelling and creative drama.
"Since the truth is so hard to know, we are always telling stories," said Zipes, a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. "So, a good story is always better than the truth. That’s key to the Neighborhood Bridges philosophy. For children to survive, they have to know how to narrate their own lives and their own truths versus all the fictions around them."
The Neighborhood Bridges (NB) curriculum is based on Zipes’ 1995 book "Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives." The teaching artist will tell a story such as "Little Red Riding Hood" — who, in his or her version, is eaten by the wolf. Kids will discuss the story, reflect upon it, rewrite it, act it out in skits and explore its ramifications. Then a counter-story, Catharine Storr’s, "Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf," in which Polly outwits her antagonist at every turn, is told so kids get a different perspective.
How do kids respond to the ghastly aspects of the tales?
"By the time they are 6, many of these kids have seen much more violence in their lives," Zipes said. "Why should they be shocked by a wolf that tries to rape and eat little girls? Why should they be upset by that when they see somebody being slapped around like that all the time in their daily lives? Some of these kids saw war in Somalia and Southeast Asia. So what we offer is a way to process that violence through discussion."
Leif Jurgensen has been a teaching artist (TA) at Powderhorn School, 3228 Elliot Ave S., for the past two years. After reading the stories, he asks his class questions like, was it right for Little Red Riding Hood to be eaten? Did she deserve it?
"The goal of the program is more than just allowing kids to express themselves," Jurgensen said. "It is also to help them resolve situations in a nonviolent way. Kids never know how to end stories, so they often end it with death. We offer them the opportunity to have other endings that are more positive.
"It gets them to question what we are telling them," said the 33-year-old Stevens Square actor. "A lot of times, you hear a story and think, OK that’s the story and that’s the truth. But here we get them to question the story and bring up what they don’t like in the story and give them the opportunity to change it."
NB starts out with fairy tales and proceeds to other genres, such as animal fables, peace tales that deal with violence and conflict resolution, tall tales, legends and mythology.
Sue Poston was principal of Whittier Community School at 2620 Grand Ave. S., when Zipes came to her in 1998 with the idea of trying the Neighborhood Bridges concept for the first time. The pilot program began in two 4th/5th-grade classrooms.
Said Poston, "It was an amazing program from the standpoint that we had three dominant languages spoken at Whittier — English, Spanish and Somali in each classroom. The program used the body and voice and story in such a way that it transcended language and unified the classroom."
Poston said that on NB days, attendance went up. She also said that she pays close attention to test scores, and one of the ironies she’s noticed is that in NB classes, writing scores exceeded reading scores.
"Usually reading and writing go hand-in-hand," Poston said. "But in these classrooms, writing scores were higher than reading scores and the only thing that I can attribute that to is Neighborhood Bridges. The reason it makes kids better writers is because they embellish their stories, make them bigger and broader. And so, even though the language skills of certain kids might not be great, they are becoming better writers."
Why is NB in schools with concentrations of low-income students?
Maria Asp, who oversees NB, said, "These lower-income schools are so weighted by the pressure of testing that creativity and the imagination and the art of fantasy gets left behind. Neighborhood Bridges is all game; it takes school and makes it fun. The kids get energized and engaged in education. The critical literacy skills that they get are important too, but getting to that level of discussion with young people is also very exciting."
NB’s genesis began in 1970 when Zipes, a New York City native, was writing for Theater Magazine. The publication sent him to Berlin to write an article on what was then the most famous theater in Germany, Schaibuhne. However, the German friends he was staying with told him that the best theater in Germany was instead a children’s theater called Grips.
Zipes didn’t believe them until he saw Grips’ production of "Man O’ Man," the story about a single mom and her two kids who are being exploited by their landlord and the mom’s macho boyfriend.
"Grips is slang for using your wits or your noggin in a very cunning way," Zipes said. "If you have grips, it means that you are very savvy and smart.
"The German actors and directors at Grips were fed up with adults, so they decided to focus their energies on children," he said. "They used Brechtian techniques and song in their plays. I had never seen theater like this before anywhere."
Why was he attracted to it? "Everything I’ve done involves a certain skepticism," Zipes said. "My questioning spirit comes from growing up Jewish in a Christian society and the hypocrisy of how it treated Jews. I was always aware of the hypocrisy. And I was made to distrust authority and authority figures. The program is intented to protect children by making them aware of the hypocrisy around them."
A Children’s Theater connection
Peter Broisius, artistic director at the Children’s Theater Company (CTC) met Zipes around 1970 while a senior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
Zipes had translated several of the Grips plays into English, and Brosius had read them. Brosius produced a Grips play in Los Angeles several years later. Brosius came to Minneapolis to work at CTC in 1997, and the two men reconnected.
Herbert Kohl, educator and author, who is credited for starting the Open School concept, is another old friend of Zipes. After a Twin Cities reading, he and Zipes went for beers. Soon after, Kohl became head of the Soros Foundation and offered Zipes a $100,000 grant if he could organize the work he detailed in "Creative Storytelling" into a program. That’s when Zipes and Brosius came up with Neighborhood Bridges.
There are currently seven schools, 18 classrooms and over 400 students involved in the program. (Whittier is the only school in Southwest.) The 30 teaching artists each earn about $50 an hour. The cost per school per year is $8,000 but the most any individual school pays is $2,000 because CTC subsidizes the cost.
Jurgensen said that over time, individual NB classrooms become unified and connect with other NB students. The program culminates each June when all 18 NB classrooms perform for each other at CTC.
"What it really stresses is that though some kids may not be part of your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get along; it’s all about bridging those neighborhoods," Jurgensen said.
Zipes said he sees initially scared, shy and anxious children evolve into kids unable to keep their hands down in class because they are so excited.
"Because it mean something to them," he said. "The shyest little kid in class becomes an empowered storyteller. That’s why they are so animated. They are realizing certain things about themselves that they never realized about themselves before. They flower and bring their whole personality to this."