Finding their voices

Lyndale program with Children’s Theatre Company offers professional theater training

Twenty-five students in Deanna Gerard’s 3rd-grade class at Lyndale Community School are wrinkling their faces in disgust as they ply imaginary gum out of their hair and clothes in a session called Neighborhood Bridges, an educational outreach program of the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC).

Earlier, they copied the gawky movements of gorillas, dainty wing flaps of butterflies and the close-to-the-ground crawl of mice, among other animals in their dramatic teams called Candy Shop, Cheetahs & Tigers, and the Champions.

CTC’s Neighborhood Bridges program started about eight years ago. It connects dramatists with 18 classrooms throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In two-hour weekly sessions, students read stories, perform writing exercises and practice dramatic techniques. For instance, they work on the proper way to breathe from their diaphrams, not chests, how to modulate their voices from low to high pitches and how to move fluidly.

Neighborhood Bridges culminates in two performances, one at the school and another production on CTC’s main stage. The students will vote near the end of the year on what they’ll perform at CTC after they’ve read stories ranging from trickster tales to fairy tales.

Wendy Knox, artistic director of the Frank Theatre who is leading Gerard’s class, said the class teaches children about stage presence in addition to sharpening their minds.

“It’s great because we’re teaching kids to ask questions of stories they’re told and empowering them to tell their own stories,” she said.

Part of the fun is watching quiet students become more vocal and animated through time, she added. Some of them end up wanting to play lead roles.

Gerard’s class is one of two 3rd-grade rooms at Lyndale to be involved in the program. The class is supported by funds raised from parents and grant money from CTC. As an extra perk, students attend some CTC shows for free.

Embracing all cultures

Neighborhood Bridges embodies the mission of Lyndale itself. When Principal Ossie Brooks-James arrived at Lyndale in 1997, there were 560 students – now there are 365 students, in keeping with a district trend of declining enrollment.

Brooks-James said that while the school’s diversity can present challenges, it’s also its strength. Students learn to treat one other respectfully.

One challenge is to reach out to immigrant families who aren’t accustomed to the same kind of school volunteerism and activism as the parents of students born in Minneapolis, said Brooks-James.

While they’re involved in other ways, many Somali and Spanish families are deferential to the professionalism of teachers, she said. One of the school’s responsibilities then, is to educate parents about their role in their children’s schooling.

To do that, Brooks-James encourages families to attend teacher-parent conferences. The school has a goal of getting 85 percent of parents and caregivers into the school to talk to teachers. She said the school is already getting close to accomplishing that.

“At schools like this, people don’t think of parents coming for conferences at that level,” said Brooks-James.

Lyndale staff endeavor to make families feel welcome in the school. “So much of what we attempt to do here has to do with getting people to feel at ease about coming into the school environment. That’s true for immigrants and for those who’re native to our culture,” said Brooks-James.

Building self-esteem and life skills

In Gerard’s classroom, aspects of performance are spelled out on posters that hang from cabinets and the walls.

Gerard, who is in her third year at Lyndale, incorporates many of the lessons from Neighborhood Bridges into the regular curriculum. She said students start off scared to perform in front of others but the results of their efforts are rewarding.

They learn to take risks. Their confidence grows rapidly and by the end, students are “so proud of themselves,” she said.

“I’ve never seen students so proud of themselves, just beaming,” she said. “It’s one of those things that hard work does for you.”

ECCO resident Elizabeth Short’s son McLean is in Neighborhood Bridges. She also has another son, Owen, in 1st-grade at Lyndale. Short, the school’s PTO president, started sending McLean to its preschool program called High Five.

She’s impressed with Neighborhood Bridges because of its academic rigor.

“They’re reading and learning how to read to that next level and that helps them to understand their emotions,” she said. “They have to do homework with parents so they’re discussing a lot. It’s rigorous.”

It’s arts opportunities like Neighborhood Bridges and an attitude that embraces students from all kinds of backgrounds that influenced her choice to send her children to Lyndale.

“What attracted me was that I felt it had an extraordinarily nurturing environment. It’s looking at the whole child, not just as someone to be quiet and receive information.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].