Laughter filled Angela Cruz’s third-grade classroom at Jefferson Community School on a recent afternoon as Pedro Bayon of Children’s Theatre Company told her students a fairytale.
Speaking in both Spanish and English, Bayon, a teaching artist, told the students of a soldier who stumbles upon a magical harmonica. The students laughed as he paused for questions and audience participation before splitting up into small groups to act out parts of the story.
The session was part of a weekly program Children’s Theatre Company hosts for the two third-grade classes at Jefferson, a K–8 school in Lowry Hill East. It’s called Neighborhood Bridges, and it aims to help students develop critical literacy skills through storytelling and creative drama.
The goal is that “all of the kids become storytellers of their own lives,” said Maria Asp, the program’s director. Along the way, the kids have a lot of fun while learning how to become better storytellers and writers, she said.
“Everyone has a right to have that much fun in school,” Asp said.
Neighborhood Bridges started in 1997 under the direction of Children’s Theatre Artistic Director Peter Brosius and Jack Zipes, a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. The program has expanded to reach over 500 students annually, including dozens in Minneapolis.
This year, Neighborhood Bridges is partnering with 24 classrooms at 10 Twin Cities metro schools, including five in Minneapolis Public Schools. Children’s Theatre Company subsidizes the program, but it still costs several thousand dollars to bring it to two classrooms at Jefferson, said Roger Conhaim, a longtime volunteer at the school.
As part of the program, a teaching artist comes to the school for weekly sessions in the classrooms. The students perform their own 10-minute plays on the Children’s Theatre Company’s main stage at the end of the year.
Asp said an aim of the program is to help students imagine beyond their current circumstances and practice telling stories. She said students learn to think about a story from the perspectives of different characters, an exercise that could be seen during a recent session in Tammy Torok’s third-grade class at Jefferson.
During that class, teaching artist Aaron Fiskradatz told Torok’s students a story about a group of farm sheep that get eaten by wolves. He asked the kids to take the perspective of the different characters in the story and talk about it from that perspective.
Torok has hosted Neighborhood Bridges in her class for the past eight years. She said the students learn to be an audience through the program, noting that many of them don’t get the chance to experience theater.
She said the students’ writings grow impressive by the end of the program. They start taking risks and stop asking “how do you spell, how do you spell?” she said.
“The words just start flowing,” Torok said.
Jefferson Principal Holly Kleppe said Neighborhood Bridges is part of a larger arts program at the school, which includes partnering with organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra and the Northern Clay Center. She credited Conhaim for getting donations to help sustain those partnerships.
“The arts is all about social-emotional learning,” Kleppe said. “It’s a huge part of helping our kids be whole and finding places to connect.”
Michelle Kellogg, program manager of Communications, Engagement & External Relations with MPS, said all district schools have some level of community partnership, ranging from tutoring and mentoring to health services. She said the district is currently focused on partnerships that are aligned to its four core priorities of social-emotional learning, literacy, equity and student supports.
Visit childrenstheatre.org/education/for-educators/neighborhood-bridges to learn more about Neighborhood Bridges.