Program uses theater to help kids learn English

A Cal Arts grad student helps kids learn to mime during a theater arts workshop for English learners.
A Cal Arts grad student helps kids learn to mime during a theater arts workshop for English learners.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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A junior high school in Valencia is using theater to help non-native students learn English. The public-private partnership with a local arts college is designed to make learning the language fun.

"Your guys' imaginations are unbelievable! Once you get into them, it's unstoppable," an energetic Dana Gourrier, a California Institute of the Arts grad student who runs the theater workshop, tells about a dozen students who sit on the auditorium floor at Arroyo Seco Junior High. The theater workshop is a weekly part of the kids' English language class.

"Can we move on to 'Guess the Magic Clay?'" says Gourrier as she begins to choose kids for the next improvisation exercise.

One by one, they shape invisible clay, as other students in the class shout out what they think the clay shaper is making.

"Elephant! Dog, dog! Cat! Truck! Pig, pig, pig!" A student finally shouts out the correct answer as the other kids break into laughter and clapping.

"The tail gave it away. I love it. I love it!" Gourrier says to the class. She's watched these kids use their imaginations and new words to express themselves all year.

"The idea is through theater and improvisation and the arts, we get them out of their bodies and into their imaginations and less worried about, like, how they sound when they’re speaking English or how they don’t sound or how they’re supposed to sound, how they compare themselves to other students whose language is – their first language is English," says Gourrier.

This five-year-old theater arts program at Arroyo Seco Junior High is part of the larger Community Arts Partnership — or CAP program — a series of arts education partnerships at Cal Arts.

The theater class includes a variety of improv exercises.

"So, why don’t we do 'Late for School?' says Gourrier to the class. "And right now, what we need to do is most important, is we need to decide who the actors are. I think there should be. ..."

The kids interrupt Gourrier, waving their hands and frantically shouting, "Me, me, me!"

"Hold on, hold on, hold on!" Gourrier says, trying to calm down the eager class. "There should be four actors to act out why you are late."

The “late student” goes outside while the kids decide why he was late. They come up with all sorts of crazy reasons, from zombies to a bike crashing into a rainbow to aliens.

Gourrier smiles as she confirms their idea for this "late student."

"Wait a minute, so space aliens have abducted him and how does he get back, though? If space aliens abducted him, how does he get back to. ..." The kids interrupt Gourrier with their idea, "Superman!"

The “late student” comes in. A group of his classmates starts miming.

A student acting as the teacher asks quietly, "Why are you late?"

The "late student" tries to come up with an answer based on what the students are miming.

"Um, because… a monster?... reindeer??" The entire class busts up laughing. The student continues guessing, "A monster — wait. Cat? Big eyes. Flying?"

Eventually he figures out he was abducted by aliens and Superman saved him and brought him to school. There’s a lot of laughing. That’s what Arroyo Seco eighth-grader Francis Diolata likes. He came from the Philippines a year ago.

"It’s fun and you learn new words in English," Diolata says.

But Assistant Principal Cathy Novean says it goes “far beyond” language skills.

"What you’re doing is you’re building confidence and you’re teaching kids, you know, just try it, take a risk, stand up and be goofy," Novean says. "You know, I think once you get into that mindset, like, 'Hey, it was OK for me to stand up and pretend to build something out of imaginary clay, so it’s going to be OK for me to try and ask my math teacher a question in English.'"

Fourteen-year-old Luis Rodriguez came here from Mexico less than one year ago. He likes how this class is a safety zone.

"They don't make fun of us," Rodriguez says. "You’re embarrassed to talk sometimes."

Rodriguez says the theater arts class makes it so it's not as embarrassing to talk.

"It’s better," he says.

Gourrier tells the students time and time again during the class that the number one rule is to have fun and to support each other. The students seem to take that to heart.

Glenna Avila, who oversees the larger Community Arts Parternship program, says public-private partnerships are great, but don’t necessarily save schools money.

"People think that partnerships may save money and they go into it that way. I’m not really convinced that they save a lot of money," says Avila. "I think everybody, if they’re generous with their resources and brings them to the table in an equal way, it can work. But partnerships also take additional resources. But what comes out of it is incredible."

School officials say the class enriches education — something you can’t put a price on. The Cal Arts students say the kids inspire them, too.

The kids wrap up each semester with a final performance — one Dana Gourrier is proud of every time.

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