In the spring of 2006, I took the R5 train from Bryn Mawr, then the Number 10 trolley from 30th Street Station to 41st and Lancaster three days a week to observe the “Expressive Arts” class at the Belmont Charter School. As a New York native who loves the subway, I embrace the public transportation systems in all cities — but the route and time of my journey did not make any sense to me. I had to go east into the city on a route that only stopped in wealthy neighborhoods, then transfer to another vehicle westbound to the school’s neighborhood. This was the first big sign to me that this journey was one that I needed to make. Not just Bryn Mawr, but the entire Main Line is in a bubble protected from the more impoverished areas of Philadelphia only a few miles away, sheltered even by the transportation system. I was lonely on these trips at first, but soon I grew to cherish the time to think and to be away from the sometimes-small world of Bryn Mawr.
It was towards the end of Belmont Charter School’s second trimester when I began to observe seventh- and eighth-grade classes there. I was placed there for my Praxis class, “Arts Teaching in Community Settings,” visiting three days a week for two hours to learn about teaching art. Though Praxis placements are designed to be active, the timing of my entry into the class meant that I had a mainly observational role until the trimester ended. The students seemed to be confused by my presence in the class, and I was similarly insecure. I didn’t feel qualified, though I realized that, at this point, I was only required to listen. The teacher I was working with had informed me before I met with the students that many of them had very difficult situations at home and had been through traumatic experiences. He also had told me that some of the students were testing at reading levels as low as second grade. The eighth graders were working on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What really struck me was that, although the teacher was incredibly compelling and great with the kids, they were not engaging in the play or using their creativity. Rather, there were a great number of discipline issues on a daily basis, and many students chose not to participate. The reading was difficult for them, and the structure of the class required them not only to read aloud to the class, but simultaneously to act it out — essentially to comprehend the text in front of the class. These are reportedly great ideas for reading comprehension, but this process seemed as if it might have been causing more problems than it was relieving. The students were not committed to the play, and they felt bad about themselves for not being able to pull it together. The performances for that trimester were cancelled.
I was determined to do the best that I could to ensure that the next trimester’s show would not be cancelled and was eager to take on a greater role in the classroom. In order to convey to the next trimester’s group of students why they should be excited about their play, I had to reflect on what I love about theater. I act, direct and write theater because I can experiment with being someone other than myself, try to understand other perspectives, share and communicate with others, or just let go. The memorizing and regurgitating of lines in the previous semester was not helping the kids to experience this. I never got an opportunity for the kind of self-expression or reflection that I value now when I was in grade school. I wanted these kids to have a different opportunity. The teacher and I talked about possible changes for the next trimester, and we worked towards incorporating more theater activities that relied on movement and improvisation.
I soon saw a tremendous change in the engagement and enthusiasm of the kids. I was also overcoming many of my own insecurities in these exercises that required us all to act silly, be honest, and share ourselves with one another. Still, the “Expressive Arts” class could not take on this structure permanently, as the curriculum required that the students work on a play that could help them achieve higher language arts standardized testing scores. I was so excited by the slight changes that I saw in the students when we played these theater and improvisation games that I began to explore ways of continuing to work with them in some capacity after my Praxis class ended.
This year I have been working to start an alternative theater program at the Belmont Charter School, a class that operates as an elective, outside of the “Expressive Arts” curriculum, and that involves collaboration with Bryn Mawr and Haverford students. Through this program, middle school and college student actors are exploring self and learning about others through theater and improvisation. Our first performance is scheduled for the end of the semester, and we are working around a theme of “The ‘I’ Inside” as we investigate, deal with and dispel stereotypes and issues in our lives and the environments around us.
The stage is where we can feel big and have our voices heard. It is where we can bring life to characters and where we can let the characters inside of us shine. In my theater education I have learned how to convey stories, thoughts, and emotions, but my experience with the students at Belmont has invaluably taught me to take in, evaluate and learn from others. I want to reach a better understanding of the world, and with theater I have opportunities to take everything I learn and put myself into it fully, literally becoming a part of worlds very different from my own.
I can’t change the way that SEPTA operates its service between Bryn Mawr and Center City Philadelphia. But I can, using art and our schools, bring these two communities together.
Nora Sidoti ’07 earned her A.B. in theater with a minor in English. “The ‘I’ Inside” was performed at an assembly at Belmont Charter School on May 4, 2007 and later that evening at Bryn Mawr College.