“We do plays to help convince people to take action. “The Hope Chest” by Karen Schwabach and “Weedflower” by Cynthia Kadohata

Here is a letter I sent to fourth and fifth grade families regarding performances of two books I adapted into plays for my fourth and fifth grade students, “The Hope Chest” and “Weedflower.” The books and the plays deal with themes of racism, sexism and other serious topics. The children chose to do this material and the letter below describes the process of making the plays. I was concerned that families would not understand the deep connection the students felt for the material. I have never had students so invested in their work. It was a wonderful experience. I’m trying to get in touch with the Schwabach and Kadohata. The books are extraordinary in that they approach serious topics in an age appropriate way for 4th and 5th graders.

Karen Schwabach. If you see this post, I would love to talk with you about working on an approved script of your book, THE HOPE CHEST. The children, the composer and I loved it. I’d like to work on it again with your permission. http://www.lizannewilson.com.

December 3, 2012

Dear Fourth and Fifth Grade Families,

Here is an update on the fourth and fifth grade plays.

Performances: Thursday, December 13, 2012

Weedflower: 8:45 in Carlson Auditorium

The Hope Chest: 3:30 in Carlson Auditorium

“Experiment is the mother of knowledge”

~ Madeline L’Engle “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Why This Play? Why Now?

We weren’t aware there would be a play in fourth and fifth grade this year but emergent, constructivist curriculum sometimes plays out in ways one never expects and at Baker we make art with our children.

This fall, 5B read Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata as their read-aloud book. Grades 4A, 4B and 5A read The Hope Chest by Karen Schweibach. Weedflower is about a young Japanese girl, who is placed, with her family, in a series of Japanese internment camps. In the final camp, Sumiko, a young 11-year-old girl, learns about friendship, freedom and hope when she befriends an elderly man who teaches her to garden and a young Native American boy who becomes her first real friend.

The Hope Chest is about another 11 year old girl, Violet, who runs away from her home in Pennsylvania to New York City to meet up with her sister, Chloe, a suffragist and nurse. In New York, Violet meets Myrtle, a young African-American girl who becomes Violet’s friend and joins her in her travels. When Violet discovers that Chloe isn’t in New York, Violet continues her adventures as she travels to Nashville to work alongside her sister as Tennessee prepares to vote on ratification of the 19th Amendment. There are many hurdles the girls face as they encounter racism, sexism and many different types of people from Hobie the Hobo to some very well to do members of the “Antis” and the “Suffs.”

It was the students who convinced me to adapt the books into small plays for each class to perform. Mrs. Guerra, our wonderful music teacher, wrote the music and she invited the students to write lyrics for the songs in the play. In drama class, we looked at the ingredients for a good story and considered the ideas that would take the books from “page to stage.”  The children identified the exposition, rising action, climax and falling action in both stories. We discussed what must remain to tell the story in a compelling way and we set aside the rest. Together with the classroom teachers, as part of the fourth and fifth grade Civics unit, we studied the customs and mindset of the 20s and the 40s. Students’ work in neutral mask helped us to explore character through movement and heightened their kinesthetic understanding of the similarities and differences of each historical period.

As we discussed the stories’ protagonists, the students shared their own stories of when they felt invisible or overlooked in their lives. We discussed other topics raised by the books such as racism, sexism and voting rights. We discussed many times in class why historical fiction is important for our learning.

Creating the plays with the fourth and fifth graders has been fascinating. This time, we have a production staff for each classroom including stage managers, costume and prop designers and stage crew. Students are learning that theater is a collaborative art form and much of the magic comes from a team of designers and staff who hold a production together with their creativity, imagination and organizational skills.

Last Friday, a fifth grade class reflected on why we do plays in fourth and fifth grade. Many of the students explained that plays make people feel instead of simply thinking about ideas and events,  “When you feel things it helps you to change and to take action. We do plays to help convince people to take action.”

I cast the plays with much forethought after discussing “color-blind” and “gender-blind” casting– casting without concern for gender or race when choosing which actor to play a role. We had frank conversations about the differences in today’s society and our society many years ago. Our Baker students understand that Baker has a long history of casting without regard to race or gender.

When you watch the performance next Thursday, remember that the children experience and understand the issues raised in the play (and the books) on their own developmental level. We see things as adults with all of our life experiences incorporated into our impressions, and although the strong emotions and gut-wrenching reactions that arise for us when our children openly portray historical topics of race, class, and power, the children have vastly different perspectives and see their experimentation with the topic as benefiting society and their own community.  When you speak with your children about their work on the production, we encourage you to ask questions of them. Ask them about the process of creating the play, ask them about what they have discovered and learned in their Civics unit. Let the children be your guide to understanding their play on their terms.

Baker is unique in that we teach an integrated arts curriculum in collaboration with classroom teachers who understand and support the importance of the arts in a well-rounded education. This was truly a team effort. Our Baker kids thought it was important to explore these books for the serious issues they raised and for the unique and interesting characters created by the authors. What you see and hear in the performance is brand new material adapted from the novels. The play is only a part of a rich and complex imaginative journey of discovery. Whatever turns up on stage on Thursday is only a tiny reflection of the range and depth of the students’ and teachers’ journeys together.

Thanks for sharing your imaginative and passionate young people with us. They never fail to surprise and delight. They take risks, explore ideas deeply and work to their fullest potential.

Lizanne Wilson

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