Theatrefolk - The Drama Teacher Resource Company

How to Build Community with Theatre

We were lucky enough to speak with two teachers at Northwest Middle School in Flowood, MS – Emily Wright and Genifer Freeman – about how the entire school (even the Principal) got involved in a theatre production. You can hear the entire podcast here. We’ll share with you how they did it, and how successful it was in building a sense of community in their school.

The Summer Reading Book

At Northwest Middle School in 2014, the entire school was assigned the same book for a summer reading assignment: Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. The book is about the Sudanese civil war and the need for clean water in that region.

Each student (in the 7th and 8th grades) was responsible for reading the book over the summer break. Every discipline in the school had to incorporate the book some way into their curriculum. While it met with some resistance at first, the school community could hardly have imagined what a huge impact this project would have on both their community and a village in Sudan.

The Play’s the Thing

Teacher Emily Wright was thrilled when she found a play called The Walking Boys by Robert McDonough, which was based on the story of Salva Dut from A Long Walk to Water. This play became the theatre program’s focal point to share with the school community at large.

It was a special experience when the show went onstage and Salva’s story really came alive. Teachers often try to get their students to think more globally, but this play gave the opportunity to bring it to life. It tells the story of children journeying through their homeland just trying to find refuge from the civil war. When the student performers realized they were the same age as Salva and these other boys, it really connected with them.

The Choral Connection

There was also a special group that helped to bring music to the play. While Emily was working with her theatre students to produce the play, Genifer Freeman, the school’s choral director, found a unique connection with music that would complement the project.

She searched for African-style music, as it was difficult to find text and songs that were written in the Sudanese language. Genifer worked with her newly-formed boys choir to choose a song called Kawouno Wan Gi Pi. It is a song with an African rhythm and a text that helped the students correlate (the song talks about water being thankful). It wasn’t your typical choir at all!

The Non-Theatre Students

The choir became the “Lost Boys” within the play. Having this group involved resulted in strong camaraderie among a group of students who came from different walks. There were football player students, really strong academic students, and students who had IEPs. Many students who were just not going to participate in a theatre activity in a traditional way.

They became a band of brothers. Many of them had not even read the text, due to learning difficulties.

The Art, Science, PE, and Math Connections

The school’s art teachers designed beautiful African art to be hung on the wings of the stage, and in the school’s entryways.

The science teachers focused on the clean water project. The math teachers used the text to form equations – for example, the actual footsteps of the walk from their homeland to the refugee camps. The PE classes incorporated the walking part into their curriculum as well. All of these activities allowed students to connect with an event that happened on the other side of the world. It became personable.

The Leader

The school principal, Mr. Jacob McEwen, was give the role of Salva’s father. He had never been onstage. In fact, he was quite nervous! But he committed to it for the students.

And because of that, he was no longer the principal. He was part of the cast and he got to feel the camaraderie and family connection that comes from being onstage with an ensemble. Everyone was involved in making him feel comfortable.

The Fundraising Tie-In

Before the summer even started, the school established a big fundraising tie-in goal for the end of the following year. The initial goal was to raise $8,000 to build a clean water well.

All the different clubs and organizations at the school did their own fundraising to make their mark and to donate in some way. The school sold tickets to the production. Students filled up water bottles with pennies, held bake sales, sold popcorn, asked for donations from businesses and parents. Little by little, it all added up.

The school ended up raising $17,000 – enough to build two wells and help with other mechanical repairs! It was a huge success.

When students saw this photograph and realized they had actually made their mark, they came to tears. In the photograph, the villagers are standing in front of the well that has the imprint “H2O for Life – Northwest Rankin Middle School” with the year that it was built – it is forever imprinted in that village.

Inspired? Hear the whole story on the Theatrefolk podcast. You might just be the next teacher to spearhead a project like this one at your school!

Click here for a free PDF downloadable Reflection and Cross-Curricular Brainstorm Exercise for your students.
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