If you know Mike Wiley, you know that he is full of expression, captures an audience almost instantly, and finds a way to pull out the inner theater artist in everyone he meets. This fall, students and teachers at Perry Harrison Elementary and Bennett School discovered this first-hand during Wiley’s performance of Jackie Robinson: A Game Apart and classroom workshops, as part of the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative. Through artistic immersion, the program helps foster a personal connection for students to academic lessons.
“Mike Wiley entertained and educated us through an incredibly dynamic and interactive performance,” said Sara Knight, 5th grade ELA/Social Studies teacher at Perry Harrison. “He exposed students to some of the most influential African-Americans and brought to life their story of courage and hope for a better America. Wiley‘s interpretation of these historical figures solidified why studying the past is essential in the present. This was an incredible way to spark students’ interest in learning about significant parts of history.”
Wiley, who is a nationally known theater artist, used the remarkable story of Jackie Robinson to make a stronger curriculum connection to history. The students in the audience watched in awe as Wiley transformed into multiple characters right before their eyes. Hands shot up throughout the crowd at the mention of volunteers needed to act out the story. Students, teachers, and administrators bravely took their spots at the front of the room to repeat lines or pantomime motions, as directed by Wiley. Underneath the performance, was the very real, very raw history of civil rights in America, which students were digesting little by little.
“I think it’s important to be able to perform these shows that are about diversity, especially African-Americans who worked hard to push through a color barrier,” explained Wiley. “These kids are probably wondering why we are so polarized as a society, as a community, as a town. This gives them context for that polarization and hopefully allows them, much like Jackie and the others, to push through whatever color barriers might be put up in their minds, in their homes or in their communities.”
In addition to the performance, fifth graders at both schools participated in individual classroom workshops where Wiley partnered with Howard Craft, local author and playwright, to lead students in writing exercises that leverage theater to convey self-expression. After warm-up exercises where Wiley endeavored to refocus students’ bodies, voices, and provide a model for expressiveness, students worked on several different types of writing assignments, sharpening their language/arts skills and building their confidence.
Craft provided students with interesting writing prompts to help them create character poems based on their own lives and monologues based on a noun and adjective they were given. For some students, writing about themselves was a new experience. This was an opportunity to think about what they disliked, liked, and loved, what they read and watched, what games they played, and even what superhero powers they would have. It took introspection. The second writing exercise was a test in ascribing emotion to inanimate objects. Students were tasked with transforming into a “sleepy fork” or “angry saltshaker” while describing what their typical day is like. The final pieces were hilarious and incredibly creative.
“With regard to writing, arts in education gives students the opportunity to engage their imagination, and in doing so, open their minds up to the magic and possibilities of language,” exclaimed Craft. Engage their imagination – they did!
On the last day of the residency, students at both schools braved their peers to share their written work. Students who started out shy, gained more and more confidence as they continued reading. Classmates cheered, then bounded out of their seats for their turn to share what they had written.
But this residency did not end with classroom workshops. Teachers at both schools were also given the opportunity to participate in professional development training with Wiley and Craft, which took place at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center. Teachers from both schools popped up at Wiley’s behest to participate in bits of performance – cheered on by their teaching colleagues – before working with Craft on creative writing pieces and sharing those out loud. You could sense the connections being formed, both to the work and to their colleagues. “The most useful information that was given to the teachers was centered around drawing on student interests when writing,” said Carla Neal, Ed.D., Principal at Bennett School. “I would welcome the opportunity to work with Mike again in the future. He fit right in with our school and brought such a fun energy with him.”
The Chatham Arts Council could not bring professional artists into Chatham County schools without the help of our partners: Chatham County Schools, Chatham County, and the North Carolina Arts Council.
A HUGE thank you to our sponsors for powering this initiative in these amazing schools. The Mike Wiley Theater arts residency at Perry Harrison was powered by the R.E. and E.F. Crane Foundation. His residency at Bennett School was powered by Miki Adams, Artist.
The Chatham Arts Council is working to expand the Artists-in-Schools Initiative this year, bringing professional artists into 13 Chatham County schools. Click here to be part of this artistic endeavor.