Mesa Arts Center uses theater to promote literacy for elementary students - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Word play Mesa Arts Center uses theater to promote literacy for elementary students

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Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013 11:49 am | Updated: 7:27 pm, Tue Mar 12, 2013.

Combine three little pigs, a trip to one of the most renowned arts centers in the state and a group of school children, and that makes for one exciting field trip.

Take a look behind the scenes and you’ll discover literacy development, etiquette training and a way to develop a love for the arts.

School children from Mesa’s Lowell Elementary School took a trip to the Mesa Arts Center recently for what was likely the first theater experience for many of the students. It’s part a program dubbed “Basic Arts” that exposes children to theater and visual arts and then turns those experiences into writing and discovery opportunities.

For the past four years, the students from Mesa’s Lowell Elementary School have had the opportunities at the Mesa Arts Center through funding made possible by the center’s foundation. Prior to their visit to the Mesa Arts Center, performers and theater experts come to the school to provide lessons that include dramatic readings, insights into what they may see at the show and lessons on how they should behave.

Then, one week after the show, Mesa Arts Center comes again to the school. Students discuss what they saw and are given the opportunity to become critics or even re-create the story in a different way.

“It’s not just sending the kids off to see some cultural event. It’s preparing them for what they’re going to see, having them see it, and then having them reflect and talk about what they did see,” said Lowell principal Sandy Kuhn. “I just know it something our kids enjoy and for many of our kids we’re building that background for them that they might not have had the opportunity for.”

Norma Jean Velarde, a first-teacher at Lowell, has participated in the Basic Arts program since its inception. She joined other first- and second-grade teachers at the recent trip to see “The Three Little Pigs.” Each grade level at the school gets one visit to the center each year.

“The whole experience starts before we get to go see the play. The reason I think the children respond so well, the MAC puts on some pre show workshops, so we get to hear different versions of ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ then we get to act out some of the scenes that are going to be in the play,” she said.

Afterward, the children wrote opinion pieces about the wolf in the play. During the Mesa Arts Center show, the wolf was excused for his actions against the pigs because he had a cold. But the students were given the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not they thought that was appropriate.

“The experience is one that they will never have an opportunity to have, especially this school. We’re inner city, very Title 1,” she said. “ A lot of these kids may live walking distance from the theater, but the chance of them being able to go watch a show with their family is slim.”

That’s one reason Lowell was selected years ago, said Cindy Ornstein, executive director of the Mesa Arts Center and director of arts and culture for the City of Mesa.

“It’s the opportunity to reach out and provide supplementary experiences that would help improve literacy for young kids. There’s a lot of research that shows if you can improve literacy in elementary school, then the rest of the child’s educational experience will be much more successful all the way through life. We wanted to help introduce that,” she said.

Ornstein said the center is considering changing the name of the program from Basic Arts to Literacy through the Arts to better reflect what they’re trying to accomplish.

The center is also trying to create teacher training tools that can be available to other schools so they, too, may use theater and visual arts to promote reading and writing.

“We’re trying to both inspire and motivate as well as reinforce skills they’re learning in the classroom,” she said.

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