Learning through Imagination
October 16, 2004
I recently told our 3-year-old son a bedtime story about two friends… It was a lazy summer day. The hard metal of the railroad by their house seemed to burn red from the sun’s heat. Peter’s mom had brought out lemonade. He and his friend Paul sat and stared at the tracks that melted into the forest. “My dad tells me that at the end of those tracks,” said Peter, “there’s a place where all the gumballs come from, a place where you can stuff your pockets full with every color and flavor.” “I don’t think so,” said Paul. “There is nothing at the end of those tracks except for more tracks and more tracks and more tracks.” “No, that’s not true,” Peter responded. “If that’s true then you tell me, where do gumballs come from?” There was silence. “Let’s go then,” Paul finally said. Their cups of lemonade sweated in their hands as Peter thought about the heat, his mom, the tracks, and… the gumballs. They each took one more drink and darted out on their journey… At this point our son was completely enthralled. “Yeah, to find the gumballs,” he said with eyes as big as the circles he made with his hands. “Big, big, gumballs.” Peter and Paul made it well down the tracks. The sun had dropped lower in the sky, a defined ball of yellow that would soon drop into the hands of the earth. “Are we almost there?” Paul said, a little frustrated. Just then they saw a bridge and below a valley with gumball trees dotting every glance – red, blue, green, purple, orange – every color under heaven. They stuffed their pockets until they could hardly walk and headed home.
Children’s stories are usually stocked full of mythical places and charmed events that give pause for them to begin to recognize both their own creativity and the creative place that God has made, even if they later substitute gumball trees for apple or orange trees. The point is to look beyond your own eyes and imagine. Most recently students Andra Dunn and Beth Kinney brought in a certain kind of magic to a fifth-grade classroom, the magic of theatre and playacting.
“We started with the basics of theatre,” says Andra, “about props, lines, scenes, and story. Once we had introduced them to these ideas, they knew what to do.” Andra, a theatre major, and Beth, an education drama major, had two weeks in Ms. Hartman’s class at Jefferson Elementary in Shawnee, to teach theatre and allow the students to write and star in their own play. “Kids are role playing during recess every day,” says Beth. “The boys are commonly playing war and the girls are playing dolls. It’s not a far stretch to bring this into the classroom.”
Growing up in Garber, Oklahoma, the closest theatre for Andra was more than 30 minutes away. Beth had a similar context in Bloomfield, New Mexico. As a result, they both value the role of theatre productions and know what it means when that expression is absent. “It’s amazing to work with these kids and see them open up,” says Andra. “One girl in particular was very introverted when we first arrived, but this all changed by the end of our two weeks. By thinking through a play and being part of that production ‘Blue Fish,’ as she called her character, became engaged in the subject matter and with her fellow students.”
“We gave the students specific directions to create individual characters, define those characters, and then work as a class to incorporate each character into the settings of the play,” says Beth.
So accompany Beth, Andra, and Ms. Hartman’s class on “The Great China Adventure,” as the students called their production. The play opens in an underwater lab, where two mad scientists have developed a radioactive slingshot. We are not sure why, but they only lack Jeanie’s lamp to make everything work. The lamp is somewhere in the ocean and must be stolen and delivered to the mad scientists as soon as possible. Therefore, they employ Cyrus and Spy to accomplish the mission. It’s unclear why the play is set in China, but as Cyrus and Spy are looking for the lamp, Mist, Sally, and several others are atop the Great Wall of China and figure out that the mad scientists must have a secret lab. They must find it. The scene shifts to Shark who is guarding Jeanie’s lamp, bored that nothing ever happens. Cyrus and Spy sneak in, take the lamp, and throw a fish to Shark as they swim off. Somewhere an angel enters the scene and helps collect all the sea creatures to wage a great battle with the scientists. At the end of the play only one character remains standing and she keeps repeating, “Help me.”
The great strength that Beth and Andra discovered is the versatility of playmaking to apply to many subjects. It is something that they each play out in their own lives. As members of OBU’s recently formed drama team ECHO, they perform six to eight shows a year with the purpose of communicating Christian principles through short sketches. “We write the material ourselves,” says Andra, “and perform at churches around the area.” In addition, Andra just completed another summer at Theatre 315, an off-Broadway house in New York City organized by the Salvation Army. Having graduated last spring, Andra hopes to continue working in the New York City area. Beth will graduate this December. She spent the summer working at Centrifuge, and hopes to continue combining theatre and education, perhaps in a church setting in the near future.
Peter and Paul made it back just before dinner. Peter had a bright yellow dump truck in his room. They quickly emptied the gumballs from their pockets until the truck overflowed, and rolled it under Peter’s bed. They washed their hands, which were quite sticky by now, and sat down for dinner. Unfortunately for Peter and Paul, turnip greens and squash casserole stared back at them from their plates. Hesitantly, they each took one bite, then another, and another, until their plates were licked clean. Peter’s mom looked baffled, but the two boys smiled at each other without saying a word. They didn’t need to explain it. Everything had the hint of tasting like gumballs, and that made all the difference.