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The Arts In Every Classroom: A Video Library K-5

Teaching Theatre

Two specialists work on basic theatre skills with children of various ages, and use theatre education as a gateway to other kinds of learning. At Lusher Alternative Elementary School in New Orleans, Amanda Newberry's lesson in improvisation with a third–grade class stimulates students' imagination, heightens language and listening skills, and encourages critical thinking. At Barney Ford Elementary School in Denver, George Jackson teaches basic movement skills to a first–grade class, invites fourth–graders to take center stage as they explore a script, and works with fifth–graders to create masks that reveal inner feelings.

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A fifth-grade student’s mask reveals an inner vision of herself, at Barney Ford Elementary School in Denver, Colorado.

Two specialist teachers work on basic theatre skills with children of various ages and use theatre education as a gateway to other kinds of learning:

  • At Lusher Alternative Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, theatre teacher Amanda Newberry engages children in theatre exercises that also develop their creative listening and thinking skills.
  • At Barney Ford Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, drama specialist George E. Jackson, III, employs basic and advanced theatre skills to achieve learning goals for different grades.

Featured People

Who’s Who
(In order of appearance)

  • Amanda Newberry, theatre specialist, Lusher Alternative Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana (See interview below)
  • Eve Gitlin, third-grade teacher, Lusher Alternative Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • George E. Jackson, III, theatre coordinator, Barney Ford Elementary School, Denver, Colorado (See interview below)


Featured Schools

Lusher Alternative Elementary School

  • Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Principal: Kathleen Hurstell Riedlinger
  • Assistant Principal: Sheila Nelson
  • Featured teachers and collaborators: Kathy DeJean, dance teacher; Marti Dumas, fifth-grade teacher; Carolyn Cunningham, fifth-grade teacher; Amanda Newberry, theatre teacher; Warren Irwin, visiting artist; Megan Neelis, second-grade teacher; Eve Gitlin, third-grade teacher; Paul Reynaud, first-grade teacher; Geralyn Broussard, first-grade teacher; Nancy Lilly, fourth-grade teacher; Ann Rowson Love, curator of education, Ogden Museum of Southern Art; Louise Trimble Kepper, artist and student of Will Henry Stevens; Kathy Guidry, kindergarten teacher; Carolyn DuBois, fourth-grade teacher; Tricia Ruf, student teacher; Adele Brown, fourth-grade teacher
  • Grades: K–5
  • Number of students: About 500
  • Number of faculty: About 49
  • Demographic information: Thirty percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Two percent of students are English language learners. The student population is 49 percent Caucasian, 41 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American.

Lusher Alternative Elementary, a K–5 public school in the Orleans Parish School District, provides a student-centered curriculum in an atmosphere where each child is encouraged to develop academically, physically, socially, and emotionally.

Strong emphasis is put on a core curriculum with opportunity for development of individual needs and talents using varied teaching styles and strategies. Aided by the Annenberg-Getty Arts Partnership as an Art School Partner, Lusher upholds its school motto: “Celebrating Cultural Diversity Through High Academics and the Arts.”

Lusher’s Talented in the Arts program meets the needs of students who have exceptional ability in music, visual art, or drama. Students are referred by teachers and screened through an evaluation process by the school’s special education department. Students who leave their regular classes to take part in this program also are expected to keep up their regular class work.

Respect for the rights of others and oneself are of utmost importance at Lusher. Teachers use a positive approach to discipline through the Project Pride program. Project Pride’s four basic rules are: be kind, be responsible, do your best work, and respect people and property. At Lusher, the strong bonds of commitment and cooperation among students, teachers, administrators, and the community help provide a strong education for each child.

Information provided by Lusher Alternative Elementary School. Current as of February 2002.


Barney Ford Elementary School

  • Location: Denver, Colorado
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Wanda Lenox
  • Featured teacher: George E. Jackson, III, drama teacher
  • Grades: PreK–5
  • Number of students: 628
  • Number of faculty: 40
  • Demographic information: Eighty-eight percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Almost 35 percent of students are English-language learners. The student population is 55.4 percent Hispanic, 36 percent African-American, 4.3 percent Caucasian, 2.9 percent Asian, and 1.4 percent Native American.

Barney Ford Elementary is named after a former slave who, in addition to becoming educated, became active politically and financially in the 19th-century Colorado territory. This tradition of achievement is central to the vision and success of the school.

Barney Ford Elementary is focused on improving students’ reading, writing, and math skills by using research-based and teacher-tested strategies such as Reading Recovery, Success in Early Reading, and Six-Trait Writing. Teachers are trained in the Step Up To Write program, which has helped many schools improve student writing by concentrating on organization and word choice. Students have opportunities to participate in a wide range of activities, such as an annual Shakespeare Festival and weekly activities in drama, choir, art, computer skills, and physical education.

Information provided by Barney Ford Elementary School. Current as of February 2002.

Featured Approaches

Theatre Exercises

  • In the first exercise, similar to the classic television show “What’s My Line?,” each child is assigned an occupation but is not told what it is. Working in pairs, students zero in on the occupation by asking questions about how the person would do the job. Through the exercise, students learn to ask effective questions and use questioning techniques to create detailed characters.
  • In the improvisation exercise “Sorry, I Must Be Leaving,” students rotate through a scene, devising appropriate plot and dialogue to move the scene forward and account for their actions. They compare the exercise to creative writing techniques and explore the notion that improvisation is like “writing in our heads.”


Learning Goals for Different Grades

  • With a first-grade class, George E. Jackson, III, stresses basic physical coordination, using activities in rhythm, movement, and stretching to help students develop essential motor skills and learn to work together as a team.
  • With a fourth-grade class, Jackson rehearses an original play about Barney Ford, the former slave for whom the school is named, who became a successful business and political figure. Jackson uses “reader’s theatre,” which focuses on dialogue rather than stagecraft to establish character and move the plot forward. Through this exercise, children polish their skills in reading, projection, and stage presence along with basic proficiencies such as paying attention and sitting still.
  • Fifth-graders work with Jackson to create original masks, inspired by the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Inside each mask, students paste words that describe their inner characters. Then they paint the outside to reflect what they believe the world sees. Variety in techniques and approaches is important to Jackson. “I want to expose them to different things so they can decide what they like,” he says.

Who Should Watch This Program

“Teaching Theatre” can be incorporated effectively into professional development courses and workshops for theatre specialists. It also could be used to show classroom teachers how they can incorporate theatre techniques to enhance learning in their classrooms.

Other audiences might include:

  • mixed groups of classroom teachers; theatre specialists, other arts specialists, and resource people exploring collaboration-building;
  • curriculum or arts-project planners, to help them expand their ideas about how theatre techniques contribute to learning in other subject areas;
  • teachers, administrators, and policymakers, to demonstrate how arts specialists apply standards to their curriculum and communicate standards to students; and
  • visiting artists and artists-in-residence, to give them ideas about classroom practices and teaching techniques.

Before Watching

Look for ways the teachers in this program use both improvisational and text-based techniques to develop creative-thinking skills:

  • How can teachers use improvisation to promote creative writing?
  • How can they use text to encourage creative thinking?
  • What are the benefits of each approach?
  • What would be the product of each approach?

Amanda Newberry and George E. Jackson, III, incorporate movement into many of their theatre exercises. Consider these questions:

  • How does movement enhance their students’ learning?
  • How might movement-based techniques be used to engage students in reading, math, and other academic subjects?

Watch the program!

Theatre does not require a stage — in fact, performances in tents, at churches, and on the street are long-standing theatre traditions. Pay attention to the settings used by the teachers in this program:

  • How could you incorporate theatre activities in your classroom?


Amanda Newberry

Theatre specialist, Lusher Alternative Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana

Amanda Newberry studied at Pilgrim College Drama School and the New College of Speech and Drama in England. Her experience includes touring with the Bubble Theatre Company in England, performing at Blackfriars Performing Arts Center in England, and at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in New Orleans, Louisiana. She also has done a good deal of educational touring throughout the New Orleans area, including in New Orleans Public Schools.

Q. How often do you work with each classroom?

A. This depends on the teacher, the project, the school day and my other commitments. Ideally, I work with each classroom every day for at least 45 minutes. However, usually I am able to do it three to four times a week for a classroom period for half of the school year. In mentoring classes [kindergarten and fourth grade] it has to be for the full school year, because the process of social interactions — learning is a product of social interactions — enables students to go beyond where they would on their own. This can’t be hurried.

Q. Do classroom teachers prepare their students for your visit? If so, how?

A. Before the initial program begins, the teacher and I talk about setting the tone of a drama class. If students are to trust that they can freely express themselves in an exercise, you must set the proper mood. Before each class, I ask the teacher to remind the students of the ground rules: “Today we are going to use our imaginations and play some exciting games. Those who do not follow directions may not be able to participate.” The atmosphere needs to be nurturing, but discipline is essential.

Q. Do you collaborate with the classroom teacher to integrate each other’s lessons? How do you involve a classroom teacher in a lesson like this?

A. I do not have any preconceived lessons. When a teacher requests drama, I ask for a copy of his or her curriculum for the semester. Then I put on my thinking cap and see where drama would fit best. Then I sit down and brainstorm with the teacher.

Drama is a way for students to be motivated, use what they know, learn new information, create new understandings, and apply knowledge. In this way, drama helps students understand how to learn, be aware, and be critical in their thinking. This lesson is only part of the process of “Bringing Writing Alive.” It is another step in building character that can be used in their story writing.

Q. What skills do children learn from the exercise “Sorry, I Must Be Leaving”?

A. The exercise stimulates the imagination, promotes creative thinking, develops critical-thinking skills, promotes language development, heightens effective listening skills, increases empathy and awareness of others, and fosters respect and group cooperation.

Q. How did you develop the sequence that led up to this exercise?

A. The exercise was part of curriculum activities that promoted language and thinking skills in role-play. Anything is possible with role-play, which motivates students to listen, think, and speak. It allows the teacher to bring countless guests into the classroom and change the environment.

Q. What resources do classroom teachers need to do this lesson in their classrooms?

A. What they need most is to be open to experimentation and not afraid to fail. Also important are imagination, energy, risk taking, and teamwork.

The teacher should have two chairs to show the order of the performers and keep the students from acting in a physically crazy way. The emphasis is on dialogue and the importance of questioning.



George E. Jackson, III

Theatre coordinator, Barney Ford Elementary School, Denver, Colorado

George E. Jackson, III, earned his undergraduate degree in communication and theater arts from Taylor University. He served as the first director of multicultural programs at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania; assistant director of admissions for the College of Performing Arts, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana; and director of arts and education for Word of Life Christian Center, Denver, Colorado. Later, he returned to academia as a fourth-grade teacher for Denver Public Schools. In 2001, he accepted an invitation to teach a pilot arts program at Barney Ford Elementary School, a Denver public school with a predominately Hispanic and African-American student population. While a college student, Jackson was featured as a vocalist at the 1984 Olympic Games, and he has continued to perform in local and regional theatres throughout his career.

Q. How do children benefit by having their theatre instruction on an actual stage?

A. The benefits of having the students on stage are mainly visual. By that I mean that students can learn from hands-on experience, such as being able to better understand about projection, upstage, downstage, where the wings are, and so on.

Q. Can you replicate this experience in a regular classroom?

A. Yes, this experience can be replicated within a classroom space. You may want to take the students on a tour of your school’s auditorium or theater first [if one is available] to show them the space and the various areas on and off the stage. Then, go back to the classroom and mark off with masking tape where the stage begins and ends, where the wings are, and so on. In smaller rooms, however, this could prove to be difficult.

Q. Do you expose your students to live performances throughout the year?

A. I do expose our students at all grade levels to various performers and speakers. Most of that is determined by the amount of funding that has been set aside by the principal. We expose students to live plays, dance troupes, black cowboy exhibits, and interesting public figures here in Colorado. I also invite my local friends in the arts to come to my class.

Q. How important is it to expose students to live performers?

A. We live in a world surrounded by sound and fast-moving images. I find that bringing in performers of all types helps students by reinforcing what you have been sharing within the classroom. It lends credibility, allowing students to ask questions of the guest performer.

Q. Please tell us about the interpretive performance, including the mask-making activity, that you developed based on the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A. The mask-making activity was brought about by two things:

  • the basis of the poem [taken from the text of the Dunbar poem We Wear the Mask] itself and the type of masks we make in life, either to defend ourselves or to protect ourselves or others we come in contact with, and
  • the student who shot students at his high school in California last year.

Q. Are there other classes besides this one focusing on the Harlem Renaissance? How can this topic be expanded into other subject areas, such as social studies or English?

A. There are no other classes at this school focusing on the Harlem Renaissance at this time. There is a great Web site at Encarta Schoolhouse that can help teachers to plan and cover curriculum areas such as English, social studies, art, and so on. Look under “The Harlem Renaissance.”

Additional Resources

Related Video Library Programs
Watch these programs for more information on ideas explored in “Teaching Theatre”:


Web Resources


Recommended by Amanda Newberry:

For Information on Paul Laurence Dunbar:

  • Paul Laurence Dunbar Web Site

Print Resources

  • Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies), Third Edition, by Viola Spolin, Paul Sills (Editor)
  • Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook, by Viola Spolin
  • Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium, by Betty Jean Wagner

Arts Education Standards


    • Content Standard 1 — Script writing by planning and recording improvisations based on personal experiences and heritage, imagination, literature, and historyAchievement Standards for Grades K–4
      • Collaborate to select interrelated characters, environments, and situations for classroom dramatizations
    • Content Standard 2 — Acting by assuming roles and interacting in improvisation

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

      • Assume roles that exhibit concentration and contribute to the action of classroom dramatizations based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history
      • Use variations of locomotor and non-locomotor movement and vocal pitch, tempo, and tone for different characters
    • Content Standard 3 — Designing by visualizing and arranging environments for classroom dramatizations

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

    • Collaborate to establish playing spaces for classroom dramatizations and to select and safely organize available materials that suggest scenery, properties, lighting, sound, costumes, and makeup

Source: National Standards for Arts Education, published by Music Educators National Conference (MENC). Copyright © 1994 by MENC. Used by permission. The complete National Arts Standards and additional materials relating to the Standards are available from MENC, The National Association for Music Education, 1806 Robert Fulton Drive, Reston, VA 20191, telephone: 800-336-3768.