From the beginning there was a danger - and there still is - that we would enter a classroom and impose our methods and ideas on teachers and children. However, we have a slogan, borrowed from Bertolt Brecht, which keeps us fairly honest: we do our best to make ourselves dispensable. It is only the fearful individual who wants to retain power by keeping all his knowledge to himself. By not sharing knowledge, the expert can pose as omniscient. We want to show that we are all fortunately replaceable, different but replaceable - especially when it comes to sharing knowledge and skills.
To this end, we make contact with all the schools, teachers, and administrators in the spring before we offer our program. We acquaint ourselves with the school community to the best of our ability. Prior to the school year, we offer a workshop where we introduce the Neighborhood Bridges curriculum and methods, the anthology of stories, as well as ways the teachers can use our program to reinforce their own curriculum and teaching methods. During the school year, each pair of teaching artists and classroom teachers holds a weekly, hour-long preparatory meeting to discuss changes, problems, and new ideas. Three times a year, we hold joint meetings with all the teachers and teaching artists to discuss challenges and future plans.
Being at the forefront of education reform is a difficult task, one that is not without its challenges. Ironically, one of the toughest challenges we face in implementing Neighborhood Bridges arises between our curriculum and the classroom teachers' curriculum, which largely focuses on the state's regulations and standardized tests. Teachers have found that our work makes the writing, reading, and learning that the children do more pleasurable and even more effective than the official programs. These same teachers, however, feel pressure to limit the time they spend on our arts-based curriculum, as they prepare their students to take the state's standardized tests. This is the kind of contradiction that we actually seek to expose, as well as to resolve through collaboration.
Our collaboration, however, does not just involve teaching artists, classroom teachers, and administrators, but also university students and professors, the staff at The Children's Theatre (CTC), and other local arts organizations. At certain stages of the program, their expertise is called upon, and their knowledge shared. In February students bind their stories into books with the help of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. In the spring, scenic artists from CTC work with the children to build their own sets, props, and costumes which they use in their final performance at The Crossing Bridges Festival. This celebration, which takes place at CTC in May, is the year's most elaborate collaboration, drawing an audience of students, teachers, parents, and community members from eight different schools. Each classroom performs an original play which they developed and produced with the help of their classroom teacher and teaching artist - a collaborative effort that expresses and articulates how the children see and imagine themselves in the world around them.
The children in May are not the same children that we meet in September. Obviously they will have changed because of all sorts of biological, psychological, and social factors. Viewed in light of our program, however, we can note individual and collective changes in varying degrees. We encourage and foster this transformation in two primary ways: we are constantly changing the classroom environment and introducing the children to new environments; we use improvisation to change rules and regulations and to shift their expectations and audience expectations.
Each session that we conduct is held within the school classroom - an environment that we are constantly transforming. After the fantastic binominal, a game that involves movement by the teaching artists, writing, and students sharing stories in front of their classmates, the chairs and tables are pushed to the side for the duration of the Bridges session. Through this simple adjustment, the group creates a free space, a no-place where we can create whatever environment we want - a deep transformation, on a number of levels. The children recognize that their classroom can be something other than it normally is, the objects they find in it will become whatever they imagine them to be, and - most profoundly - they themselves will become other than what they think they are.
Environmental change leads to personal change. Just as our initial game with the fantastic binominal animates the children to conceive stories in which two haphazard elements can be brought together through their imagination to form a story, their story, so our emphasis on movement and taking over terrain in the classroom for storytelling, discussion, games, rehearsal, and performance can lead to an understanding of how appropriation can work.
As much as possible, we want to suggest to the children (and the teachers) that appropriation can enable them to express their desires and needs. We model change. We take risks. We show that we are not afraid to take risks even when we may make blunders. We adapt to constantly changing conditions in the classroom and in the school. We respond to parents who may not want their children to participate in our games because of religious reasons. We try to show how change may be linked to tolerance, and we form three groups of children within the classroom that stay together throughout the year. We hope that the formation of these groups will enable them to build their own little community and to cooperate with one another. We try to foster respect and understanding among the three groups that we have formed. In the end, they will join together and be changed into one large community to produce a play for other classes and schools.
With our emphasis on transformation, we have witnessed shy children stepping into spaces that they had never entered before and fulfilling themselves. We have seen children who are unwilling to work with the teachers, to read and write during the week, join with us to act, read, write, and express themselves as freely as they want. We have seen children conceive art, writing, and dramatic projects that represent changes they have been undergoing and reveal how much they are discovering about themselves and the world around them. Finally, we note changes in the teachers and ourselves - how more sensitive we become to the children's needs and our own and how we use conversation to do problem solving and to create projects that build on our social awareness and creative designs.