In the fall of 2009, we piloted a program called Literacy to Life at Mathews Elementary, a Title I school (where half or more of the student population is below the poverty line) whose population includes the surrounding neighborhood, University of Texas graduate school housing, a children’s shelter, and a homeless shelter. The Literacy to Life program provides unique creative writing instruction to individual classrooms in low-income neighborhoods through an eight-week residency program. The mission of Literacy to Life is to empower underserved youth by helping them develop their own creative voices and to celebrate the power of their imaginations.
Unlike traditional classroom models, our teaching artists help children in the classroom to develop creative writing skills and self-esteem through interactive drama, storytelling, and writing exercises. When the residency is finished, The Paramount Theatre’s professional actors, improvisers and musicians transform the stories, poems, and essays into a fast-paced, forty-five minute show for the stage. The actors then return to the school and perform these works for the young authors and the entire school community. The students see their writing brought to life.
Jaclyn Sepp, the third grade teacher at Mathews, wrote this about her students’ experience:
“My class was so fortunate to be the first class in Austin to take part in the “Literacy to Life” project. My students can’t stop talking about the performance. I can’t begin to express how exciting it was to have professional actors honor the writing of my 3rd grade students. I work with a diverse group of students that often come to third grade not feeling confident as learners. The program is set up in a way to make all students feel comfortable sharing their ideas. My students now believe that they are writers. Even my ESL students feel more confident towards writing and aren’t afraid to read their writing aloud. My students actually CHOOSE to write during their free time. The entire experience was uplifting and has turned our classroom into an environment where we all can be proud of each other.”
Here are some letters from the students:
Hesam was a great student with a vivid imagination. The piece he wrote that was selected for the show was called “Animal Wrestling Shop.” It’s a letter to his teacher explaining that the reason he was late was that he went to a pet store and ended up in wrestling matches with all the animals. In the end, of course, Hesam was the champion. The piece was presented as a song, and was the closing act of the show.
Amelia was always so excited to have us there. We did end up using her pilgrim play, and she seemed to leave the show very happy.