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Dr. Brook Davis

Department: Theatre

Course/Project: Theatre in Education

Location: Diggs Magnet School and Latham Elementary School in Winston-Salem, NC

Wake Forest University Associate Professor Brook Davis has learned that theatre can be an excellent teaching tool for students of all ages.

Davis, who has taught theatre at Wake Forest for more than a decade, offers a “Theatre in Education” course every other spring that lets students get their proverbial feet wet in local elementary school classrooms.  Davis started a partnership with Diggs Magnet School in 2004, just after the school adopted a focus on the arts.  Since then, Davis’ Wake Forest students have visited the school regularly to provide curriculum-focused lessons that employ theatre as a teaching tool.

This year, Davis placed some of her students at Latham Elementary as well, in anticipation of when the two schools merge next year to become Diggs-Latham Elementary with an arts and global studies theme.

“It’s great.  It’s a hands-on lab for them…So many of my theatre students have found that they really love teaching and they didn’t know they would,” Davis said describing the course, which remains in high demand at Wake and draws mainly students majoring in theatre or education.  “On the flip side, my education students come into the class already knowing they love teaching, and they discover how many ways theatre can be used in traditional classrooms.  So, the class benefits from the mix of students.”

Wake students enrolled in the Theatre in Education course spend each Wednesday’s class period working directly with children at Diggs and Latham.  Following curriculum guidelines provided by the elementary classroom teachers, Wake students design and implement a variety of lesson plans using theatre as the vehicle for the day’s lesson.  The undergraduates share and critique lesson plans with one another, which then leads to the students presenting 20-25 minute lessons in pairs.

“A Mad Hatter Tea Party,” “Peter Pan Math” and “Chinese New Year with Hand Puppets” were among this year’s lessons. Davis believes a non-traditional approach to teaching the state’s standard course of study can be extremely beneficial for some [elementary school] students.

“We find that the kids who have a hard time sitting at their desks really shine [with this approach],” she related.  “We love to get into the classrooms and find those kids and perhaps promote a lifelong connection with theatre.”

Wake student Mike Pizzalato expressed how the experience made a lasting impression on him.

“I was petrified the first day,” admitted Pizzalato, a junior theatre major.  “But [the students] are just the sweetest people in the world, and so smart.”

Pizzalato, who hails from Seattle, said that the course solidified his belief in the importance of arts education.

“When they do [incorporate the arts], it’s just that much stronger of a curriculum.  It’s just that much more of a connection, and it’s really fun,” he said.  “It’s really effective.”

This year’s program culminated on May 5, 2010, with a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Latham for both Latham and Diggs student bodies.

Davis and her students organized the event, which brought the Diggs and Latham communities together for the first time.  Considering that the two schools combined have more than 500 students, ages 5-12, this was a major undertaking for Davis and her class of 20 undergraduates.  Nevertheless, the program was a “wild success”, according to Davis.

The elementary students enjoyed a range of activities throughout the day, from parachutes and “Taco, Taco, Burrito” (a Hispanic version of the ubiquitous Duck, Duck, Goose), to arts and crafts, and face painting.

The festival’s “main attraction” was a play called Cinco de Mouse-O that the Wake students adapted from a recently published children’s book bearing the same name.       

“I still don’t know how we did it, but in a period of two months we adapted the book, designed the play itself, and staged it with over 150 elementary students rotating through the play,” Davis said, explaining the hectic process of putting on such a large scale production with so many pint-size players.

To put on the grand performance, Davis and her class placed dozens of elementary students from each school into small groups, and each group was responsible for one scene.  The Wake students then rotated each group on and off the stage from scene to scene as everyone who was not performing watched the play from the audience.

“By the grace of God, we pulled it off without any rehearsal and without any timing issues,” Davis quipped.  “It was a wild experience, to say the least, but it was an incredible success.  My students were flat out remarkable.”

Latham Assistant Principal Rita Moore says Davis’ program has been well received in the four classrooms where the WFU students were placed.

“They’re excited about the opportunities that the arts program brings to our school,” she reported.  “I think that [Davis’ program] gives children another opportunity to be able to learn that content in a different setting and in a fun and exciting way.”

Davis, who routinely has to turn students away because the course fills up so quickly, says her students also gain a lot from the partnership.

“We are so incredibly thankful for the opportunity,” she expressed.  “When we leave, we feel like we are learning so much more than we’ve been able to give.”

(By Layla Farmer for The Winston-Salem Chronicle, published May 6, 2010.  WFU law student Michael Lennox, ’11, adapted the article for use on the Institute for Public Engagement website.)