For nine months, I served as a project assistant for An Immigrant Alphabet, a photo installation created by a group of Northeast High School Students, in collaboration with the photographer Wendy Ewald.
In those seasons of standing outside, gazing up at the artwork, I had plenty of chances to admire the product of this collaboration. But when I assisted Al-Bustan in producing Ewald’s workshop, Snapshots of Identity, I was reminded of how clear, potent and powerful Ewald’s process was as well. Ewald and the students were able to take the broad, complicated, emotional and deeply personal topic of immigration and explore it together by giving themselves a clear, direct, and achievable set of guidelines and questions: what words belong in an Immigrant Alphabet? How do we represent them?
When I received the invitation to teach Drama in Al-Bustan’s four-week arts enrichment program with the School District of Philadelphia, I knew that teaching Structure would be key — not as the endpoint of the class, but as a tool. My goal was to build a class with my students where we could feel comfortable creating and sharing stories together, and each practice shaping our ideas, memories, identities, and imaginations into the content.
We began with games. Some were tailor-made to our purposes; in “2 truths and a lie,” we practiced making introductions and sharing two real facts about ourselves, and one lie, which the audience tried to guess. This became a way for us to talk about how we choose to present ourselves, and how we are perceived. But even with games that were quite simple at base, like playing catch or tag, we found ways to use them as a structure to learn about each other: “what do we like to do outside of school? what languages do we speak? what foods are our favorites? where do we come from?” Similarly, any game with two opposing sides became an opportunity to imagine new stories: “why are these people fighting? what do they want from each other?” At the same time, we began practicing our theatre basics: warming up our voices and bodies each morning, practicing our diction and projection, and learning stage directions.
Signs for a musical-chairs style game we played to review the parts of the stage. You may know which way is up, but do you know where upstage is?
As the games grew more complex, the backstories the students wrote expanded. Opposing teams became warring kingdoms, battles between ice and fire, or friends who had been betrayed and hurt. We began filling the stage with scenes and pictures. Students would share what they had done over the weekend, and then we’d challenge each other to act it out: “who can show me a barbecue, stage right?” “soccer in the park, upstage?” “getting a pet hamster, downstage left?” With so many languages in the room, we practiced acting out activities and scenes with no words, using just our bodies and our actions to see how we could help our audience know what was going on.
I started to call the students attention to one of the most common and powerful structures for storytelling: a Beginning, Middle, and End. We are introduced to a world, something changes, and we see the effect. We practiced inventing these simple stories together, one word at a time, and then one sentence.
The students quickly seized this concept and ran ahead of me. Some turned simple pantomimes into epic tales, groups of 5 or 6 students quickly hashing out the story in our “backstage” behind the chalkboard before unfolding it to the whole class, with sound effects and plot twists. Others wrote out their stories, translating into English and other languages so that other students could read as well.
This student wrote his original story in Portuguese, then translated it into English and Spanish, so that two students could narrate while he and six others acted out the scenes. He came up with the idea of color-coding his beginning, middle, and end so that the translators could more easily follow each other.
We talked about the elements of stories: Narration, Emotion, and Details. As we became familiar with the concepts, we worked together to identify and demand more of each in every story we told ( including the memorable tactic of one student holding up a giant ‘E’ on paper and shouting “more emotion!”)
By this time, in their morning literacy classes, students were being challenged to think in linear progressions as well, drawing “timelines” of their lives on large sheets of poster paper. I came in to set up my classroom one afternoon and found the walls covered with milestones— “born; came to America; brother born; got a dog!” — all neatly sorted with tick marks over timelines. “That would be a great tool for our stories!” I thought to myself, and we began documenting each new story we made, as a way of practicing making clear narrative points and as a means of “saving” stories to be told again later.
Outlines for two stories: one in which a series of combatants gain and lose control, trapped in the cycle of violence of an ongoing war, and another in which a middle schooler gets trapped in a bathroom stall. Ours was a diverse repertoire.
These outlines were not scripts so much as notes to self, and they often left much to still be created, as several students shared with me after the presentation of one of their stories. It was a “zombie apocalypse” story, complete with dramatic escapes, noble sacrifices, and plenty of action (“it looks so real!” whispered Harrison from the audience, as Ashley mimed fighting back the zombie horde). As I led the class in a discussion of what we had seen, one of the performers interjected: “Teacher, we didn’t even really plan everything,” they admitted, laughing. “We, uh— how do you say—? We improvised!”
I applauded them on their quality “improvising” (like Harrison, I had been impressed by the performances), and brought their attention to how outlining a structure had made that possible; by defining a beginning middle and end together, the students could simply play, confident they were telling the same story, and that we as an audience knew how to receive it.
Towards the end of our time together, I wanted to be sure to show students that Beginnings, Middles, and Ends aren’t the only possible structures for art. For this, I found the best case study was a familiar piece: An Immigrant Alphabet.
The students were able to easily relate to the work — and not only because of its clear structure, A to Z. As I explained that the work was made by students from Northeast High School, J. called out; “my sister goes there!” And later, as students examined the cards — “that’s my sister’s friend!” “I know her!” Together, we saw how, even without a traditional linear progression, the North East High School students still managed to convey Narrative, Emotion, and Detail: someone stepping away, in L for “Leave;” faces in portraits in H for “Happy” and U for “Upset;” all the personal belongings that fill each photo in the series.
By the end of the course, the students had really begun to internalize these creative processes and structures. With one group we played a closing game where we shared things we wanted to do in the future: “to be a doctor,” “to be a teacher,” “to have a good job and family,” “to be rich with lots of money!”
Students were full of ideas, which led to pushing back from others: “Tío, João said two things! He already said one!” We made a discussion of it — “well, sometimes we want more than one thing, right?”—and then we made it a game. We sat in a circle and starting acting out combined futures: “who can show me what a doctor looks like? What about a teacher? What about doctor teachers?” I wanted us to have a chance to be silly together, and the students jumped right in, literally, with Wilder flopping to the ground so that Ashley could give him rounds of alternating defibrillation and math tutoring.
I tried my best to keep up, calling out professions and futures to combine: “You’re architects! You’re designing a video game console! You’re cops! You’re wealthy! You’re cops with lots of money!”
It didn’t take long for me to fall behind. “You’re police detectives! You’re .. uh …” Ashley jumped in, pointing to Joseph and giving directions in Spanish which for the life of me made no sense at all. “Who can translate?” I offered — by this point a very familiar refrain. Valerie stepped in, but it didn’t help much; “he, uh, he didn’t kill anyone.” I stammered – “Wait, Joseph killed someone?” “No!” Ashley explained, dragging me along “no he didn’t do it!” I was still lost, but the students leaped ahead. A dead body. A crime scene. “Jorge, you wanted to be a cop, right?” And so Joseph was arrested. Ashley wants to grow up to be a police detective, so the crime scene investigation began, complete with photographer and on-the-spot autopsy. “Nelson, abogado, no?” So now Joseph had a defense attorney. They took the case to court, justice João presiding with a rolled-up magazine gavel. It was a nail-biter, hinging heavily on fingerprints and ballistics evidence: a major twist, Joseph wasn’t the killer at all, it was the child’s mother! Justice João insisted on reviewing all of the evidence, and numerous photographs (a lot of frenzied, confident pantomiming), and then the gavel came down. GUILTY!
As justice took its swift and winding course, I threw in a suggestion or question or two, sometimes trying to guide them through, mostly just trying to keep up. They played out scenes in pantomime, in gibberish, in Spanish and English, switching constantly, Valerie valiantly translating whatever snippets she could. They leaped in and out of scenes, built sets, and pulled each other in — most of them playing out professions they wanted to grow into. It was Law and Order: Special Children’s Unit. As I watched, I was proud to see the students embody everything I had hoped for in the course. They were creating and sharing with each other, on the fly, improvising across languages and friend groups.
They were playwrights, and actors, and an ensemble. Later, we would select some of the stories we had made together to share with other classes—but this moment for me was the crowning achievement for the students. They didn’t need prompts anymore; they knew enough about the structure to find and invent it on their own. The tools were theirs now; all they needed was for me to get out of the way.
Freelance Collaborator with Al-Bustan