The Right Brain Initiative


“They were right on cue”: Students at East Orient embody learning

May 17th, 2012 by Right Brain Team


4th graders at East Orient Elementary (Gresham-Barlow) practice tableau acting during a residency with the Northwest Childrens Theater designed to teach language arts principles within the 21st Century Skills framework. Photo by Jimena Cabello.

It’s not often that a teacher tolerates multiple students speaking at the same time. But in a classroom at East Orient Elementary in the Gresham-Barlow District, teacher Allie Tesar watched with pride as her 4th graders loudly projected their voices together, each student attempting to sync his or her own words with those of the other students. Far from interrupting each other, they were making room for everyone’s voice, aware of the fact that they could more effectively convey information through unison than through cacophony.

What occasioned these synchronous voices? Ms. Tesar’s students were busy practicing a collaborative voice exercise on the first day of a five-session Right Brain residency with Portland’s Northwest Childrens Theater (NWCT). In February, Theater Instructor Lisa Gilham of NWCT worked with 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers at East Orient to develop customized residencies that incorporated theater activities with other curriculum. The goal of the residencies was twofold. Primarily, the exercises would explore the language arts elements of narrative construction, cause and effect and character development. Then, as is key to Right Brain programming, this arts integration experience would be tied to the 21st Century Skills framework that prepares students for a complex future. Specifically drawing from the”collaboration” portion of that framework, Gilham and the participating teachers decided to focus on deepening the students’ ability to build respectful, productive relationships in the classroom—ones that would lead to meaningful innovation and multiple points of view.

The second goal? “We decided, ‘Let’s get them up and out of their seats,” Tesar recalls. “Let’s get them moving and active.’” Each classroom participating in the residency engaged with the medium in a different way, but one thing was consistent: the use of vibrant, interactive performance as a portal to the lesson plan.

Recognizing that effective learning is firmly connected to a healthy classroom environment, Tesar wanted her students to develop 21st century social skills like collaborative innovation, empathy and respectful communication through Gilham’s residency. She wanted to create a classroom culture in which the most timid student would feel empowered to deliver the boldest presentation, and in which the most self-confident student would voluntarily step back during the next group science project to let other classmates give their input. In short, she wanted her students to get out of character by inhabiting new ones.

Together, Gilham and Tesar decided on tableau acting—a motionless theatrical form that conveys a narrative through a succession of group poses — as an effective way to meet these goals. “[Tableau] is about compromising and working in groups,” Tesar says of the decision. “[Students learn] to pay attention to one another and to respectfully speak at the same time.”

On the first day, Gilham taught the class the basic principles of tableau, as well as other theatrical tools that require concentrated teamwork. In one exercise, she challenged groups of students to speak in unison in an effort to establish perceptive communication. “They were right on cue,” Tesar remembers. “They really cared about working together and becoming more precise.”

Students practice depicting a narrative through freeze positions. "I am impressed by how much they remember from the experience," Tesar says. "It really stuck with them." Photo by Jimena Cabello.

Following this introductory session, the class began to construct tableaux from How to Lose All Your Friends, a  children’s book that gives tongue-in-cheek “instructions” on how to be discourteous in social situations. As Gilham read aloud from the book, the students worked in groups to determine the mood of the various scenarios and decided on the most descriptive way to represent the mood through poses and expressions. As the students consulted with one another and then scurried into various interpretive compositions, it was clear to Tesar that they were using not only creativity, but critical thinking skills in order to translate a narrative effectively from one medium into another. “Never smile,” Gilham read aloud at one point, and the students froze in poses of consternation, sporting crossed arms, frowns and grimaces. A moment later, they broke their freezes to transition into new poses in accordance with the next scenario from the book.

Soon the class began to elaborate on the plot, changing the ending and performing a counterpart “sequel” to the book–one that instructed how to gain friends back. By enacting creative alterations of the existing story, the students became the impetus of narrative development while also becoming open to the idea of multiplicity: multiple roles, multiple endings, multiple solutions to a single dilemma. MaryLouise Ott, Right Brain Arts Integration Facilitator, spared no enthusiasm in her commentary on the residency: “It was everything Right Brain hopes for; there was magic in the students’ performances.”

At the end of the residency, each participating class gave a school-wide performance of its work, fulfilling the "community building" component of the 21st Century Skills framework. Photo by Jimena Cabello.

It wasn’t long before Tesar began to notice a shift in her students’ classroom roles in the course of the residency. “Kids who usually stood out weren’t the ones who took charge. They stepped aside,” she says. One particularly quiet student, when asked to convey an action through sound, gave such a humorous performance that she transformed into class comedian for the day. It was clear that by extension of inhabiting different roles within the activity, students were able to conceive of the multitude of roles they could play within a learning environment.

Unlike the end of a play, when actors shed their personas and return to their old selves, Ms. Tesar’s students haven’t stepped out of their newly multivalent roles. In lessons following the residency, class participation has noticeably increased. Her students, more acutely aware that there is no definitive answer to a single question, now generate several answers for each question posed. During a recent science unit, Tesar noted students fluidly and voluntarily taking on different responsibilities throughout the course of an experiment: “They realize now that every role is necessary,” she observed. Not to mention that they can each embody every one of those necessary roles.

– Read more about Right Brain’s work to develop 21st Century Skills through
the arts on pages 6-11 of our 2011 annual report.

– See more images from NWCT’s work at East Orient on Flickr.


Natalie Garyet is the talented, exiting Communications Intern for The Right Brain Initiative. Please join us in wishing Natalie a bright professional future! She will be missed around our offices.


Right Brain Team