Bridging Minds

A Children’s Theatre program teaches kids to rewrite the narrative of their own lives

AS MARIA ASP begins her Neighborhood Bridges session at Marcy Open School, one sixth-grade girl, in particular, is playing the diva. She rolls her eyes, brushes her purse off her hip, and tugs at her sweater, hiding a conspicuous henna tattoo on her lower back. When Asp asks the students to enact emotions, the girl remains aloof, projecting a boredom that is so palpable it could contaminate the entire class.

But the other students remain engrossed, and by the end of Asp’s session, even the too-cool teenybopper is engaged, acting out original scenes her classmates created with Asp, whose animated teaching style easily connects with the children. “That’s what happens,” Asp notes with enthusiasm. “[Bridges] just pulls them out of their shell.”

Breaking down those tough exteriors is no easy feat: as head of the Children’s Theatre Company’s educational program, Asp has worked in with many unruly students. But Bridges gives kids tools to think beyond their own experience, she says, and offers even the most disconnected child a chance to get involved in something.

Each weekly two-hour class uses writing, storytelling, and theater techniques to re-imagine classic fairy tales, creating a play over many such sessions for the CTC Mainstage in May. The students are involved in a festival of sorts, performing for their parents, teachers, and classmates at the end of the school year.

Photo by Usry Alleyne

Using traditional fairy tales as the model for Bridges was the brainchild of Jack Zipes, a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the program. Zipes, an internationally recognized scholar on children’s literature and the societal context of fairy tales, created Bridges’ curriculum through his lectures abroad and his books, including The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. Bridges intends to re-tell familiar stories but allow students to identify larger themes. Developed with CTC artistic director Peter Brosius in the fall of 1997, Zipes introduced the program to teaching artists, like Asp, who then helped him implement it in Minneapolis and St. Paul classrooms.

Last year, CTC was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to replicate the Neighborhood Bridges model nationally. The results of the program are near-impossible to quantify (how does one record improved self-esteem?) but nonetheless tangible: at Powderhorn Elementary School in Minneapolis, for instance, two fourth-grade classes scored an average of 78 points higher on the 2003 Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement test than two classes not participating in the program. Teachers see immeasurable changes, like a greater sense of community, self-respect, and cooperation.

Julie Tangeman has shared her Marcy class with Asp for the past six years. Tangeman’s charge during the Monday session is reading Grimms’ Rapunzel to the kids. After she’s done, Asp wonders aloud to the circle of children: “Was it right for the witch to lock Rapunzel in a tower?” Some students adamantly shake their heads; a few say yes. “If she was so beautiful, she needed to be protected,” one boy responds. Hands shoot in the air, and Asp leads the discussion as the students interpret the tale; as they analyze Rapunzel, their understanding of the story begins to change.

Zipes has seen similar scenarios in his travels teaching the program. Smaller schools, smaller towns, and smaller family incomes influence a Bridges class just as each individual perspective sees Rapunzel’s imprisonment in a different light. Zipes says watching students lead and encourage one another is one of the primary goals. “It’s not about identifying the story itself, but comprehending what it means and what is possible,” he says.

“[Bridges] helps kids understand that narrative can change in a story, based on who’s telling it,” says CTC educational director Gregory Smith. “And in a bigger sense, you can change the narrative in your own life—you have the power to change it.”

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