By Nick Longworth
Preschool students at Pine Point’s Head Start program were delightfully surprised when a penguin and a macaw showed up in their classroom on Wednesday, Nov. 20.
Of course, the animals were not real, but actually Corey DiNardo and Karen Vaughan in disguise. But while they listened and took part in the skit, students had little idea that DiNardo and Vaughan were actually teaching them a valuable lesson through the use of games, storytelling and theatre.
DiNardo and Vaughan have both worked for CLIMB Theatre since last August, when they were hired as actor/educators with the company.
The Inver Grove Heights based company is a nationally recognized non-profit company that has provided programming for K-12 students for over 38 years, writing, producing and presenting plays on topics such as bullying, self-control, respect and the environment.
Over four week stints, DiNardo and Vaughan are assigned to different Head Start programs throughout the state. Each time they arrive at a district, they teach a different topic that is applicable to the age level they are working with.
This week, Pine Point’s theme was empathy, the inclusion of others and accepting differences. Not necessarily following a set script, DiNardo and Vaughan rely heavily on classroom interaction during their skit to make performances memorable and successful.
“We re-introduce ourselves because although the students have met us before, they may not necessarily remember who we are. We try and set up why we are here and what today is going to be about,” DiNardo said.
“We leave the room and change into our costumes – this week I am Mackie the Macaw and Karen is Professor Frilley-Feathers the penguin – and then begin to teach them a lesson. There is a lot of crowd interaction and her asking them about how they feel, or how they think I am feeling. We try to get the students more in-touch with being able to recognize feelings in others. We’ll often introduce a skit and base it off of their responses and the lesson can take a completely different route from there,” DiNardo said.
“We usually link everything together with games to help them understand what we mean. I like the open forum we establish by letting the students open up to us too because they are not always given a chance to talk back or speak out. Sometimes it’s not so much about ‘here’s a concept, learn it and practice it,’ but rather, ‘here’s this concept, what do you think about it?’ They are just learning to express themselves, so usually we will work off of that. Instead of just being like ‘here is our information,’ we let them participate back,” Vaughan said.
Both DiNardo and Vaughan tailor their message to the crowd at hand, realizing not all age levels learn the same way or have the same attention span.
“Including the students in our play really helps to keep them focused. This specific program helps bring so many important lessons down to their level. For 3rd through 5th grade we won’t play characters, we will typically just teach them the lesson. But with the younger kids it helps them become more invested in the story and, in turn, the lesson to actively involve them,” Vaughan said.
“If you just go to them and say ‘it is important to include people; now we’re going to play a game’ the message doesn’t stick nearly as much. You have to pull in their imagination; that helps keep them involved and focused on what you’re teaching. It’s also easier for them to understand when they are a character in the story and trying to figure out how to help. If you get them pretending and playing along, then it comes easy and they don’t even realize that they are learning something.”
Vaughan has seen a near immediate impact on students in the past, even after only a 30 minute classroom session.
“For example, there was a little boy who started crying during one of our skits when I was playing a princess who wouldn’t share. He was crying, saying ‘you have to share.’ It was kind of surprising. Later, the teachers told us that he is a student who usually isn’t the kindest to the other students. It was nice to see an impact was made in the lesson although we didn’t necessarily want him to cry,” Vaughan said.
The teaching that DiNardo and Vaughan do with CLIMB theatre is funded through the Partners in Arts Participation grant and made possible by the voters of the Minnesota State Board Operating Support grant.
DiNardo and Vaughan see their lessons as the perfect hybrid between theatre and education in the classroom.
“It might sound cliché, but this is literally exactly what I wanted to be doing with my degree (a bachelor’s in education). This job is exactly what I want to do; taking theatre and using it to teach students about life skills. I love being able to use the theatre skills I have had all my life to help other students understand something important,” Vaughan said.
DiNardo and Vaughan both see benefit in also providing the students with possibly their first exposure to theatre.
“I really like the idea of providing some of the students their first exposure to theatre. Granted they are only in preschool, but out here there isn’t nearly as much opportunity. If you lecture them it’s not going to be as effective as them picking it up or feeling like they have a part in the lesson,” DiNardo said.
DiNardo and Vaughan will be back next at the Pine Point Head Start program at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4.