Children's theater

Sunday, March 3, 2002

ARLINGTON, Va. -- "ZIP!" The Bulgarian actress, her manicured nails painted a deep red, points to the fourth-grader with the long pony tail. "Woodrow Wilson," the girl responds, looking at a picture held by her neighbor.

"ZAP!" The actress moves to the next student. "William Henry Harrison."

Every Wednesday, Lilia Slavova uses dramatic techniques to teach state history -- including the names of Virginia-born presidents-- at a public school near Washington, D.C. The result, educators say, is higher scores on the state's standardized tests.

While purists might question the usefulness of theater games to boost test scores, supporters say the program has been a big hit in a state that increasingly relies on such measures.

During a recent class at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, Slavova unwrapped her fur stole and guided 37 pupils through warm-up exercises. The stretching complete, she clapped her hands and gathered the children into circles to begin the day's work: memorizing the names of the eight Virginia-born U.S. presidents.

It's a requirement taken right from Virginia's demanding Standards of Learning, or SOL, test for fourth-graders, which they must pass this spring.

Thus began the "ZIP/ZAP" game, in which students must look left or right at the photocopied pictures of presidents held by their neighbor.

Slavova urged the students to stand tall and speak clearly. She already has taught them to rely on "all the little connections" actors use for lengthy scripts. They remembered, for instance, that the "M-a" in James Madison comes before the "M-o" in James Monroe, but that the "T-y" in John Tyler comes after the "T-a" in Zachary Taylor.

"It's fun -- we're playing a lot of games," said Anthony Reyes, 10. He named six of the eight presidents, but watched as classmate Carlo Goyone named all eight -- in order. Slavova gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "Yes!"

After 90 minutes, Jennifer Pauldurai, 10, the pony-tailed girl whose family emigrated to the United States from India, said, "It seemed like five minutes."

Eastern European beginning

The program was developed by Classika Theatre, a local troupe with roots in Eastern Europe that received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department. That money could be in jeopardy, however, as government budget cutters search for cash for other education programs.

Eventually, the Hoffman-Boston students will memorize a 15-page musical play titled "We Love Virginia," tracing Virginia history from 1607 until the mid-20th century.

"American kids are not taught this way," said Inna Shapiro, the group's Russian founder and artistic director, referring to Slavova's constant demand for discipline, clear speech and the ability to recite facts. "It was all new to them."

Shapiro said her secret is simple: Get children on their feet and give them a part to play.

"By hearing it and repeating it many times, they understand it," she said.

Such unorthodox means are gaining popularity as teachers look for ways to help students digest and understand history, said Al Frascella of the National Council for Social Studies.

"Right now it's quite common," he said.

Frascella and others said using drama often helps students memorize material better than rote memorization.

"When a kid participates in a play, it's going to stick in your mind much better than someone reading it or rereading it," he said.

Susan Adler, who teaches curriculum design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's School of Education, said fact-heavy testing such as Virginia's SOL often drives what is taught, so teachers might as well make it fun.

"Some of that is not bad -- you try to get kids to memorize, and that's useful, but you need to keep it in its place," she said. Adler warned that teachers should also keep an eye on the "bigger picture," understanding the context in which events happened.

Scores get applause

Jan Adkisson, the principal of Drew Model Elementary School, where the program debuted last year, said Classika helped raise fourth-graders' SOL scores 25 percent last spring.

She said the program is perfect for the thousands of children, most of whom speak English as a second language, who do not do well regurgitating facts from a textbook.

Frances M. Redmon, a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, saw the play last spring at Drew.

"It just blew me away," she said.

Imagine her reaction next year: Shapiro plans to tackle the state's chemistry test.

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