Storytelling IS Problem Solving!

”You must reach the child before you can teach the child.”

Hello, friends. Becky here, writing on behalf of BLIXT.

As teaching artists who are committed to social and emotional arts learning experiences, we seek opportunities to empower students by giving them a chance to see various subjects through the artist’s lens.

Often our work places us in schools during “specials” time, meaning we teach in a time slot that is traditionally used for subjects like music, visual arts, or physical education. We aspire to serve the needs of students and their teachers and learn more about each school’s culture before forging a relationship. We are able to implement projects that are meaningful and focus on the whole child, but often walk away from a process wishing that we could also infuse classes that focus on traditional “core” learning and add a social and emotional arts emphasis to existing curriculum where it may be excluded. Our reason for that is simple: You must reach the child before you can teach the child.

Recently, we’ve been given an unique opportunity to bring arts learning concepts to 5th grade Math and English classrooms at Campbell Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Campbell is one of our favorite schools, largely due to the amazing culture of learning and care set forth by Principal Julie Lawler. Campbell is also one of our “Wuzzlewubbies” schools, which means the students there are recipients of a portion of the blankets we collect during our annual drive. It is truly a special school, serving diverse families in North Lincoln.

The model for this particular instillation of learning has looked a little different than most. For instance, prior to classroom visits, Campbell students were able to see SNOWCATCHER at the Lied Center for Performing Arts (thanks to the generosity of the Lincoln Arts Council and their sponsors). SNOWCATCHER is high energy, high stakes, and features one actor tackling (sometimes literally!) escalating problems, centered around the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888. It is a visceral, immediate play that doesn’t shy away from conflict, specially designed for young audiences and their families. I happen to be the author and actor.

After the 5th graders came to Snowcatcher, Petra and I were invited to host a question and answer session with them, and it was remarkable to meet with the students and hear their thoughts about the experience. Being able to build this kind of repoire with the students and their teachers is a gift, and amplifies the opportunity for learning together.

Following the Q & A session, we drafted a curriculum that incorporates storytelling with story problems and simple equations. I’ve been visiting classrooms and working with students on visualization and thought-catching, relating to what we experienced together in SNOWCATCHER. We are taking a fictional problem and escalating it, then solving it. We are acting out the problem, and allowing our characters to respond to stakes appropriately. We are also investigating what fuels conflict and are developing empathy with boundaries that helps us make strong choices about deescalation. The students at Campbell are so smart and kind and resourceful! They continue to surprise and amaze me with their responses.

It’s important to acknowledge that what diversifies us also strengthens us, and by emphasizing the value of each student’s uniqueness or “story” we are able to have lively conversations around our shared learning experiences. Each class has a distinctly different culture, and after spending time with three separate groups, I’ve noticed that when dealing with our fictional problem, each group focuses on different probable scenarios. The first class really invested in the financial difficulties surrounding our story problem. The second was focused on the outcome of the children in the fictional equation. The third optimistically solved the problem and organically rewrote my script on the spot!

This is a remarkable opportunity for arts teaching specialists and we are likely learning more than we can teach. Our ability to foster and build relationships through a shared arts experience and follow up visit are proving to be instrumental in the way we can affect classroom learning. I can only imagine what our students will create in our next sessions together, when they write their own dialogue and equation based around a source of personal conflict and resolution.

Storytelling is problem solving. As I tell the students, “when we are surrounded by friends with whom we can share our stories, who will listen and also share their stories, we are building community.” We are so proud to be utilizing playwriting and storytelling to strengthen problem solving skills within the Campbell Community!

Thank you to Principal Julie Lawler, the 5th Grade Campbell Team, and to the Lincoln Arts Council for making this experience possible.