Learning Experience

By Catherine Kempista

Allyson Sands has a goal — to give Delaware students the opportunity to experience live theater and make teachers’ lives a little easier. As The Grand’s education director, she will manage to make that objective a reality for more than 15,000 students and their teachers in nearly 100 schools throughout the region through its Stages of Discovery program this school year.

Stages of Discovery is The Grand’s live theater matinee program for students in grades pre-K to 12. The program provides in-person performances of professional touring companies and artists at one of The Grand’s three theater locations in Wilmington and is designed to complement in-classroom curriculum and state education standards across a variety of subjects.

The Shows

Like many arts programs in Delaware, Stages of Discovery’s success is built on years of developing partnerships with schools and districts and relies on the support provided by government agencies and nonprofit organizations for both funding opportunities and specialized expertise.

Planning for a program of this size starts in December of the previous year and requires input from her key clientele — teachers.

“I gather what the teachers have liked before from feedback from our surveys,” says Sands. “And from relationships I have within the Delaware Department of Education (DOE) and the Delaware Division of the Arts (DDOA), I gather information on what teachers are actually looking for. I try to find things that belong in whatever the standard core curriculum is.”

For the 2023-2024 school year, Sands selected 12 shows featuring both touring companies from around the globe and local artists and performers.

The program, which started in October, has something for all ages, which is a key part of Sands’ outreach to local teachers and schools. The descriptions on The Grand’s website detail everything a teacher may need to know about a performance, including suggested age ranges, themes, learning connections, and state curriculum objectives the show fulfills. Some of the touring companies, like TheaterWorks USA for their production of Rosie Revere, Engineer & Friends, even provide study guides for use in the classroom before and after the show to augment the theater experience.

Sands breaks down the offerings by grade level to help schools choose the best fit for their learners.

Performances like Tomás and the Library Lady, the first dual language show offered in Stages of Discovery, and Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo Live appeal to the youngest audiences (grades K – 5) with their respective themes of friendship and adventure.

“Stage performances, especially this one with interactive and life-size puppets, helped the children visualize the size of the dinosaurs,” says Ramona Dowling, who attended the January performance of Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo Live with her first grade class from the Tatnall School. “They were in awe and, at times, forgot the puppets were not real. The information shared by the narrator helped them learn more than they already knew.”

For her middle school-aged audiences, Sands brought the Walnut Street Theatre Touring Outreach Company’s production of How a Star Gets Made: The Bessie Coleman Story. This was a first-time collaboration for Walnut Street Theatre and The Grand.

Written and adapted by Portland, Oregon-based playwright Kamilah Bush, the play tells the story of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the U.S.

A regular attendee of Stages of Discovery shows, Melissa Grieshober, a library and media specialist at Cedar Lane Elementary School, attended the show with her fifth grade students in March.

“We selected this for our fifth grade students to learn about an influential person in American History that also corresponded with our school learnings and celebrations for Black History Month and Women’s History Month,” says Greishober. “The show also has themes of perseverance and character building, which are important learning and teachable moments to use with our students as we continue working and learning throughout the year.”

“Students and teachers alike have had a wonderful response to this play,” says Maya Chester-Ziv, education programs manager at Walnut Street Theatre. “Many audience members see themselves in Bessie — an intelligent young soul, full of zest and drive, believing they were meant for more than the world they see in front of them.”

Connecting The Dots

For the first time in the history of Stages of Discovery, Sands was able to bring a show this year that reached high schoolers. Keep Marching: The Road to the March on Washington debuted in February at Copeland Hall.

“It’s been a burden of mine because I really want to grow that side of the program,” says Sands. “Transportation is always a problem. School schedules are always challenging. But I think high school students specifically are missing out on theater.”

Keep Marching: The Road to the March on Washington is a production of Mad River Theater Works based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

“The idea behind the show came from oral histories of ordinary folks that attended the March on Washington in 1963,” says Chris Westhoff, managing director of Mad River Theater Works. “At the heart of these interviews were two questions: Not knowing that Dr. King was going to deliver one of the most iconic speeches in modern history, why did so many people go? And seeing that 1963 was one of the most violent years of the civil rights movement, what inspired young people in their teens or twenties to go?”

For administrators and teachers at William Penn High School, this show presented a first-of-its-kind learning opportunity for the students. It also served as the perfect example of how the arts community in Delaware partners to connect the dots for students and schools.

It started simply enough when Dr. Nick Baker, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Colonial School District, received a call from Sheila Ross, program officer for Arts in Education and Accessibility at DDOA.

“Last summer, Sheila reached out to us about this program and connected us with the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education (DiAE) to support a grant to have Teaching Artists (TA) through its In-School Residency Program working with our U.S. history students and other identified classes, which would culminate in a trip to The Grand to see this performance,” says Baker.

Ross connected Baker to Ashley SK Davis and A.T. Moffet at DiAE, who provided both grant-writing assistance and coordination of the TA for the residency program.

“Our goal is to build on the strengths that exist within the schools through the arts,” says Moffet, executive director at DiAE. “We work in the arts education space and bring a team of independently contracted professional artists across artistic disciplines. Our programs are all tailored to the teachers’ curriculum, and they happen during the school day.”

For teachers, tying the performance content into a classroom lesson or curriculum unit at the high school level is key, especially when grant funding is needed to secure these opportunities for their students.

“One of our largest roles for teachers in schools is to help the teacher match funds from DDOA and go through that grant writing process for any teacher, whether it’s a teacher in the Visual Performing Arts or a teacher that’s doing some other focus of curriculum, like ELA, social studies, math, etc.,” says Davis, artistic director at DiAE. “DiAE helps to bridge the gap between the school, the teacher, the teaching artists, and DDOA as a funding source.”

A total of 50 students in four junior-level history and social studies classes were chosen to participate in the residency program, which encompassed three sessions with DiAE’s TA George Tietze before the trip to The Grand. The primary purpose of this residency was to approach the historical material through the creative lens of an actor, a director, or a playwright.

“Some of the work the students had to do at this residency was to think about ‘Okay, you have these three sentences we have collected from oral histories. Based on these three or four sentences and your knowledge of the time period in general, what else can you pull out? What other information can you add into this character to make it a well-rounded individual and make it believable?’” says Davis. “And then how are these various characters going to interact with each other based on this person’s background and age and why are they there and so on. The students had an opportunity to really dig in and create something interesting.”

For Christina Horstmann, a social studies teacher at William Penn High School, the parallel between the curriculum and timing of the Keep Marching performance provided a perfect opportunity for her Storytelling for Social Change students to make a real-world connection to the historical event.

“We had previously talked about the Civil Rights Movement, and this program connected it to individuals that were involved in the March on Washington, allowing my students to learn about actual people who decided they wanted to participate in something that would bring about collective change,” says Horstmann. “I am also always looking for ways to tie in House Bill 198 (Delaware’s Black history requirement, signed into law by Governor John Carney in 2021) and the civic engagement state civics standards, so it provided an opportunity to make those connections, as well.”

Ultimately, the pilot program of the residency in conjunction with the show was a success for the students and teachers.

“Just hearing some of the talk on the bus on the way back, it all made sense after seeing the performance,” says Baker. “The culminating experience did what was intended through the residency, which was put everything into context for the students.”

This is just one example of the collective effort by Delaware’s various arts agencies and nonprofits coming together to fund grants, source professional expertise, and deliver quality content to benefit students.

According to Jessica Ball, DDOA director, “By engaging with the arts, students develop critical thinking skills, empathy, and confidence, preparing them to succeed in a diverse and interconnected world. These programs foster creativity and innovation while promoting social and emotional well-being, making them invaluable to students today.”

To learn more about The Grand’s Stages of Discovery, visit TheGrandWilmington.org/stages-of-discovery. To learn more about DiAE’s in-school residency program, visit diae.org/our-programs.