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Students Find an Outlet Through Playwriting

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Teachers, students, and community members gathered last week at a small performance space in Washington to recognize plays written by area students and to discuss the value of arts-integration in schools. The event, hosted by the Young Playwrights' Theater program, which partners with schools in the region to bring playwriting instruction to classrooms, also celebrated the group's first publication of student playwrights. Write to Dream includes plays written by local students since YPT's inception in 1995, as well as common-core-aligned lesson plans for teachers.

Actors with the Young Playwrights' Theater in Washington perform a student-written play titled
Actors with the Young Playwrights' Theater in Washington perform a student-written play titled "Society Unjust."
—Liza Harbison for Young Playwrights' Theater

YPT, which is similar to the New York- and Los Angeles-based Story Pirates, serves approximately 1,800 K-12 students in the D.C. metro area. According to the executive director, Brigitte Pribnow Moore, the program brings theater professionals into schools to conduct workshops during English classes once a week for 12-week periods. The actors, playwrights, directors, and stage designers help students understand the structure of a play—including character development, conflict, and language—and guide them through the writing process. The program culminates with professional actors coming in to perform excerpts from each student's finished product.

"YPT's mission is not just to enhance literacy, creativity, and critical-thinking skills," said Moore during her welcome speech, but to "help students realize the power of their own voices."

Last week's event kicked off with the performance of a student-written play, acted out by professional artists. Written by a YPT alum who is now away at college, the play touched on issues of gentrification, portraying an elderly woman and her struggle to keep her home from being demolished by developers seeking to build a coffee shop in its place.

"Real-Life Issues"

After the performance, Chelsea Kirk, a high school English teacher at the Maya Angelou Academy in Laurel, Md., an alternative school located in a juvenile detention center, spoke of how the YPT lessons allowed her students to use writing as an outlet to talk about deep issues they are grappling with, such as violence and street life. "I think playwriting is so powerful for these kids. It's a way for them to express themselves and deal with tough issues in their own way," said Kirk.

Sam Burris, a high school student in Arlington, Va., spoke about how the playwriting instruction he received at school has helped him gain confidence in his writing.
Sam Burris, a high school student in Arlington, Va., spoke about how the playwriting instruction he received at school has helped him gain confidence in his writing.
—Liza Harbison for Young Playwrights' Theater

Sam Burris, a student at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., whose published play focuses on a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, explained that his experience with YPT did wonders for his self-esteem. "In English class, there are usually strict rules with what you can do, so you don't feel confident in your writing," said Burris. But since YPT does not dictate the content of students' plays, "you feel like what you wrote is actually yours."

And since the plays deal with real-life issues, Kirk said she pairs them with nonfiction texts—a focus of the English/language arts Common Core State Standards—to discuss the issues that were brought up in the plays.

In terms of actual student-achievement gains, program manager Laurie Ascoli explained that the group has been working over the past several years with an education researcher to "establish a measurable model for arts learning in classrooms" throughout the region. Currently, YPT students complete an initial and an end-of-course writing assignment, which teachers use to assess progress. Students also complete questionnaires and surveys that address their understanding of playwriting concepts, writing ability, motivation, and interest in theater at the conclusion of the 12-week session. Ascoli said the group tends to see progress in those areas.

Three student-playwrights whose work is included in Write to Dream concluded the event by offering their advice to aspiring artists. Burris told the audience that it's important to speak up about difficult issues. "If you see a problem that you think people should know about, it doesn't matter how you express it … don't be scared to talk about it through your own art form," he said.

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