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“I love my people who love chocolate!” yells a student.

Laughter fills the room as several of his classmates who love chocolate eagerly stand up and rush to look for a new seat.

The goal of the game, called “I love my people who…” is to find an empty seat or be left seatless. Whoever is left standing says a new phrase, and the game continues. It’s an updated version of musical chairs.

Earlier that afternoon, a wave of chattering had been heard around the room. A group of high school students were sitting in a circle with pens and papers in hand, ready to start reading the monologues two teaching artists had prepared for them. As they read lines out loud, they discussed how the words made them feel.

A Méndez High School teacher leads a 10th grade Engish class that’s part of the Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project. All photos by Alex Medina.

“When we did the monologues, those got really personal,” says 15-year-old Jaime Montalvo. “One student started crying because of her past experiences with family.”

No, this is not your average tenth grade English class. It’s a Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project taking place at Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School in Boyle Heights. It offers tenth graders a distinct learning opportunity where theater and English intersect. They attend three to four plays throughout the year at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwoood and reflect afterwards on what they learn about monologues, scripts and acting  ­–all while developing their skills in thinking critically and improving their writing.

“I thought [the program] was very interesting when I first heard about it,” says Melvin De La Rosa, 15. “I was very intrigued, honestly. I really wanted to get into it as soon as possible.”

The idea for the literacy program emerged when Mauro Bautista, Méndez High School’s principal, met with the Geffen Playhouse Board some years ago seeking opportunities for students to see some plays.

He also asked if the playhouse had a program to improve students’ writing skills and help them pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). (The exit exam was suspended starting in the 2015 school year.)

Reading, writing and theater

After contacting the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA Center X, the Geffen Playhouse and teaching artists began developing ways to capture students’ attention to involve them in theater. The program, established in 2012, has operated at Méndez for six years now, thanks to funding by private donors. The Literary Project was also recently introduced in Jordan High School’s tenth grade English classes in Watts, through collaboration with Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

The Theater/English teachers work with UCLA instructors during the summer to learn about the different ways to help students as readers and writers, says Jennifer Zakkai, director of education and community engagement at the Geffen Playhouse. “We figured out a way to immerse students in theater, to have them work creatively with theater, and then write about a topic or theme from the play that they were seeing,”

Between 65 and 91 percent of students enjoyed their play experiences at the Geffen, according to a 2012-2013 Geffen Playhouse Writing Project Evaluation Report.

Emily Grijalva is one of three teachers leading the Theater/English classes at Méndez.

“I actually did theater growing up, and I knew that it had a huge impact,” she says. “So when I found out there was this collaboration, I was super excited about it.”

Lessons include monologues that students connect with. “Knock Knock,” by Daniel Beaty, for example, is one of the monologues they read. The theme is vulnerability. They discussed the life of the young boy in the story and the emptiness he felt when his father left him. After finishing it, they expressed how the poem made them feel.

“It really made me reflect on how much it hurts people when they do not grow up with their fathers,” says De La Rosa, who has friends who do not have father figures in their lives.

“It’s helped me open up a lot more in my writing,” says Montalvo. “When you write, you have to have a little piece of yourself in your writing in order for it to be relatable to some people.”

Teaching artists focus on different things during the school year. One semester is centered on reading and expression and the other on writing, but students work on strengthening their reading and writing skills throughout the entire year and write four essays.

Grijalva guides students as they write scenes, connects their writings to the themes of the plays (such as “Ironbound”) and assigns them essays related to the written scenes.

Confidence building

“Increasing their literacy skills, increasing their confidence and self-esteem is something that I witnessed in this program from the beginning,” Grijalva says. “They’re a little nervous when they start off, and then being able to later on perform in front of their peers, you see a lot of growth in them.”

“She helps me express myself in my writing,” Montalvo says of Grijalva. “She asks me to explain more about what I say, and the teaching artists help me open up.”

Grijalva believes this program allows her and her students to know each other on a personal level, while having a good time.

“They get to see me be silly, too, and be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a big part of us growing closer, and I just like that I’m able to enjoy theater with them.”

Her students say the Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project has allowed them to grow and learn to communicate freely.

“Expressing my feelings to people I don’t really know was a huge step,” says Montalvo. “It’s made me a better writer [and] pushed me to points I didn’t think I could get pushed to.”

For more information about the Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project, visit www.geffenplayhouse.org/Literacy-Project

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