September 18, 2020

Students build community through arts > Conference seeks to improve schools’ social climate

BANGOR — Teen-agers from Millinocket lobbied for more activities Monday, using play-acting to send a message about the dynamics of small-town living.

“The best thing about living in a little town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does,” said Stearns High School senior Audrey Madore during her sociology class’s production of “Small Town, Saturday Night,” a play about the gossip-spreading and name-calling that youths often get into when they have nothing to do.

Created by the students, the drama was presented as part of a two-day regional conference, “Building Community Through the Arts in Our High Schools,” sponsored by the Maine Alliance for Arts Education at Husson College in Bangor. The event continues today.

More than 200 students, parents, teachers, administrators and social service representatives attended the conference, which marks the culmination of a two-week session that had visiting artists from throughout Maine working with teens at 16 high schools in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. The goal was to integrate theater and dance into their curriculums as a way to improve schools’ social climates.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than to laugh at others?” one character asks a group of whispering teens during the play. “I thought you were my friends.”

No textbook could offer a more effective lesson, according to teacher Elizabeth Martin. “This is sociology at its finest,” she said. “Sociology is the study of how people react, and since high school is a social setting all of its own, what could be better than to take our own environment and see how it works?”

The children grew more committed to their message daily, according to visiting artist Jeri Pitcher, a playwright and theater director from Readfield. “As we hit more and more on the truth, the more they needed to perform, to bring it to the public’s attention,” she said.

“They became more and more comfortable with each other,” she said. “The structure of the class turned upside down — the followers became the leaders and the leaders stepped aside and supported the others.”

Improvising their lines with enthusiasm, students obviously enjoyed working to effect social change. “Leaders of the town should put together positive things for us to do,” sophomore Miranda McCafferty told the audience.

But kids need to take control too, senior Travis Robinson reminded the group. “If we want to make a difference in our community, we need to take the steps to be leaders, to speak up so maybe something can be done.”

“A town is as boring as we make it,” agreed sophomore Dan Bernardini.

Sitting in the audience with his elementary school-age son, Jack, U.S. Rep. John Baldacci said the production sent “a powerful message” about finding more activities for teen-agers and about kids needing to treat each other with respect.

Susan Potters, director of the Bangor office of the MAAE, pronounced the event a success. “So many kids said it helped give them the confidence to speak and brought them closer. I think this will have big consequences,” she said.

Later, Kym Dakin, a visiting artist from Portland, watched proudly as the history class she worked with from Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford took on the personas of slaves and soldiers who lived during the Civil War.

People think that arts is all about a school having a drama or music club, she said. “But that’s not the same as integrating arts into the curriculum. The value of arts is not putting everyone in `The Sound of Music’ — it’s a tool to deepen our knowledge about ourselves and our world.”

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