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Living Newspapers: High schoolers bring current events to life in curriculum adapting 1930s theater project to the classroom

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Their props may have included hacky sacks and iPods, but when students from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin were performing their show “Got Rights?” they were channeling the 1930s.

Students at St. Stephen's perform their Living Newspaper 'Got Rights?' in the Eidman Courtroom at the UT School of Law
Students at St. Stephen’s perform their Living Newspaper “Got Rights?” in the Eidman Courtroom at the UT School of Law.

“Got Rights?” brought to life the resolutions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), depicting more than 20 individuals facing issues like child labor, the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the juvenile justice system in the United States. In its dramatization of current events, it was a Living Newspaper, much like the Living Newspapers created as part of the Federal Theater Project more than 70 years ago.

The 1930s Living Newspapers put unemployed researchers, journalists and performers to work creating theater pieces that would inform the public about events of the day.

Today’s Living Newspapers take place in the classroom, where teachers use them to enliven the curriculum and teach their students research, writing and civic engagement.

“Students need alternate ways to get involved with the material they’re studying,” says Katy Young, who, with Jeremy Dean, coordinates the Living Newspapers Across Disciplines program. Young and Dean are both Ph.D. students in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin.

“This program is designed to work within the standard curriculum,” Young says, “but it has an edge. We’re doing performance-based critical thinking and reading exercises and lesson plans to talk about human rights.”

The curriculum was designed by the Humanities Institute, in partnership with the School of Law’s Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice and the Performance as Public Practice Program in the Department of Theatre and Dance. More than 20 local teachers have been trained in how to integrate it into their classrooms, with more training to take place this summer.

It’s a program that Humanities Institute Director Dr. Evan Carton calls “a perfect storm of collaborative talents.”

Katy Young, program coordinator of the Living Newspapers project, works with students at Round Rock High School
Katy Young, program coordinator of the Living Newspapers project, works with students at Round Rock High School.

“It interlocks the Humanities Institute, The Performance as Public Practice Program and the Rapoport Center,” Carton says. “It provides hands-on intellectual consulting work for graduate students across disciplines. It provides an interactive human rights curriculum for high school students to enable them to connect with what’s in the news, to connect it with their lives.”

At St. Stephen’s, theater teacher Michelle Ludwig offered the program to students as an after-school theater workshop. Participants spent three afternoons a week for seven weeks creating the “Got Rights?” performance. Ludwig was surprised how readily the students dove into their subject matter.

“They were all freshmen and sophomores, and some of them were apprehensive about the research and writing component,” Ludwig says. “But they became fully invested in the message they were trying to communicate.”

That investment showed when the students performed their Living Newspaper, both in front of their classmates at school and at the close of the Rapoport Center’s Lister Conference on Human Rights in December. There, before an audience of human rights professionals from across the country, students embodied the lives of an AIDS orphan in Kenya, a Sudanese refugee and a child in foster care.

The experience was moving for adults in the audience, some of whom stood up to share their own experiences with the students. And it was moving for Ludlow herself, who says witnessing the way the project transformed her students’ lives has stayed with her, and them.

One student deepened her involvement in the Invisible Children movement, an effort to educate people about the 20,000 Ugandan children who have been kidnapped and forced to work as child soldiers. After incorporating the issue into the Living Newspaper, she organized screenings of a documentary on the issue at her school and held a benefit concert to raise money for the organization.

Free Minds Project

Free Minds ProjectWhile high schools are instituting the Living Newspaper project, a community learning center meeting room in northeast Austin is host to another Humanities Institute offering.

The Free Minds Project began in August, when 25 adults gathered for a two-semester college-level humanities course designed and taught by top professors from The University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College.

Participants, all of whom face financial and educational barriers, are offered an opportunity for formal study of the humanities often reserved for students at elite universities and colleges. They pay no tuition, on-site child care and bus fare are provided, and dinner is served each night before class begins.

When class begins, excitement follows. Whether wrestling with Plato’s “Republic,” teasing out meanings in Wallace Stevens’ poems or reading briefs from the Brown vs. Board of Education case, students are engaged. The atmosphere is lively and the conversation intense.

Those who complete the course will receive six college credits in the humanities, and some plan to go back to school. But Free Minds is far more than a college transition program.

“We are creating a space where people can reflect on the world around them instead of just reacting to it,” says Sylvia Gale, Free Minds project director. “The program wants people to realize their intellectual potential.”

“I think the project really encouraged her to be a leader,” Ludwig says, “and to become more of an activist in supporting the organization.”

In creating Living Newspapers, students choose their own topics, an element that has been critical to the success of the program.

“They choose issues that are important to them,” Young says. “We found that most high school classes will choose issues that have to do with children. It gets them more aware of what’s going on in the world around them.”

Also critical has been the flexibility of the curriculum. High school teachers were brought on as consultants to help shape the curriculum and resource guide. They created a program that could be adapted to a variety of classrooms and a variety of situations.

For Jason Flowers, an Advanced Placement (AP) history teacher at LBJ High School, the program enabled him to integrate current events into his classroom. For Trish Smith at Connolly High School in Pflugerville, it offered a chance to get her public speaking students comfortable talking in public about important issues. Patrick Schmidt at Round Rock High School incorporated Living Newspapers into his creative writing class, asking students to write plays about contemporary issues of importance to them.

Malhaz Jibladze, also at LBJ High School, has found Living Newspapers to be a perfect way to get the students in his AP economics class thinking about how the theories they explored all semester work in the world. In addition, he says the interactive nature of the project is a good antidote for the “senioritis” hitting his students, who will graduate soon.

Jibladze’s students are working in small groups to make short films about topics ranging from the outsourcing of jobs to India to piracy in the music and movie industry.

“We do a lot of current events in class,” Jibladze says, “Because students choose their own topics, they’re more excited and they’ll do more in-depth research.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, three graduate students from the university worked with students to shape their films, moving around the school library to help students who were performing research, writing scripts and discussing filming plans. Graduate students are key to each Living Newspaper project. They work directly in the classroom, helping students create their living newspapers and providing insight into the world of higher education for students, some of whom know little about graduate school.

Jibladze has encouraged his students to use their own voices in their Living Newspapers, allowing their beliefs to filter through. He’s pleased to see them exploring what he calls “the human side of economics.”

Students at Round Rock High School work on improvisational exercises as part of their Living Newspapers project
Students at Round Rock High School work on improvisational exercises as part of their Living Newspapers project.

The human side of economics and many other disciplines is at the heart of the projects the Humanities Institute spearheads, from the Mayor’s Book Club, which offers city-wide discussions of a key book, to the Community Sabbatical Program, which gives professionals at nonprofits time off to work on projects of benefit to their organizations.

The institute likes to think of itself as an intellectual rapid response system, linking things happening in the community or the larger world with the university, and vice versa. It’s become a place where people with interesting ideas come to find support for new projects.

The Living Newspapers Across Disciplines Program is a perfect example. It was born in the Department of Theater and Dance and the Rapoport Center, nurtured in the Humanities Institute and handed over to local teachers. The team hopes to see it grow. Already people from Japan to Massachusetts have asked for copies of the curriculum.

But for now, Living Newspapers are breathing life into high school classrooms across the Austin area, where students embody the very things the humanities are about.

“One way of talking about what the humanities really are is that they’re how people explore and discover their relationship to their place and time in the world,” Carton says. “And if that’s what the humanities are, these kids are on the front line.”

EXPERIENCE A LIVING NEWSPAPER: A showcase of Living Newspaper performances will be held Saturday, May 12, at 7 p.m. at The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo St. in Austin.

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School: Holly Reed Photography

PHOTOS from Round Rock High School and Free Minds Project: Christina Murrey

ON THE BANNER: Students from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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