American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
Alys Dickerson & Jamal James - APT teaching artists and actors - lead an in-class workshop.
The Words Between Us (WBU) is a week-long residency designed specifically for rural Wisconsin schools to help teachers and students explore literature by authors of color while increasing their fluency around race and ethnicity. This program was created in response to a request from a rural school we work with frequently. When a Black student at the school was a target of a racial slur, the faculty felt at a loss about how to really address the incident with students. “Our students have great experiences with APT teaching artists in the room. Can you help us?” asked an administrator. Subsequent focus groups with other rural teachers revealed that many feel ill-equipped to talk about race in the classroom, and are eagerly seeking tools and guidance to help.
Why APT? For four decades, APT’s education programming has connected students to literature like Shakespeare and poetry that might be considered too different and irrelevant either by time, culture, language, or theme. WBU has the same objective: to bring works of literature by authors of color with diverse protagonists to life in the classroom through active engagement with dynamic teaching artists. All of APT’s educational experiences create visceral opportunities for students to connect with other stories outside their own, invariably enriching their lives as human beings and critical thinkers.
What is it? WBU is taught by two teaching artists (TAs), both of whom have experience living in rural Wisconsin. This residency focuses on a piece of literature chosen in collaboration with the classroom teacher and is designed to be delivered over five class periods, one each day for a week, with the same group of students. It can be customized for classes that use block scheduling.
Over the course of the week, APT's teaching artists create a safe environment for students to explore and question the actions of the characters in the book, allowing students to have honest conversations about the things they do and do not understand about race. TAs employ a variety of theater techniques to help students develop discussion skills, make personal connections to the novel’s characters, and understand and uncover the author’s use of archetype, metaphor, theme, and language. Students will have an opportunity to practice creating a safe place to talk about difficult things, and a chance to ask the teaching artists of color questions they have heretofore been afraid to pose.
After APT leaves the school, we will remain in contact with teachers and students to assess the residency’s success. Success will be measured by an increased comfort in having formal and informal conversations about literature that is specific to race and ethnicity, increased teacher confidence in navigating difficult topics in the classroom, and ongoing use of the discussion tools and techniques created and practiced in the classroom with the TAs.
Contact [email protected], or call 608-588-9270.
The Words Between Us was developed over the course of 18 months with the support and expertise of artists, educators, and administrators.
David Daniel (Education Director)
Alys Dickerson (Designer/ Lead Teaching Artist)
Jamal James (Designer/Lead Teaching Artist)
Laura Arnold (Education Associate)
APT is grateful to the following people for their contributions to the development of the program: Ronald Román-Meléndez, Jennifer Vosters, Xavier Roe, Phoebe González, Tannayha Brown, Tyler White and Sue Quale.
What grade level does WBU serve? WBU is currently designed for high school students. APT hopes to one day expand the program for middle school grades if there is a significant demand from teachers.
What are the books associated with the residency? Currently, the residency is built to work with four novels of varying reading levels for high school students: Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, This is My America by Kim Johnson, Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
Do the students need to read the entire book before this starts? The residency will be designed to meet the students wherever they are in the novel.
Does APT provide the books? Schools will need to acquire these books for themselves. Please notify us if this is a hardship.
Who are the teaching artists? WBU teaching artists are professional actors who have appeared on the APT stage. They are also educators who have trained and prepared extensively to deliver this residency. Each residency uses two teaching artists.
Is this for students of all races? Yes. Respect and immense consideration by our teaching artists has been taken to make sure that students of color do not serve as real life examples of their own experiences.
We have an opportunity to give students of color the past due respect and regard in the “doing” of our workshop. The program is intended to support and validate their perspective while simultaneously educating all participants: students of differing opinions, culture, and backgrounds.
What happens before and after the residency? Before the residency, teachers will be provided with a packet of information to review. The teaching artists will schedule a video call with the teacher in advance of the residency to get additional information about the course. We highly encourage teachers to prepare notes on the dynamic of each class and indicate any special needs prior to our arrival. Our best classroom experiences have occurred when teaching artists have a background on the class in advance. After the residency, teachers will be surveyed to assess the learnings and the success of the program. Students will be invited to write about and reflect on the experience; these writings will be shared with teaching artists to refine and improve the program.
What does the residency week look like? The residency is broken down into five days for five class periods for those schools on block schedules. As we learn from our continuing work in schools, the content or order of the material may be adjusted.
Day One: Introduction to teaching artists, the novel, and the methods for exploring the novel. Using an exercise called “Where do you stand?” teaching artists introduce guidelines for discussing difficult subjects, and encourage students to share their own ideas and listen to the ideas of others. The class develops their own classroom agreements to follow throughout the week.
Day Two: Day two focuses on group discussions using the path Build, Challenge, Question around meaty questions generated from the book. Students will practice these discussion techniques in small groups with guidance from teaching artists.
Day Three: Teaching artists invite students to anonymously pose questions that are brought to the surface through the novel. TAs will speak to their personal experience and, through their answers, model the navigation of difficult conversations around identity.
Day Four: Discussion of and group activities around archetypes and the author’s use of them in the novel to explore the idea of character. Students are introduced to the differences between archetypes and stereotypes.
Day Five: A thoughtful ending to the week, acknowledging growth and bravery and the relationships developed between the artists and the students. Day five includes a writing component, a reflection component, and a communal art-making component.
Does this workshop teach Critical Race Theory? This is a literature and language arts program, not critical race theory.
What are the outcomes of WBU? The residency’s main objective is to give students and teachers the tools to dive into deep discussions and inquiries around a literary work that includes issues of race and identity at its center. Other desired outcomes include:
How was this residency developed? The Words Between Us was developed with a design team of teaching artists in 2021. In October-December of 2021, the team piloted the workshop with support from Wisconsin Humanities at River Valley High School, Sauk Prairie High School, and Wisconsin Heights High School. In between each residency, the teaching artists adjusted the program based on experience and feedback. The program will continue to evolve as we experience more in classrooms around the state and continue to review post-residency evaluations and surveys.
“This program made me excited to come to school in a way that I haven’t felt since before covid.”
“It made me feel like I deserve to be heard and people care what I have to say, even if we don’t agree.”
“I think what you do is super cool and can change the feel of a class room. I think it will affect me for life.”
“I loved the vibe and energy I got from the actors. It was really comfortable to be there and share my opinions. All the variety in activities we did was also interesting.”
“I really hope you guys keep going around to other schools and doing this because it is something that I think every kid should have to go through at some point in their lives.”
“You guys should come back next year. :)”
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.