Artist helps students visualize spelling, build community

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

Several first-graders silently contort their faces, then they get into “actor neutral” stance. Later they use their bodies to spell out a word.

This is just a glimpse into what drama artist Shona Strauser — director of education at Perseverance Theatre — has brought to Glacier Valley Elementary.

Strauser has just completed a Juneau Arts and Humanities Council sponsored “Artists in the Schools” program at the school. She incorporated drama during school day instruction to help with reading and spelling or community building.

Strauser’s last class on Thursday, Natasha Chester’s first-graders, gathered in a circle and followed Strausser’s facial expressions. She placed invisible handles on points on her face and stretched it here and there as students followed. Next she led them through another silent activity of exploring a magic box. In the box were things like bubble gum — and the entertaining exercise of blowing a very large bubble and cleaning gum off one’s face.

Another activity included a game called “bippity, bippity, bop,” where students were to remain silent when “bop” was said to them, or they were to interrupt her “bippity, bippity” with a bop.

“Why would I ask you to join me in a round of ‘bippity, bippity, bop?’” she asked the children. “What do you have to do as a school learner?”

Students responded with listening and thinking before you speak.

Another activity was called “strong bodied letters.” In this class, students paired up to spell out the word “handle” with their bodies.

Chester came back into her classroom after they’d made the shape and asked them to sound out the different letters. After, she excitedly guessed the word, which is one that will be on their spelling test.

“I get different spelling words from different teachers,” Strauser said. “Sometimes teachers want me to do community building or plays straight up.”

She has five different curricula for the school and worked with first and second graders.

“I try to do some of the fun exercises I know are going to work,” she said. “The kids here are super ready for art and drama. It’s a great way to help them get to read and spell and is especially useful for boys because it’s super active.”

So, depending upon teacher preference, Strauser works drama into the classrooms a couple times a week. She started mid-January and Thursday was her last student day.

Strauser also teaches community building, which emphazises fun and respect.

“So they talk to each other with respect, have fun with each other together,” she said.

Strauser said it’s common when kids are having fun for it to spiral out of control. In this fashion, she gears it so they learn to spiral in a good way.

“Not the way that hurts other people,” she said.

Strauser has been participating in different Artists in the Schools programs throughout Alaska for 14 years and was a recipient of a Mayor’s Award for the Arts last year.

“I’m the kind of person that can’t sit still or stand still,” Strauser said. “I have a hard time focusing on certain things for a long period of time. This is a way of learning sounds and words and it gives kids like myself another in to learning. There are also a lot of boys at this age (first and second grade) with a lot of energy. This is a way to physicalize reading. That’s the point.”

On Wednesday, Strauser will give a three-part presentation to teachers on how to incorporate drama into their classrooms.

She said the first segment will be on incorporating drama and literacy — getting out sounds and words in a different way. The second will show how to use drama as a community builder, making sure a group of people can work together. The third will be on story building — putting together a picture for readers.

She said any teacher can bring their ideas or questions — for example how to incorporate drama and history.

Strauser loves doing the residency programs because they’re fun and educational.

“It energizes me,” she said. “Teachers are some cool people. They’re givers. ... Plus, I love art. It’s what I do. I’m a theater junkie really.”

She said she likes working with Glacier Valley because of the talented teachers who aren’t afraid of trying new things and know how to connect with the children.

For more information on the Artists in the Schools program, go to: .

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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