Fifth Grade Class Writes Its Own Ellis Experience, One Play at a Time

A school play is an exercise in collaboration; a shared experience that often unites a whole grade level in bringing a story to life. It can be a great vehicle for exploring classic theatrical tales—or, in Ellis’ case, a way for students to create a classic of their own.
Each year, under the guidance of Upper School Visual Arts and Performing Arts Teacher Sara Sturdevant (and with faculty and staff support from all divisions), Ellis’ fifth grade class engages in an eight-week experience during which they develop a storyline and write an original script, then figure out how to take it to the stage. 

"The reason the fifth grade does this project is that they’re at this fabulous age where they don’t realize they can’t do it,” Ms. Sturdevant says. "There’s always a moment where someone says, 'this is hard’ or 'we can’t do this,’ and I say, 'you’re going to be fine, you can do it.’ Or, they have a realization of what goes into making this happen. It’s about them finding that they have to come together to make this happen.”

Ms. Sturdevant has been coordinating the fifth grade play since 2005, when former Head of School Mary Grant asked her to develop a playwriting exercise rooted in the curriculum.

This year’s play tied into the fifth grade humanities curriculum by focusing on female leadership in Egyptian history. The class also incorporated their enthusiasm for this year’s World Cup as a setting for their show. The play, The Curious Case of the Captured Cup, was about four Ellis students who win a mysterious trip to the World Cup finals in Doha, but their trip is endangered by a shadowy villain. Together, the Ellisians must use courage, bravery, and knowledge gained from their history projects to make it to the game and stop the evil plan.

Ms. Sturdevant says the grade 5 play always includes a connection to Ellis, that there’s usually a beloved teacher who makes an appearance as a character (this year it was Ms. Sidari, played by Autumn Mohring), and that the rest depends on the curriculum. In the past, plays have considered what would happen if we didn’t have math for the day, or have starred Greek gods and goddesses because that’s what students were studying at the time.

The fifth graders begin the eight-week, play-creation process by talking about current events and what they’re enjoying learning in their classes. Then they think about how they can capture both in an original story. They use improvisational exercises to help develop dialogue, and they learn how to break a complex project into manageable components. In addition to writing the play, the students handle stage management, learn to run light and sound boards, design and build the set, and create digital effects, costumes, and props. They even handle their own event promotion, which this year included a video introducing the cast and crew.

Ms. Sturdevant says the process is more important than the product for this experience—although the product is often clever and hilarious—and that theater is a great way to teach process because there’s an end game and you have to make it work.

"Everyone relies on everyone else, and you don’t always get what you want. Students learn perseverance, and they learn how to just simply do it and not wait until it’s perfect,” she says. "Rehearsal is a really, really important skill, because it reminds you that you have to work at things to make them great. And what do we learn in this context? You learn that you can solve the problem, that you are brave, and that helping your friends is a really good idea.”

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