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Students create play from scratchTeachers skeptical at first, kids prove them wrong

By Ben LumpkinDaily Planet staff
Thursday March 15, 2001

Malcolm X arts magnet school teachers Marilyn Hiratzka and Jennifer Adcock have directed enough student theatrical productions to know what’s doable and what’s dream. 

That’s why the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers turned to each other a few hours into a week-long New York Metropolitan Opera Guild teacher-training program last summer with knowing looks. 

“It can’t be done. What are they talking about?” Adcock said, remembering what she was thinking to herself. 

The Opera Guild experts had dreamed up the theatrical equivalent of JFK’s 1961 promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Give a group of fourth- and fifth-graders six months, they said, and they cannot only create a musical from scratch – write and perform the script, design and build the set, compose and play the music – but put on a performance they and their teachers would never forget. 

Adcock and Hiratzka were skeptical, but curious. Two theater veterans themselves, they understood the rewards of seeing a dramatic production through from start to finish. But could the kids stay focused on so many details? Could they make the tough decisions needed to move the production forward with limited teacher intervention? 

After six long months of labor, the answers to these questions are now on display for all to see. Forty Malcolm X fourth- and fifth-graders launched the world premier of their musical, “Treacherous Crossings,” Wednesday morning at the Malcolm X auditorium, to the roaring acclaim of a kindergarten and first grade audience. 

Through a democratic process, the students had decided to create a musical that would portray four Mexican youth attempting the hazardous crossing into California in search of work, education and “a better life.”  

There are few Latinos in the group, Adcock said, but fifth-grader Dylan Moniz persuaded his classmates to tackle the issue after he learned that hundreds of Mexicans die of thirst and exposure to the elements each year, attempting to cross into California over mountains or through the desert. 

“Mexicans don’t really have a chance to have a better life,” said Moniz, the musical’s production manager. “They have to work in the fields - and kids like my age have to do it too. I’m lazy and I couldn’t imagine working like that all day long.” 

Adcock and Hiratzka were at first a little mystified that Northern California students would choose this topic. But as they watched the musical develop the choice began to make sense, they said. 

“They feel injustice very strongly at their age,” Hiratzka said. 

Back in September it took a while for the musical to catch on with some students, but Adcock and Hiratzka demanded absolute dedication, telling the students to treat their roles in the production as a job that could be lost if they failed to live up to certain expectations. 

“People actually got fired,”said Erin McLaughlin, who portrayed one of the Mexican migrants Thursday. “We learned what it’s like to work with others, and what it is to keep a job.” 

In recent weeks the students’ enthusiasm for the project has gone beyond anything Adcock and Hiratzka have experienced before. 

“When they finally saw what it was they had done they went, ‘Ooo, this is good,’” Hiratzka said. 

“In all the productions I’ve done with kids this is the first time they’ve had a hand in everything,” Adcock said. “Boy howdy, did we get a totally different kind of focus and intensity.” 

“I’ll never go back to using a script that the students didn’t create because it makes all the difference in how committed they are (to the production),” Adcock said. 

In addition to the one period a day devoted to working on the musical, Adcock adjusted her fifth-grade curriculum to teach students more about the Mexican-American experience. In essence, she let the students dictate the focus in their instruction around issues such as civil rights and labor history, so students’ enthusiasm for the musical could carry over into the classroom. 

It’s students who typically are not engaged by classwork and homework who have benefited most by their involvement in the musical, Adcock said. 

“You put them in this context and they shine, and that’s reason enough to do it.” 

Treacherous Crossing shows at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the Malcolm X Arts & Academic Magnet School auditorium, 1731 Prince St. Those interested in seeing the show are advised to call ahead to reserve seats: 644-6313.