Teaching through theater

On a recent weekday, pool noodles, hula-hoops and foam balls covered the stage of the Black Box Theatre at the University of Northern Iowa campus. Pairs of Waterloo high school students, one blindfolded and one not, were trying to cross the floor without touching anything - one student guiding their blindfolded partner with verbal instructions.

The air was alive with laughter, good-natured groans during the team-building workshop, part of a new partnership between UNI’s Department of Theatre and its Classic Upward Bound program that seeks to prepare low-income and first-generation Waterloo high school students for college. For program directors, the workshops are a way to expose students to important skills beyond just textbook knowledge. 

“Everyone talks about STEM, but you need the arts in there too, right?” said Yolanda Williams, director of Classic Upward Bound. “This really presents an opportunity for our students to express themselves and learn how to communicate better. This is real world experience for them to practice in school, out of school  and as they move on to their future.”

The workshop on Wednesday was the first of the new partnership, which will feature three more workshops led by UNI theatre students and recent alumni, with 30 spots open for the 50 students participating in Classic Upward Bound’s Summer Program. The first workshop was run by senior theatre performance major Dani Schmaltz and recent graduate Zoe Sneed, who crafted the workshop to teach communication, team-building and creative skills.

“Our biggest goal moving into the planning of the workshop was to give the students an opportunity to take up space and exist as their authentic selves, which is something that the theatre gives such a beautiful opportunity to do,” Sneed said. “By the end of the workshop, they all developed a wonderful connection to one another and took big, unapologetic risks with the work.”

The students participating in the new theatre program are part of Classic Upward Bound’s Summer Program. Normally, students in this program spend six weeks living in a UNI dorm taking classes in mathematics, composition, science, foreign language, and computer science. This year, due to the pandemic, the program is using a hybrid format, delivering the academic classes online while holding other activities, such as the theatre workshops, in person.

To craft the workshops, Williams turned to theatre department head Eric Lange, who recommended Gretta Berghammer, who teaches courses in drama education and theatre for youth and serves as the artistic director for the Sturgis Youth Theatre, a community-based theatre providing class and production-related experiences for students ages 4-16. 

“I think STEM is great, but sometimes when we focus on educating students we forget about educating the whole student,” Berghammer said. “Participation in theatre is one of the many ways Yolanda is striving to make the program as comprehensive as possible.”

 

Sneed and Schmaltz’s workshop focused on theatre basics and storytelling through activities that engaged the students in discovering their voices and using their personal perspectives to tell their stories.

“The wonderful thing about a workshop like this is the applicability it has beyond any singular stage or classroom,” Schmaltz said. “We worked on theatricall- based skills like storytelling and public speaking, but there are also soft skills integrated into that work, such as team building, listening, self-reflection and communicating effectively. Those skills are transferable to any career out there.” 

Other workshops will focus on ways to communicate through movement, how to play a character and improvisation. The workshops will push the Classic Upward Bound students in directions few other disciplines can, Berghammer said.

“Theatre is a very social platform,” Berghammer said. “It relies heavily on collaboration and interaction and it asks students to try new things and takes risks to try new things. Those are very important and valuable experiences.”

Classic Upward Bound is administered by the UNI’s Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE) as part of TRiO, a federal program administered by UNIthat provides services for elementary through high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

UNI-CUE has been offering TRIO programs since the late 1980s. UNI’s Classic Upward Bound program focuses on developing collaborative relationships with students, parents, schools, and the community and providing services and support that will enhance the academic skills and motivation low-income and first-generation students need to complete high school, enter a post-secondary institution, and ultimately obtain at least a Baccalaureate degree. Currently, UNI’s program has a 100% high school completion rate and a more than 90% college placement rate.

For Williams, the prospect of infusing the arts into the Classic Upward Bound programs was on her radar since she arrived at UNI last year after a stint working as the executive director of the northeast Iowa branch of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, a national nonprofit that develops mentorship relationships between youths and adult volunteers.

Williams has a background in art herself, graduating with an art management degree with minors in art history and studio art from Bellevue University. She said this summer’s workshops are just the beginning of what art education can offer the program’s students.

“Sometimes new collaborations bring things we never could have imagined,” Williams said. “I have high hopes for where this program will lead us in the future.”