Teaching a love of literature

Christian Heritage School production helps students get into difficult texts

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For Christian Heritage School teachers Shane Gilbert and Mari Mack, teaching is about inspiring students to dream.

So it seemed only fitting to make dreams the emphasis of their students' final project for the first semester. Mack, who works for Gilbert's film production company in Los Angeles, wrote a production for the students involving each of the literary works read this semester.

From Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" to Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the production, "What Dreams May Come," was performed Thursday night at the school.

Mack, a 2000 graduate of the school, geared the production to include scenes specifically involving dreams.

"We try to focus a lot of our teaching on giving passion to our students and encouraging them to have dreams," Mack said Thursday, shortly after the production's final rehearsal. The school lacks a drama class, so Gilbert and Mack made work on the production a final project for the semester for all their students, including Amanda Rogers, who produced "What Dreams May Come."

"I love stress," Rogers said of her producing experience. "And I love Shakespeare."

Most of the students had little or no acting experience, but forcing them to leave their comfort zones and succeed at something new was a worthwhile lesson in itself, Mack said.

"This is probably the only production most of them will ever do," she said. "A lot of them thought they couldn't do this."

Ninth-grader Kelly Northcutt, who played the role of Hermia for the "A Midsummer Night's Dream" portion of the production, said being able to act out Shakespeare scenes helped clarify what was at first difficult to read.

"It's exciting," Northcutt said. "It's so much more fun to read a play and perform it. You really understand it."

Many students are visual learners, Mack said, and providing them the opportunity to see a scene from a book or play acted out can make the difference between appreciation of literature and giving up on a tough assignment.

"It's just about getting kids to fall in love with something most of the world doesn't get," Gilbert said. "Most of the world doesn't get literature, (doesn't) get Shakespeare."

Students were asked to create a background for each character, which Mack said helped them get into their roles and understand the emotions behind what each character says in text.

The production also included a short film produced by the school's first-ever film class.

More important than the success of the production is that students gained a sense of ownership of some great literary works, Mack said.

"It's like they own a part of the literature now," she said.

Gilbert and Mack will teach only this semester, after which they'll return to their everyday jobs in California, where they're following dreams of their own. Mack is Gilbert's teaching assistant.

Besides using a cast largely comprised of students with little or no acting experience, there were other obstacles to overcome for Mack, Gilbert and the students. The production's set and costumes were constructed on zero budget. True Value donated about $100 worth of materials.

The five-week project was pulled off with only two days of rehearsals and about 40 high school students.

"It has been fun," Mack said. "It has been a process."

Northcutt, who has performed in a couple of other productions at the school, said she looks forward to more opportunities to act.

"It's still always scary to get up there, but I'm getting more used to it," she said.

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