ALBANY PARK — An Albany Park theater troupe is helping kids from one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods open up and feel welcome by transforming their writing into theatrical performances.
The collaboration between Volta Elementary and the Albany Park Theater Project turns reluctant performers into confident stars by giving them a stage and a voice.
Volta, 4950 N. Avers Ave., has more than 700 students who speak about 27 languages, said eighth-grade teacher Kristina Vancil. The collaboration with the theater helps students growing up in one of Chicago’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods build confidence in their writing and public speaking skills, she said.
The most recent student-led performance happened earlier this month, and it featured students from two classes sharing their stories with Volta’s community, Vancil said.
“A lot of the time, it helps students not feel alone,” Vancil said.
Students take time during Vancil’s class to “free write,” she said. Sometimes, they write about what they’re reading; but other times, their writing takes the form of an essay or poetry contest where students share their thoughts on topics like youth violence and how it’s impacted their community, Vancil said.
“They’re opening up their hearts with their writing and and entrusting a lot of their thoughts and feelings to me and the classroom,” Vancil said. “As we’re doing this, we’re going back and forth to build their work into this beautiful thing and building trust.”
That trust helps students feel comfortable engaging in classroom poetry slams where they share their work with each other — and, later, with the Albany Park Theater Project, Vancil said.
The collaboration with Volta and the theater group has lasted six years.
Students only participate with the theater if they want to, and they can remain anonymous. In those cases, someone who is not the writer leads the performance that was built around the writer’s work, Vancil said.
“Some kids wanted to share, but also wanted to be anonymous. And what a lot of people don’t realize about the Albany Park Theater Project is that there’s so much safety with the students’ words,” Vancil said. “Other people perform the story so it becomes everyone’s story.”
Members of the theater visit the classroom throughout the school year to help students with writing prompts and to guide them in turning their classroom stories into theater productions, said Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the theater’s co-executive director.
Most of the students are first-generation or immigrants living in Albany Park, Rodriguez said.
During one of Rodriguez’s visits to a classroom for the project a few years ago, one student explained what it was like being a refugee — which to led to another student realizing the two of them had a lot in common, he said.
“That was the first time that student felt comfortable being seen and heard,” Rodriguez said. “These two students were from two different parts of the world but had very similar shared experiences. That made them way more empathetic towards each other.”
The experience also helps students become more confident with public speaking, Vancil said.
“These are teenagers, right? At the start they’ll say, ‘There’s no way you’re gonna get me on stage.’ But at our last performance, I literally had 49 kids that were part of our play this year,” Vancil said. “We’ve never done two classrooms before. It was crazy. Even the cool kids that said ‘No way’ were singing the last song.”
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