Mary Grey has served as director of First Centenary United Methodist Church’s outreach program, The Centenary, for community children for 15 years. Last spring, Mary Grey applied for a grant through Bethlehem Center to engage local children, using the arts as a means of helping them recover from what they had lost during the pandemic and other cultural stressors.
Kate Forbes has worked as an actress for decades; on Broadway, off-Broadway, throughout the country and internationally, having recently starred in the Disney hit “Wandavision.” Mary Grey used the grant money to hire Kate, who created a curriculum for First Centenary’s program that incorporated original music, poetry, drama, photography and visual arts, to the delight of the children and their fans.
Mary Grey said, “Kate is amazing. She encouraged the students and gave them the freedom to express themselves from their hearts. They were so proud of what they created that they found the confidence to perform and to share with each other and an audience of parents and other adults. The self-doubt and insecurity bred by a year in isolation was defeated by the strength of the spirit they found in themselves.”
Tristan, a rising fifth-grader at Normal Park Museum Magnet School, enthusiastically explained, “I made the crown and mask, and there were so many materials you could use - feathers, jewels and all kinds of stuff! This [program] is important because this could change Chattanooga and make it a different place! I like how it’s cooperative, and they let you play and work, but they still want to help you focus on your school and your reading. In language arts, they helped with reading skills and grammar, and if there’s a word you don’t know, they can help you. They had us building these cool things with normal materials like cotton balls and popsicle sticks. It made me realize that even though we had to stay six feet apart, we can still be together and do fun things!”
Younger children imagined their own “kingdoms,” creating names for the kingdoms and themselves, and designing beautiful crowns and embellished capes, each as unique as its creator. King Aiden described his kingdom, saying, “There is a zoo with lots of animals. It is famous for its big rose gardens. There are strawberries, chips and grapes. It smells like fluffy cows and has farms with panthers.” His kingdom’s rules were “Don’t bully and everyone has to wear blue shoes.” Mary Grey described the scene, saying, “The early elementary children were proud to parade for parents in their crowns and capes they created as the older kids read about each ruler’s imagined kingdom.”
Experts in mental health and child development say that healthy risk-taking is one of the most powerful ways people can grow, whether it’s learning to swim, ride a bike, or learning a new skill. Research tells us that this kind of healthy risk-taking builds resilience, which is particularly needed for children today who have lived through the upheaval of the past few years.
“Many of the kids have found school to be a place where they ‘make mistakes’ and are often ‘wrong.’ They are afraid of being wrong, uncomfortable with not knowing. In any creative endeavor, this kind of thinking can keep anyone from even trying. In my classes, I stressed that there was no right or wrong, good or bad; there was only effort. Each project began with a set of instructions and materials, and each child created something different. It’s important for them to see this, see that their creativity is unique to them, and has inherent worth,” explained Kate.
The writing projects were very challenging, Kate admitted, adding that she tried to keep them as little like school as she could. “My goal was to help the kids see that words have power, but more specifically, that their own expressions of who they are have power and worth,” Kate said.
“With Shakespeare, who is taught in all kinds of intimidating ways as literature in school, I picked one or two speeches, and we read them aloud as a group repeatedly until we knew (without opening a dictionary) what [the speech] meant. I did the same thing with the young men (seventh and eighth grade boys) with poetry.” Kate whet the young men’s appetite for poetry, exposing them to poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Billy Collins and even Kobe Bryant with his “Ode to Basketball.” The junior high boys read their poems and performed a song they wrote.
“Many of the projects had several steps requiring patience,” Kate said, adding that sometimes you have to wait for the paint to dry. She stressed to the children that there was no prize for finishing first! When the students encountered the dreaded writers’ block, she encouraged them to have the faith to go ahead put that first mark on the paper, thus eliminating the empty page in front of them. “Acknowledging that beginning is sometimes the hardest. And then, of course, there is follow-through, the finishing,” she said. After the finishing, there was the editing, and the kids made sure their finished projects were exactly how they wanted them to be. Kate typed everything and printed it all out, making the project look “official,” she said.
“My overall goal, besides exposing the kids to different forms of creative self-expression, was to give the kids confidence in their imaginations, and in the individuality of that expression. Our presentation at the end gave each kid an experience of success, of being listened to. I also think the children end up telling us grownups quite a bit about how they view the world, if we listen, Kate said. “So much has been written about the importance of art in education, I don’t think I have anything new to add. Imagination, problem-solving, follow-thru, patience, faith … When collaboration is added to that, as in theater, or a drumming circle, we learn the experience of being part of a whole, of supporting our fellows.”
The students supported and honored each other’s process and presentation. “The older elementary students became playwrights, watching the staff and older kids perform plays they wrote. The high school girls performed a Shakespeare soliloquy as a group. They loved the way Emilia spoke her mind in Othello,” said Mary Grey.
Aline (16, rising junior at CGLA) said, “This year was obviously different, but Miss Kate taught us about Shakespeare and made it fun and I thought, ‘this is interesting!’ She really helped us express ourselves. She was very positive and it was just overall fun!”
Creative thinking, working collaboratively, empathetic listening, planning and executing productions and presentations with multiple steps are all examples of critical thinking skills that will generalize into students’ personal lives and academic work. The students themselves were able to recognize how this program will help them moving forward. While many educators lament the losses students typically suffer over the summer months, it is clear that the students in The Centenary’s program have flourished with the investment of the creative arts program Kate developed and implemented and will enter into the next school year with renewed confidence and creativity.
by Mary Vassar Hitching