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Stage might

Queens teacher’s theater program helps ELLs gain confidence in their new language

James is teaching her students “life skills and commitment” through her theater Miller Photography

James is teaching her students “life skills and commitment” through her theater program.

English language project newfound confidence in their new language through James Miller Photography

English language project newfound confidence in their new language through James’ theater course and after-school theater program at Pan American International HS in Elmhurst, Queens.

The theater group performs solely in English. James said that techniques actors Miller Photography

The theater group performs solely in English. James said that techniques actors use to master a role and perform onstage also help them gain skill and self-assurance in their new language.

A young couple tired from driving pulls off the highway and enters a restaurant.

The young man announces that this is Lima, Ohio, pronouncing it “Leema.”

“You mean ‘Ly-ma,’” his companion corrects him.

The couple argues over the correct pronunciation, then ask a waitress to settle it.

What do you call this place?

Exasperated, the waitress responds loudly and slowly: “P-I-I-Z-Z-Z-A H-U-U-T!”

The skit was being performed at Pan American International HS in Elmhurst, Queens, by immigrant students of teacher Lisa-Erika James, who uses her theater course and after-school theater program to teach English skills.

James says that the techniques actors use to master a role and perform onstage help English language learners gain skill and confidence in their new language. The approach has yielded remarkable results with her students, nearly all recent emigrants from the Caribbean or Latin America.

Fluent in Spanish, James sometimes uses language in class to help students understand information. But the skits the students perform and the monologues they write are all entirely in English.

“They’re using strategies of memorization and presenting themselves in front of an audience to learn” this new language, James said.

It is an approach that fits the instructional philosophy at Pan American HS, one of a network of international schools dedicated to teaching immigrant students English while preparing them for college and a career.

Teacher Lisa-Erika James’ rewards come from seeing her students excel — but bouqMiller PhotographyTeacher Lisa-Erika James’ rewards come from seeing her students excel — but bouquets after a performance are nice, too.

James started at Pan American in fall 2011 with the charge to begin a theater program.

To supplement what is offered in her classes, she also immediately launched the after-school program, which meets four times a week, including Saturdays. It holds two performances each school year and as performance dates near, the number of after-school rehearsals increases to five a week.

Showing up at all these rehearsals requires responsibility and dedication on the part of the students, which James said is part of her plan.

“I’m teaching them life skills and commitment” in addition to theater and English, she said.

Ronny Claudio, a 12th-grader from the Dominican Republic who played the young man in the skit on Lima, Ohio, said he hadn’t chosen theater class and when he was placed in it, he thought, “That’s not my kind of thing.” He has found, though, that he likes having an audience watch and listen to him. In the February performance, he performed a monologue from “Death of a Salesman.”

Ana Inoa, a 12th-grader, had come to the United States from the Dominican Republic only six months before she began with the after-school theater group in 2011. “I didn’t understand a lot,” she said. “I had to ask a lot of questions.” But within a few months, she was onstage for her first performance.

Her parents were in the audience that evening, Ana said, and have been to every performance since.

Although the theater group performs solely in English, its audience — which numbered 200 for the most recent show in February — always includes some parents who know little English.

But if the meaning of some of their children’s lines passes by them, the larger point of the performance does not.

“The point is that they want their children to learn English,” James said. “I’ve been overwhelmed at the response of my parents.”

One of James’ fellow teachers, Helio Sepulveda-Zornosa, said he has seen great progress by students in his English classes who are in James’ theater troupe. He thinks one reason James’ method is effective is that in theater, students portray characters other than themselves.

“That takes the personal part out of it,” Sepulveda-Zornosa said. “It allows them to take risks.”

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