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Enchanted Circle Theater Makes Learning Come Alive

Art of the Matter

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Forty-two years ago, Enchanted Circle Theater was born as, true to its name, a touring theater company, but its interactions in school classrooms led to a dramatic evolution of its mission. Today, the nonprofit — which works not only in theater arts, but with a whole host of creative endeavors — partners with schools and other organizations on a concept known as arts integration, which uses creativity to make education more impactful — and more fun.

As Gabriela Micchia unfolded a series of multiplication tables in the form of brightly hand-colored diagrams, she explained how they’re much more than mere teaching tools.

“They use these almost like multiplication flash cards,” she said of the Morgan School fourth-graders who created them, pointing out how the numbers connect in straight lines to create a times table for the central digit. “I just made the dots, and they connected the dots, and we talked about how to put the triangles together.”

It’s undoubtedly a more entertaining way to learn math facts than simple recitation. But the real magic happened later, when the students visited another fourth-grade class and excitedly explained how to create the charts and use them to play a math game, said Micchia, a teaching artist with Enchanted Circle Theater in Holyoke. In short, the kids became the teachers.

“It goes back to the idea of the pride they have in the knowledge they gain,” Micchia said. “As much information as they retain from an adult showing them what to do, I think sometimes it’s easier for them to understand it from another student. They see each other doing it.”

That’s a typical story for Enchanted Circle Theater, a 42-year-old, Holyoke-based nonprofit that partners with schools and other organizations to educate through the creative arts.

“It’s an immersion into creative and critical thinking around math concepts,” said Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the long-time executive artistic director. “We hear students telling their friends what they’re working on, and they care about what they’ve created because it’s their creative process. It’s a sense of ownership, so seeing their work, being able to walk by it in the hallway and share it with others, there’s a pride in accomplishment, and a sense of joy.”

It’s a model applicable not just to math, but to all school subjects — with a focus at all times on English-language communication skills.

There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

For example, Hellweg said, “we do a lot of work in social studies, where our students will research and write and then perform an original play on the Trail of Tears or immigration or the Civil War or … well, I can give you 42 years worth of content.”

Science is a big focus as well, she added, citing a program for Holyoke fifth-graders called “Where Does Your Water Go?”

“They studied the water cycle, from falling down from the sky into a sewage system into our river right down the street,” she explained. “And then we turned it into an environmental advocacy program, where the students decided what they wanted people to stop and think about, and the impact that humans have on the environment and water.”

The kids then drew pictures — such as a fish swimming amid garbage, or a mallard whose feet are entangled in a plastic six-pack ring — and accompanying slogans, which were then turned into storm-drain art at eight downtown locations. “They created awareness of the water cycle and our role in keeping our world clean.”

Enchanted Circle has, from its beginning, been a working theater, but it has long embraced artistic endeavors of every kind — dance, music, visual arts, literature, even culinary arts — as teaching tools.

“We specialize in what’s called arts integration,” Hellweg said. “And there are three basic components to it. First, it’s about academic understanding — unpacking knowledge and learning concepts and deep critical thinking. The second channel is social-emotional learning and communication and collaboration and all those 21st-century learning skills that prepare us to be engaged in the world.”

The third element, quite simply, is artistry and creativity and examining the world through the filter of creative expression. “We work with people of all ages and all abilities, and it’s about inspiring and engaging and enhancing learning. It’s about connecting people to each other, people to information, people to the world around them, and people to themselves.”

Moment of Magic

Enchanted Circle was launched in 1976 as a touring theater company, but one that had a foothold in education from early on.

“We were traveling to schools, to museums, to fairs, to libraries, bringing folk tales from around the world to life,” Hellweg said. “I’ve been here for 38 of our 42 years, and I love the performing. There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

So the theater started developing workshops related to the performances, which evolved from one-off events to a regular partnership with schools — and an expansion of the organization’s work from drama to arts integration of all kinds.

“I felt that working in the classroom with teachers and students would really bring learning to life,” she told BusinessWest. “So we are still a theater company, and we create original plays on subjects with both cultural and historical relevance. But we really became a teaching institution.”

The theater has a presence in public schools throughout Holyoke, Amherst, Northampton, and parts of Springfield, but also in affordable-housing developments, preschools, universities, and other, perhaps surprising venues.

“We work throughout the community — in the foster-care world, in the mental-health field, with adjudicated youth in detention, in homeless shelters, in housing developments — bringing arts-integrated learning to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the area,” Hellweg said.

Holyoke’s public schools represent Enchanted Circle’s longest-term and closest partner, as seen in offerings like the visual math programs at Morgan School and a dual-language arts-integration program with grades K-3 at Metcalf School every Friday, which touches on numerous academic subjects. “Whatever they’re working on, we are working on,” she said. “It’s hands-on, project-based, arts-integrated learning.”

And that hands-on element is critical, she noted. Typically, the ideas kids learn at school are stored in their visual memory. “But if we’re doing embodied math — where students become an isosceles triangle, or two people create a parallelogram with their arms — then it’s in your muscle memory. And it brings the joy back to learning because it’s fun, and the laughter in class is huge.”

Micchia agreed. “It becomes this whole-body experience, this holistic experience when we use the arts to create this visual math.”

And students who are having fun are more likely to want to learn, Hellweg added. “What we find is that attendance goes up because students want to be in school, and behavior issues go down because students are engaged.”

That applies even to young people who never considered themselves learners, she said, recalling a bittersweet conversation she had recently with a 15-year-old girl in juvenile detention.

“She said to us, ‘I never thought I would find joy in learning, and I’m loving learning with Enchanted Circle. I never would have dropped out of school had Enchanted Circle been in my classroom.’”

Now working on a poetry-into-performance program through the theater, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, the girl has a new outlook on why learning can — and should — be so much more than rote memorization. “That engagement, both the physical engagement and the experience of working collaboratively and creatively, changes the learning environment.”

Micchia went further than that, saying Enchanted Circle cultivates an emotionally safe learning space.

“I feel like it creates an acceptance — you’re accepted here. You don’t have to be the best at something,” she said, adding that there’s no one set way to teach a student. “One of the beautiful things is, it’s kind of organic and flexible, and you meet the needs of the child as opposed to the other way around. It’s not a formula.”

Teaching the Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones in need of that confidence, Hellweg noted. Teachers are, too — at least when it comes to the often-unfamiliar territory of arts integration in their classrooms.

“We do a tremendous amount of training of teachers, who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, and often feel that they’re not creative. But, within moments of one of our professional-development programs, they realize they’re very creative, and they have a tremendous aptitude for bringing the creative process into the classroom,” she told BusinessWest. “So we’ve been working with teachers on large and small ways to integrate the arts into the classroom, and any time we’re in residence in a classroom, we’re working in partnership with the teacher and students to create something together.”

One innovative initiative, the Honors Arts Academy in Holyoke, is an afterschool program at Donahue School that focuses on rigorous arts training for students. The goal is to secure the funding to place it at Holyoke High School and bring in seventh- and eighth-graders from three city middle schools to work with freshmen at the high school.

“The ninth-grade dropout rate is a big challenge,” Hellweg said, “so it’s good to get seventh- and eighth-graders feeling not just at home in the high school, but that it’s their school, and able to use the resources at the high school, like the television studio and the theater. Most middle schools don’t have those resources.”

In all Enchanted Circle’s programs, she added, students are moving beyond passive learning and generating their own ideas, helping to craft curriculum that means something to them.

While the theater has evolved slowly over the years, Hellweg is excited about a new initiative called the Institute for Arts Integration, which will be a regional hub for training teachers, social-service case workers, administrators, and teaching artists.

“There are a couple programs around the country that are doing this, and because we’ve been pioneers in the field of arts integration, we want to create our own institute,” she said. “Our goal is to make arts integration the norm in every classroom.”

It’s a goal that gets her out of bed each morning, doing a job she has loved for almost four decades.

“You don’t stay in a job that long unless it moves you,” she said. “Every single day, I see that ‘a-ha’ moment where students are able to do something they didn’t think they could. It’s palpable — teachers are seeing their students differently, students are seeing their teachers differently. Learning comes alive, and the creative process means it’s never-ending. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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