Lawn students Rebecca Smith, left, and amon Bieri dancing during
John Fleming's residency at the school
Flemings residency at Mills Lawn
of differences at Mills Lawn
Until recently Mills
Lawn sixth grader Liz Zaff hadnt thought much about what it means
to be blind.
But that changed last week when, during John Flemings three-week
residency, she and her classmates in Pam Dapores room spent an hour
as blind people. Wearing sunglasses, they navigated the room using touch
and sound rather than sight. When Fleming offered food, they used smell
to distinguish a graham cracker from a dog biscuit.
In the next period under Flemings guidance, fifth and sixth graders
in Jody Pettifords room had an even more unusual experience. Their
challenge? To act like gorillas, mimicking gorilla movements as they rose
from the floor to their chairs and holding their pencils gorilla-style.
said one boy after squatting, gorilla-like, on his chair. My knees
hurt very bad.
During the residency of Fleming, the local actor, choreographer and director
of the YS Kids Playhouse, Mills Lawn fifth and sixth graders took part
in a variety of new experiences aimed at heightening their sensitivity
to those different from themselves. The residency will culminate tonight
(Thursday), with Kind Ness, a multimedia presentation that
Fleming describes as avant garde theater for kids. The performance,
which involves the speaking, dancing and performing of more than 120 children,
will take place at 7 p.m. at the Antioch Theater.
I think its profoundly moving to see a large group of kids
acting in harmony, Fleming said of the performance, which explores
both kindness and being of a kind.
I appreciate the schools willingness to do something this
big, he said.
Flemings residency is the latest segment of Looking Out, Looking
In: Our Place in the World, a three-year schoolwide program aimed
at using the arts to explore the topic of diversity. The project, which
features a yearlong series of artists-in-residence, is partially funded
by grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Yellow Springs
Endowment for Education.
Kind Ness is an original work that Fleming created, with help
from Mills Lawn teachers and students, during his residency. Its
a play within a play, he said, with the inner play an adaptation
of a work he co-wrote several years ago. That play follows six young people,
including one blind child and a gorilla, from kindergarten to adulthood.
Fleming said he used the play because it explores the theme of diversity,
and connects to one of the central questions of Looking Out, Looking
In how am I alike and different from others in our community
and across the world?
Kind Ness will also include original choreography, video and
excerpts from students writings on the theme of diversity.
But before students could explore how they differed from each other, they
needed to explore themselves, Fleming believed. To that end, he began
the project with an identity search, giving each fifth- and
sixth-grade student a pamphlet of writing prompts asking them to examine
their unique qualities along with their opinions of those different from
The prompts asked students to explore their uniqueness in a variety of
ways, including finishing a sentence that began I am . . .
with all the adjectives they could choose in a minute, and describing
who they are now, who they once were and who they will be. They were also
asked to write about a time they felt left out, and to write about what
is good and what is frightening about being themselves.
Last week, several students read their writings out loud, including a
girl who wrote, Whats frightening about being a child without
a mom is what if my dad dies, who will I ask questions? Another
girl wrote, A time I feel left out is when my friends act like they
dont want to talk to me and pretend they cant hear me.
Reading their writing aloud helped students deepen both their self-knowledge
and their knowledge of each other, said sixth-grade teacher Pam Dapore.
Some things came out that they didnt know about the situations
theyre dealing with, she said. It helped to create more
After exploring their own identities, the students shared how they respond
to those different from themselves, whether the differences are those
of appearance, of temperament or of abilities. The characters in Kind
Ness include stereotypical types and allowed students
the opportunity to compare stereotypes with the complexities of real human
beings, said Fleming.
The discussions addressed topics of diversity, differences, leadership
and being an outsider, said Fleming, who added, the process
is the most important thing.
The process has been lively and fun, several students said.
Its neat to do stuff in acting. I like to be able to be someone
else, said one sixth grader. Another said, You get to do things
you cant ordinarily do. We can act wild without being hauled off
to the haha house.
As part of understanding differences, students in Dapores class
heard a talk by local resident Renee Jordan, who is blind, about living
with blindness. Some of the students said they were surprised by the talk.
I didnt know blind people used computers, said one girl.
Having addressed identity and diversity, this week the students practiced
their dancing, speaking and performing in order to put on a show that
raises, for the audience, some of the concerns and questions the students
have shared with each other.
Although the Kind Ness performance will be over on Thursday,
the effects of Flemings residency will linger much longer, said
fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Jody Pettiford.
I see this residency as one of the most powerful weve had,
said Pettiford. At the beginning of the school year, she said, students
often wrote about diversity in a surface way, largely considering
only differences of appearance. But Flemings residency sparked new
conversations and understandings, she believes.
Now they go deeper, she said. Ive seen some growth
Most often after artist residencies, the artist leaves behind a piece
of art that stays with the school after the children move on, said Pettiford.
But with this residency, she said, the creation involves life-skills
that become a part of the students themselves.
What the kids learned here will move with them as they grow,
she said. They will carry it with them.