December 19, 2002
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Mills Lawn students Rebecca Smith, left, and amon Bieri dancing during John Fleming's residency at the school

John Fleming’s residency at Mills Lawn—
Lesson of differences at Mills Lawn

Until recently Mills Lawn sixth grader Liz Zaff hadn’t thought much about what it means to be blind.

But that changed last week when, during John Fleming’s three-week residency, she and her classmates in Pam Dapore’s 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 Fleming’s guidance, fifth and sixth graders in Jody Pettiford’s 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.

“Whoa,” 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 it’s 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 school’s willingness to do something this big,” he said.

Fleming’s 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. It’s 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 themselves.

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, “What’s 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 don’t want to talk to me and pretend they can’t 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 didn’t know about the situations they’re dealing with,” she said. “It helped to create more understanding.”

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.

“It’s 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 can’t ordinarily do. We can act wild without being hauled off to the haha house.”

As part of understanding differences, students in Dapore’s 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 didn’t 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 Fleming’s residency will linger much longer, said fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Jody Pettiford.

“I see this residency as one of the most powerful we’ve 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 Fleming’s residency sparked new conversations and understandings, she believes.

“Now they go deeper,” she said. “I’ve seen some growth that’s amazing.”

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.”

—Diane Chiddister