October 24, 2002

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Arts project brings global view

Grant Reigelsperger, left, and Benjamyn Hillard rehearse a theater performance during Marilyn Klaben’s residency at Mills Lawn School this week.

“Eka ason!”

“Eka ason!” went the start of the afternoon greetings for Mills Lawn School first graders last week.

“Ba wo ni?” Bao Ku Moses asked the students in Yoruba, the language of Eastern Nigeria.

“Da dani Esa!” the class answered.

This fall, as part of “Looking In, Looking Out,” a three-year arts and diversity project at Mills Lawn, teachers from the African drum and dance school Bi-Okoto are sharing the languages, foods, dance and music of the Nigerian and Ghanian cultures with students throughout the school.

After reviewing the greetings, Moses, a Nigerian teacher from Bi-Okoto in Cincinnati, led the students through a lesson about showing respect for the elders in daily conversation. The students listened and responded to this tall man wearing a cowrie shell necklace and speaking with a heavy Nigerian accent.

Then they began to shuffle their feet and ask questions.

“How do you say my name [in Yoruba]?” asked Mary Lewis.

“How do you say ‘mother?’ ” another student asked.

“How do you say ‘brother?’ ” asked a third.

Saying these words in Yoruba had peaked the students’ curiosity, and every hand in the group shot in the air.

Then Kwame Pongo, another teacher from Bi-Okoto, began beating the drums to signal the time for dancing.

“We teach them about African cultures so that they can see how global the world has become,” Pongo said. “We hope they will be able to compare and contrast cultures without being critical but through acceptance.”

On another day of the artist-in-residence program, Marilyn Klaben, education director for Dayton’s Human Race Theater, taught second-grade students performance techniques.

“Stay with your animal!” she called out to the students, who wore paper elephant trunks and zebra stripes and squawked around on stage. They were rehearsing a dramatized Kenyan folktale, “The Magic Drum,” which they would perform that evening for parents and community members.

“The students have been really responsive, and they’re very much into the theater skills we’ve been working on,” Klaben said.

Last spring, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded Mills Lawn a three-year grant to fund a year of planning, a year of rotating artists-in-residence at the school and a year of disseminating information about the experience to other educational institutions.

“By putting our lesson plans on the Web and preparing documentation based on our experience to share with other schools, we could help others integrate the arts and make a big difference for those kids,” said Mills Lawn kindergarten teacher Becky Brunsman, who helped organize the project.

But the NEA grant fell short of the projected amount, Brunsman said. Teachers have had to scramble to get help from other benefactors in order to retain the originally scheduled artists, she said.

Two of the teachers who helped spearhead the project by doing most of the grant writing last year have since left Mills Lawn, Brunsman said. And the onus to gather more funding has fallen on her by default.

“I never intended to be the director of this program, but some other teachers have stepped up to help, and we’re going to keep on applying for more money,” she said.

Since the spring the school has obtained funding from the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education, the local Parent Teacher Organization and the Ohio Arts Council, which awarded the school six grants.

The school has been turned down for funding by the Coca-Cola Foundation and the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, and faculty and staff are now in the process of applying for a grant from Target and other small endowments, Brunsman said.

This fall first and second graders have had three weeks to work on expressive voices, flexible bodies and active imaginations with the theater residency. Bi-Okoto will be at the school all year working with students several times a month.

John Fleming, who is the artistic director of the YS Kids Playhouse, begins December with a three-week multimedia production with fifth and sixth graders. Several other dancers will work with different age groups through the winter and spring.

“It’s going amazingly well so far this year,” Brunsman said.

Program coordinators hope to end the school year with a festival in May to showcase the work the students did with each of the artists.


—Lauren Heaton