Kids first in the Fourth Grade Theater Project


To the Editor:

After reading an article about the Vineyard’s Fourth Grade Theater Project going dark after 17 years, I was struck by how none of the news about this sea change in the schools has expressed what has actually ended on the Island.

When my 27-year-old son started fourth grade at the Tisbury School, jack hammers were still working on a renovation that fall. MJ Bruder Munafo agreed to open the Playhouse for a program to get the kids out of the noise twice a week, and she and I founded the Fourth Grade Theater Project. Necessity was the mother of this invention, but what we didn’t anticipate was the magic that happened.

“Zeus” was a shy little boy even the teachers recommended would not be appropriate for the “acting team.” He would have never taken the social risk in a school try-out in front of his peers. But on foreign turf, handled with the professional protocol of the Vineyard Playhouse, this boy proved to himself he was not what they all expected. He could be “king of the gods” — a personal victory he would not have achieved at school.

Each of the 17 years that followed, 10-year-olds proved themselves able to meet a challenge that wasn’t evaluated with a letter grade, but with the pride of huge collective accomplishment. All chose their path in the production, all were team players, and all took a bow on a professional stage, before the general public. Each year the lessons of teamwork and overcoming self-doubt brought tears to our eyes.

When a little girl took her “production team” to a business in Oak Bluffs that her aunt owned to present the pitch to sell an ad in the play program, that child carried the pride of family and a lesson in business to her friends and ultimately the public who read the program. When Pam Benjamin encouraged an insecure scene painter to add his own fantasy sea creature to the backdrop, fantasy next to reality was hailed as a brilliant stroke that all could see. When Paul Munafo trusted a nine-year-old girl to run the sound board, shock waves rocked the male-dominated technical team, but that crack of lightning happened at the precise moment the lights flashed — and the public oohed and awed. And when the script called for a crab to scuttle around the stage, Abbey Bailey and Marlene DiStefano were servants to the construction ideas of their unconstrained 10-year-old costumers.

This level of one-on-one teaching going an extra mile won many coveted local, state, and national grant awards for the Fourth Grade Theater Project, including several National Endowment for the Arts grants. But this year, many Islanders are out of an expected off-season job.

The impact on our children of an unusually excellent and wise teacher, a best friend, or an inspirational community experience are the things that build us, that we remember for the rest of our lives. At the end of each Fourth Grade Theater Project season, children write their comments for the Vineyard Playhouse and staff. Every year phrases are repeated. “I’ll never forget how I felt.” “The best time of my life.” “I didn’t think I could do it.” And a local theater became a community art house they owned as Islanders.

When I left the program after 12 years, I was replaced by Kate Hancock, a former fourth-grade teacher with theater and curriculum chops. All the fourth-grade teachers have devotedly guided their students, and over its 17 years, this project has employed a long list of local year-round residents who are also theater professionals who have led their “teams” with expertise and great love. They should be acknowledged for all to see and thanked for their spirited work with our children. Listed below are many of them:

Abby Bailey, Marie Baldwin, Pam Benjamin, Brie Bingham, Barbara Dworkin Binder, Chris Brophy,Victoria Campbell, Sally Cohn, Amy Cohn Crawford, Mark Conklin, Geneva Monks Corwin, Sheryl Dagostino, Lenn Daugherty, Marlene DiStefano, Brian Ditchfield, Aaron Duclos, Vasska Fondsen, Freya Grunden, Virginia Hackney, Fred Hancock, Kate Hancock, Brooke Hardman, Ernest Iannaccone, Chris Kann, Jonah Lipsky, Nancy Luedeman, Jill Macy, Lianna Madox, Clark Maffit, Michelle Marks, Tim Mathiesen, Chelsea McCarthy, Jenik Munafo, MJ Bruder Munafo, Paul Munafo, Jim Novack, Michele Ortlip, John Ortman,Julie Sieruptoski, Laura Silber, Basia Jaworska-Silva, Shelagh Hackett Smilie, Donna Swift, Mac Young, Steve Zablotny.

Lessons learned from these teachers were not about “putting on a play.” They were life lessons, like those learned on the decks of the Shenandoah when that program was also available to our fifth grade students.

School administration worries about time spent on this type of learning puts true education second to a school’s test scores. The kids should come first.

Georgia Morris

Vineyard Haven