(Chris Davis is an Actor/Educator with 1812 Outreach at Franklin Learning Center. 1812 Outreach is our education program which has been a part of student life at South Philadelphia High School and The Widener Memorial School for 20 years. The program expanded to Franklin Learning Center in 2013)
Sitting at the corner of 15th and Wallace St. in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia lies a monolithic, square, gray, building. Upon entry we are greeted by a woman who asks us for I.D.s. I am with my co-teacher Lee Minora this particular gray Monday morning. We ascend the marble staircase, check in at the office, ascend some non-descript stairways until finally we arrive at room 309, Mr. Mirsky’s class.
Lee and I plan the class standing outside while a few students wander the hallways. The bell rings and we enter, as the previous class exits. Our students slowly trickle in, Marvin from Haiti gives me a soft handshake, followed by Polina who bursts into the room laughing. We immediately push the desks to the side to clear space. More students come, Freddy who often refuses to participate, Jose who rarely speaks, Jakob the class clown, Johanna who only speaks to me in Spanish, we all push the tables to the side and clear the space. My class is diverse in the languages they speak and the countries they come from; we have students from the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Puerto Rico, Haiti; we speak Arabic, French, Spanish. The diversity of the class is one of its strengths, the students are all learning from each other all the time. Having so many different cultures in one room is an exciting work environment and one I look forward to every Monday, especially because I know I will learn something as well. The bell rings and it's time for class to begin.
First Lee leads a warm-up. Students move around the room by commands, stop, go, jump, and clap. Soon the words are switched to create confusion, stop means go, and go means stop, so on, but the class is quick to pick up the game and they enjoy it quite a lot. Next we move onto the main activity for today, to create an entire locales, silently, with only movement.
The first location is New York. Soon the students are assembling themselves in various postures that represent New York. There are many selfies. There are two Statues of Liberties. One even has a crown that is created by Je Luka’s hands. Others are standing looking somewhat confused. I speak to them, show me what New York is like! They still look at me befuddled. I ask, have you been to New York? They shake their heads. I tell them to imagine a big city that is very busy with many lights.
The final image is scattered. Jakob wobbles on his legs as he imitates water, which makes sense because he can’t stop moving. The arms of the Statues of Liberty are growing tired as they hold the pose, frozen. Lee and I inspect. It is a messy scene, which in many ways represents New York, to me. We animate a few of the students so they can walk through the city. Mostly they just talk on their phones and pretend to be important.
The next image we attempt to make is Paris. The city of love. The city of light. Cobblestones, baguettes and expensive cheese. I omit things like excessive cigarette smoking or drinking wine, for the sake of the class. Paris challenges the students, none of them have been there, and their imaginations are growing tired.
I suddenly launch into a speech about imagination, about how you can see things without ‘seeing’ them. I make everyone close their eyes and imagine Paris. I talk about how for the next 30 minutes we will use our imaginations, that in this class there are no tests, there are no books, that we are here to have fun, and that imagination is at the very soul of human experience. That we all possess it, and especially when we were children, and that we’ve been told it’s stupid or not cool, but we still have it, buried beneath us.
And like that, we entered Paris.
(You can read more about 1812 Outreach here.)