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Nestled on the Friends Academy stage and surrounded by a backdrop of potted flora and natural props, second graders welcomed their family and friends to the debut of the 2nd Grade Forest Play.

Seated on blankets and in lawn chairs (warm, dry, and cocooned away from the outdoor drizzle), the audience spilled onto the shared stage as second-grade thespians treated them to a series of six scenes (with titles like “The Invasion,” “Tick Tick Doom,” and “Leaves of Three, Let Them Be”), which combined student research, reflection, and clever humor.

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Supported by classroom teachers Sara Weinstein and Maria Hoyle, Costume director Pia Fleischmann, and Music teachers James Liverani and Laura Backley, this inaugural project was spearheaded by an interdisciplinary team including Director of Arts Andrew Geha, Director of Innovation Daniel Mendel, and Forest Program Educator Alana Kessler.

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“Our students were inspired to honor the inner light within themselves and the world around them – and to remember the five Forest Program responsibilities,” began Ms. Kessler, as she held aloft a painted and inscribed plank that introduced the first scene. 

Written and directed by Mr. Geha (read the full script), the idea first germinated last August after a conversation between him and Mr. Mendel. “I’m always interested when teachers of very different backgrounds and disciplines come together and Mr. Geha has been open, collaborative, and eager to try something new,” shared Mr. Mendel. “Our Forest Program is more than an outdoor education program – it’s also about bridging connections across campus,” he added.

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In its third year, Friends Academy’s two-acre Forest Program provides an outdoor living laboratory to students in Early Childhood through fourth grade and classes visit weekly. This year, Mr. Mendel and Ms. Kessler expanded the curriculum with outside partners, including Planting Fields and the LI Native Plant Initiative. 

Knowing that an all-school musical already involved third and fourth graders, Lower School Principal Dot Woo suggested that the Forest Play would be a wonderful organic experience for the second grade, considering the work they were already doing in their science classes. “We let students go outside and hone their different senses; in essence, they were the eyes that helped gear the theatrical content,” said Ms. Kessler. “Everything that preceded the Play was about how to learn in this Forest Environment,” Mr. Mendel added. “How do we hike up to the forest mindfully and with intention? How do we meaningfully engage with friends while staying attentive to the natural wonders around us? Learning new behaviors and mindsets was necessary work.”

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With the play timed for May, students began their research around six topics in March as Mr. Mendel and Ms. Kessler met the challenge of creating meaningful research for second-grade learning. They guided them through a world of different ecosystems, a new vocabulary appropriate for their age group, and group reading exercises. “To embody a character, you have to understand its world. We were all learning with them,” emphasized Mr. Mendel with a smile.

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Accompanying students to the Forest Program as they investigated and explored and listening to them read their research out loud were the catalysts that Mr. Geha needed as he dove into the information to craft individual stories, especially knowing that some material could be more complicated. “It was great spending time with the second grade as we researched the different topics. It also helped me write to their voices in order to bring the material to life. I wanted to communicate the information with a strong dramatic structure as well as a little humor. ‘Poison Ivy’ was the first one I wrote with a line that started us all off… ‘Come here, do you want to shake my hand?’ The last scene I wrote was ‘Decomposers.’ As I was naming the characters, I discovered that Mood Moss is a real thing! And with that character name, the scene practically wrote itself.”

With the script in hand by mid-April, the task now fell to the students – from character analysis to memorization to blocking and a final song at the end that was accompanied by sign language. “There was such a sense of confidence that grew day after day,” recalled Ms. Kessler. “I saw students who would take the bus and had their scripts in their backpacks and tell me they would take it home and practice with their families. Not only did they find the jokes really funny, but their sense of stewardship grew as well.”

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Arriving back after break, nearly all students were fully memorized and they enthusiastically made the most of their 30-minute rehearsals over the next six days. “The moment I am most proud of was when we hit Thursday’s dress rehearsal and the final practice before the production,” said Mr. Geha. “All six groups stepped up and started running lines by themselves and no adults were needed.”

A session with 11th-grade mentors from the Advanced Performance Studies class helped second graders practice their lines, and think about acting choices and blocking, which helped them to be more than ready for show time and it showed  – from their comedic sense of timing to handling fairly fast-paced dialogue with ease.

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“I came to theater late in life but now I understand how essential it is for Lower School students,” reflected Mr. Mendel. “With the Forest Play, I witnessed a stronger sense of purpose and direction as students discovered their sense of self in the community, and greater leadership opportunities as we all marched toward this big communal event. Theater unlocked this for them and uplifted all of those literacies.”

2nd grade Forest Play 24-12Photography by Alvin Caal/Friends Academy

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