In theaters and classrooms, it’s clear who is presenting and who is listening. Local teacher Anissa Weinraub wants to tackle that structure with a play made by and for Philadelphia’s education community.
“Our hope is we’re going to amplify people’s stories, and we’re going to amplify our visions for change and transformation and education in Philadelphia,” Weinraub said. “To put people together to build a piece of theater is going to shift that power dynamic.”
Weinraub, the head of the theater department for the Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, is leading Story Circle Project for Teacher Action Group (TAG). She cofounded TAG in 2009 as an organization of local educators, plus other in-school professionals like nurses and counselors, who work to improve schools from within and through policy.
The Story Circle Project has begun with a series of discussion-based meetups, the first of which was held last week at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School on Broad and Thompson streets and focused on educators’ perspectives. Future programs will focus on parents’ opinions, and on students’ experiences of feeling policed in schools.
The storylines and themes that emerge in the Story Circles will shape a production to be put on sometime next year, Weinraub said. Recordings of people sharing their stories at events will also be used in the final production.
Weinraub, who received $2,500 through the Leeway Foundation’s Spring 2018 Art and Change Grant to support the project, said she welcomes anyone with a connection to education in the city — parents, students, educators, advocates and others — to join.
There’s no specific issue that she hopes will be resolved by the Story Circle Project, though Weinraub did mention making schools safer spaces for LGBTQ youth and improving school’s punitive methods so students don’t feel so criminalized as potential areas for improvement that could be addressed.
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She hopes any change spurred by the project in the city’s education system reflects the voices of those directly affected by it.
“I think it will open up some pretty meaningful exchanges and hopefully some longer-term relationships that I hope are powerful enough to actually do some real informative work for the actual lived conditions of … educators in our school,” she said.
Aileen Haggerty, a second grade teacher at Wissahickon Charter School, is a TAG member helping Weinraub with the project. She said she entered her classroom with a fresh mindset the morning after sharing some of her experiences at the first Story Circle.
“Hearing other people’s ideas about what school should be like or what we should provide children got me … to look at the big picture,” Haggerty said.
Weinraub said asking people “What’s your story?” evokes valuable emotion not only for fellow educators, but her students. At Academy at Palumbo, she tries to stray from “regurgitating old narratives that can be racist, sexist or homophobic” with her choice in productions.
For example, her department is putting on “In the Heights” this year. It focuses on the Hispanic community in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City.
“There’s something really, really, really beautiful about the process of making theater and that vulnerability, having to honor other people’s stories and creating that close knit family feeling for the people that are involved,” said Weinraub, who has a background as a performer. “I’m excited to see what will happen.”-30-
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