Culver City Edition Lead Story

Actors’ Gang brings social studies lessons to life

CULVER CITY — After studying Mesopotamia for six weeks, Natalie Gualtieri’s sixth grade social studies class stepped out of the classrooms and onto the proverbial stage when the Actors’ Gang visited Culver City Middle School recently.

Four company members from the Actors’ Gang, who work as teaching artists with the group’s Education Department, integrated themselves into the Culver City Middle School unit on Mesopotamia.

As class began, the Actors’ Gang instructors introduced themselves, Adam, Luis, Emily and Paulette, and established some agreements. After leading the students through some tried and true theater warm-up exercises, the Gang launched into the subject matter.

“You be the teachers,” they said to the students. “Pretend we know nothing about Mesopotamia. Educate us.”

The students called out four main subjects: The Standard of Ur, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Hammurabi’s Code, Mesopotamian Empires. While those are colorful names on paper, they really came to life when the Actors’ Gang got involved and prompted the students to fill in more details about each subject: “polytheism,” “Superman,” “an eye for an eye,” “early technology.”

After the students clued in the instructors with more details on Mesopotamian history, they broke up into four groups to create living tableaus about each subject. One instructor guided each group to write, cast and rehearse a vignette about their subject — on the spot. Then each group presented their tableau to their fellow classmates, who acted as audience members and critics.

The students who were in the audience made observations about their classmates and the material they were being taught. Between the students teaching, acting, watching and providing feedback, Mesopotamian history was imprinted and reinforced with them students in ways that go beyond what they can learn from books.

“When studying history we forget that they were real people with real emotions,” Adam Jefferis, the Actors’ Gang associate director of education, told the students. “Can you imagine what it was like to live during this time?”

Gualtieri beamed with excitement during the class.

“The kids love it,” she said. “They are just ecstatic. I have one student who really comes to life so much more than in the regular classroom. I bet these students are going to do well on their tests next week.”

Sixth grader Makenzie McCullen praised the experience.

“Working with the Actors’ Gang helped me remember the material, because we were learning it in such a fun and interesting way. This made me feel interested in the story.”

The Actors’ Gang is part of Culver City Unified School District’s Front & Center Theatre Collaborative, which provides theater arts curriculum. The collaborative is a unique partnership that brings together teaching artists from professional theater groups with local funding partners to create an unparalleled collective impact — the highest concentration of theater arts programming per student in any Los Angeles County school district.

As one of the collaborative’s six arts partners, the Actors’ Gang Education Department provides free after-school programs to all five elementary schools and Culver City Middle School, and in-school programs at Culver City Middle School, Culver City High School and Culver Park High School.

Through this program, The Actors’ Gang works with every sixth grade student at Culver City Middle School, including the Spanish immersion students who are taught in Spanish. Each class receives two visits per year from the Actors’ Gang.

So, how did Gualtieri’s class do on their test?

“The kids did a great job!” Gualtieri said. “Better, in general, than the first two units on geography and early man. I do attribute it to the Actors’ Gang, and having the students act out the different concepts and elements of Mesopotamia. They did especially well with Hammurabi’s Code of Laws.

“Almost all students answered the questions on that section of the test correctly. Aside from all this, they did a wonderful job participating with the Actors’ Gang, and were truly inspired.”

The Actors’ Gang will be back in the spring to bring another period of history to life with the sixth grade, this time in Ancient Greece.