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Learning to teach with the animals

Some elementary school teachers really monkeyed around during a performance July 11 in the Heye Great Room at Ruth Eckerd Hall. They acted like snakes, chimpanzees, tree porcupines and other creatures of a great rain forest.

And while their imaginations provided the scenery, nature provided the spotlight for the show.

The teachers, about 30 from public and private schools throughout the county, were participating in a two-day workshop, The Arts Go to School, sponsored by Ruth Eckerd Hall's PACT Institute for the Performing Arts. Some were there to receive points toward recertification. Others were there just for the experience.

All responded quickly and enthusiastically to direction from actor Lenore Blank Kelner, author of The Creative Classroom, as she set the scene on the second day of the workshop. Kelner, director of Interact Story Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., was there to demonstrate the use of creative drama in teaching.

"When you do this in the classroom, you will need to establish exits and entrances _ acting barriers _ for your students," she told the teachers before setting a rain forest scene with words.

"You will be my fish," she told three of them.

"You will be a toucan . . . a jaguar . . . an emerald tree boa," she told others, as she directed each to a place in a circle around her "great kapok tree."

Amid giggles that sometimes turned into outright guffaws, the teachers took on the various roles, dancing, prancing, swishing and crawling around the "great tree" positioned beneath a skylight in the otherwise dimly lit room.

"Do not cut down the tree," they alternately chanted and whispered as one by one they approached the woodcutter who had fallen asleep in exhaustion beneath the kapok's green-cloth branches.

"Do not cut down the tree," drawled Scott Roach, a teacher at Morningstar School in Pinellas Park, as he swung from a limb and rubbed against the tree trunk in his role as a great ape.

"Do not cut down the tree," hissed the boa before "slithering" back to her place in the circle surrounding the tree.

"Do not cut down the tree," whispered the fish as, arms extended, fingertips together, they swam around the woodcutter, played by Willene Givens principal of Lakewood Elementary.

Then, in a cacophony of sound, all spoke, mimicking the calls of birds and wild animals, the sound of water rippling in streams and the whoosh of wind in tree branches _ before subsiding into silence.

"Wonderful!" Kelner said. "You were unbelievable! Now, tell me how it will be different with your students."

"My snakes will get down on the floor and slither," said Kathryn Moser, music teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater.

"My monkeys will be swinging from everything in sight," said Debbie Cascone, who teaches fifth-grade at Sandy Lane.

"My children will be chopping down the tree," said Joanne Cecere, a teacher at St. Petersburg Christian School.

"Then you'll get a foam ax and you'll know whose hand is on it," Kelner advised, before moving on to a discussion of the importance of assigning roles based on a pupils' strengths and personalities. Then she assigned the teachers to groups and set them the tasks of writing their own endings to the play.

"It was the best workshop I"ve ever been to," Cascone said afterward. "I'll definitely be using it. I'm going to try the chanting that we used earlier in the day. I might teach a concept and as a culminating activity use a chant to reinforce it."