At San Francisco’s City Arts and Tech High School, one of four Bay Area charter schools sponsored by Envision Schools, project-based learning and student exhibitions are the norm. For two nights last June, eleventh-grade students under the wing of teachers Kristen Russo and Paul Koh took the “typical” culminating student exhibition a notch higher. Mirroring the remarkable one-person monologues written and performed by the playwright Anna Deavere Smith, the students performed their own monologues, with characters they had created from interviews with immigrants they met through the project or knew intimately (sometimes, a parent). Woven together, their monologues became an “Immigrant’s Song,” a collection of distinct melodies about the immigrant experience in San Francisco.
The Thirty-Eighth Dong by Yvette Ly
Setting: Kitchen/over the stove
Props: Large pot(s), fresh produce mentioned in story, apron, spoon(s)
Mrs. Nguyen comes in every day at 10. Right before the hottest part of the day, the time she balances her two baskets over her shoulder and sells her sweet durians and fragrant lychees to thirsty passer-bys roaming the streets of Vietnam. “Boss, one bowl of dry-tossed seafood noodle” she says while carefully pouring herself a cup of tea. Mr. Tran and his son come eight minutes later for bowls of hot beef brisket noodle soup right before opening their herb shop. They are our first customers on sunny days, rainy days, windy days and foggy days, if fog ever reached Vietnam. When you’ve been in the noodle business as long as I have, you’d know your most loyal customers’ schedules too. For my family and me, our day started six hours ago. My husband gets all the money-related business out of the way while I heat the soups and stews we started cooking the night before. Flour and spread the thirty-eight pounds of noodles. Chop the cilantro and scallions. Start plating bean sprouts, basil, five types of mint, and lemon wedges for every order of hot noodle soup. Always something to do. My four sons help me before, after and sometimes during school. Ga Ging, my third son, delivers orders on his bicycle. Minh, my oldest son, helps me in the kitchen. …
“Life is Like a Box of Chocolates,” in the POV of Desiree Cecilia Chang, my Mom
performed by Morgan Ashley Chang
The creative process behind “The Immigrant’s Song,” as told to WKCD by Kristin Russo, 11th grade teacher, City Arts and Tech High School
Click below for student monologue performances:
““The jumping off point for the project was reading Joy Luck Club and looking at Amy Tan’s creative writing style and character development. We then had the kids interview immigrants—and if they didn’t personally know an adult immigrant, we had a partnership with an adult ESL school and the kids could interview immigrants there. The students taped their interviews (we didn’t have them transcribe them), and then they looked for that moment when the story began. Most of the interviews went on for an hour and a half, and we didn’t want it to be simply a transcription. We wanted the students’ pieces to be a story—that stayed true to the voice of the person interviewed, but had a narrative.
“Once students found the germ of their story, they began writing. We taught them how to use symbols, details, good opening lines, tight writing—all the elements that bring a story to life. We went to 826 Valencia to push the creative writing process further. Then, there was this wild drafting and revision process!
“When their monologues were done, the kids then memorized them—and performed them. That was the core of their exhibition.
“Some kids went on stage and recited their monologues without really reaching a performance level. Others took the performance element to heart. It would have been helpful if there had been a drama teacher as part of the team to help with the performance aspect, but we were limited.
“So the students created, memorized, and performed their pieces. It was the first time these 11th graders had been asked to memorize and perform anything, and it was pretty high stakes.
“There was an art component, too. We have a digital design class and the students downloaded their interviews, took symbols from their monologues, and created an interactive flash presentation with the symbols that connected to parts of the interview. When the students performed their monologues, we projected these flash animations on the screens on either side of them. It created a really nice mood.
[What did the students learn?]
“It was really personal, and it personalized the immigrant experience. We had been studying the history and the patterns in class. But here, whether it was interviewing a stranger from our adult ESL partner or interviewing a parent, the students learned stories they’d never heard before—especially from their parents.
“The current 11th grade team replicated this project for their students just this pass week. I attended the exhibition and there was one monologue in which the character, a woman, was talking about how wasteful people are here in the United States and, as an immigrant, she hopes she never throws a sandwich in the garbage because she doesn’t want to become wasteful, too. You hope the students hear that and they think, ‘Look how good I’ve got it.’ You hope the person’s story lives in them.
“I also think they gained a huge amount of confidence going through the process. They talk about the sense of pride they had in their writing—I think it was some of the strongest writing we did over the course of the year.
And the students liked the individual accountability: ‘I’m responsible for telling this person’s story truly.’ They felt ownership over that.”
Click here to see detailed lesson plans, assignments and activities, handouts, and readings for “The Immigrant’s Song.”
Click here for a downloadable PDF of the students’ written monologues.
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– Deborah Meier, educator