NEW YORK — She's sitting on the floor, legs splayed apart, hair falling forward, violet socks peeking out from beneath her black pant legs. The shapes and colors that have Liz O'Donnell's attention, though, are the bright scraps of construction paper that she's turning into a mask, inspired by a comic Chinese opera.
It's not the way this third-grade teacher from the Bronx typically spends her days, but an out-of-the-ordinary experience is just what she's come to count on from the Lincoln Center Institute's professional development program for teachers. This is the fifth summer in a row that she's come back for it.
"I'm not here just for my students but also for me," she says. "I' m a lifelong learner."
The management of New York City's prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts started the institute because of a conviction that appreciation of the arts begins with the young. They held the first summer session in July 1976, with just 47 teachers.
The founders hoped that by immersing teachers of any discipline in the arts, their own enthusiasm and enrichment would spill over and excite their students.
This summer - 25 years later - the courses include more than 2,000 K-12 teachers. They last anywhere from four days to three weeks, and are tailored to various interests, such as dance, music, and visual arts.
Many participants are locals and will continue a relationship with LCI throughout the school year. But for those who travel from other corners of the United States, and as far away as China, Nigeria, and Kurdistan, "the arts and aesthetics make themselves felt, even when we're not there," says Rachel Dickstein, one of LCI's instructors,
For O'Donnell and about 20 other teachers who are focusing on theater, the centerpiece is the Chinese opera "Ghost Lovers." They've seen it twice, and have met with its star, Qian Yi, to discuss her performance.
That was an opportunity some of the teachers particularly appreciated. Despite living in the New York area and having access to cultural events, "meeting with the performers is not an experience we'd normally have," says Carla Maggiolo, a music teacher for grades K through 2 in the Bronx.
It's all part of the LCI approach of giving teachers an in-depth encounter with a work of art. In the case of "Ghost Lovers," the group first saw the piece staged with no introduction. Later, they read about and discussed Chinese history and culture to enhance their understanding of the opera.
They then saw it again, this time working harder to capture nuances and thinking more analytically about its composition as a work of art.
The second viewing was essential, says Jacqueline D'Alessio, a language arts teacher from Bridgewater, N.J., who's been coming to LCI for 10 years now. "The first time I saw it, I was just so enthralled with [the star] that my eyes didn't leave her face," she says. "The second time, I was able to take in so much more."
But the group's interaction with "Ghost Lovers" extends beyond the performances. After the second viewing, Ms. Dickstein asks the teachers to create a brush-and-ink drawing expressive of the experience. Some draw Qian Yi in her flowing robe, others attempt to fill a sheet with Chinese characters, and a handful choose abstract designs in an effort to convey the feel of the music.
Then they tape the drawings to a wall and launch a discussion. In part, this is a chance for the teachers to remember what it feels like to be a student. One teacher - noticing that several drawings look alike - comments a bit wryly that it reminds her of her students when they copy the work of peers who they believe are more talented. What can be done to prevent that? she asks the group.
The teachers also experiment with how to interact with a work of art in nonverbal ways. "It's about learning to go beyond just talking about it," Dickstein says.
After completing the ink drawings, the group goes on to create masks representative of the opera. One particularly enthusiastic mask-maker is a math and science teacher from a private Jewish day school in Brooklyn. "I didn't see the point of coming here at first," she says. "My principal was the one who wanted me to come."
But after one summer of participation, she says, she became convinced of the program's value. "There's art in math and there's art in science," she says, showing how she can teach fractions by dividing a drawing of a face into sections.
But perhaps even more essentially, she says, "This experience refuels me. It makes me more interesting for my students."
Only about 10 percent of the participants are arts teachers, says Raechel Alexander, a spokesperson for Lincoln Center Institute. Those from other disciplines often bring a special contribution, she says. For instance, the physical-education teachers have a different perspective on the physical aspects of dance and theatrical performances.
For O'Donnell, there's a direct connection between what she's learning about opera and her ability to teach third-graders to read: "It's about a story and exploring the elements of a story. There are different ways of finding meaning in what you read. I want my students to have the kind of direct personal experience with a text that I'm having here."
That's the kind of insight that Dickstein hopes the workshops will yield. "The program is not skills-based, but perception-based," she says.
"If they come out of a performance and say, 'Oh, I saw so much more this time,' and are able to articulate what they saw, then we've succeeded."
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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor