Dr. Leslie Chekin

Note: Leslie Chekin also received a Student Achievement Grant in Winter 2014 to continue the "Theatre Without Borders" program. Watch the video above to see how the program has changed the lives of students.

“Theatre Without Borders” brings non-native English speakers to the stage

Annandale High has one of the most diverse student populations of any Fairfax County, VA school. With students from Central and South America, West and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, many students must juggle academics with learning a new language and settling into a new home, a new school, and an unfamiliar culture.

To offer her students a creative outlet for learning, ESOL teacher Leslie Chekin created “Theatre Without Borders.” Its purpose? To allow students to study classical theater, literature, and most importantly, English. Since participating in the program, almost all of our 40 students have significantly improved test scores on the state’s English language proficiency (ELP).

The program started small nine years ago, with no budget for a stage and most sets and costumes paid for out of pocket. “We had applied for a county grant, but there was no money,” Chekin said. Then last fall, Chekin and her partner, Michelle Picard, received a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant from the NEA Foundation. With it, Chekin and her colleagues in the performing arts department transformed the existing old program into what she describes as a “total theater concept,” exposing students to all aspects of theater, from design and stage management to lights and sound.

Like almost everything in education, change came gradually. Her students’ first challenge was to conquer stage fright. Every student must audition, even for a non-speaking role. They learn about acting, directing, public speaking, and organizing publicity campaigns, as well as each play’s themes, characters, and plot.

“During my first year in the program, everything about theater was challenging,” said student Fabiola Alba. “I couldn’t even pronounce my lines.” But she persevered, and has now performed in and even directed a handful of Shakespeare’s plays. “It wasn’t easy,” she said, but by the year’s end, her language skills had dramatically improved.

“After you perform his plays, Shakespeare is always going to be something important in your life,” said Carlos Portillo, another student. “I’m still part of the program and am not ready to leave it yet,” said Andrea Albarracin, who discovered that working together is the key to a successful performance. Their foray into the literary titan’s works was not blind. Students attended performances at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C. They even performed their own mini-production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” for visiting representatives of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

With each production came its own internal drama, according to Chekin. Many of her students struggle with the displacement of moving, learning a new language, and difficult home lives. But in overcoming challenges together, they gain important life skills. “They see themselves as a company,” she said. “That feeling of pride and identity? They pass that on to each other.”

The program may be the only exposure to theater and the performing arts these students have ever received. It also serves a larger purpose. “The real hurdles to graduation, in particular for students coming from other countries, are math and English,” Chekin said. In February, the class completed the state’s ELP test. “All of the kids, except for two or three, moved up an entire level, if not higher,” she said. One student later became a certified lights technician. Another became a student ambassador to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and returned after graduating to lead an interactive workshop on “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“There used to be a barrier between performing arts and ESL students,” Chekin said. Now, the theater crew has earned a small following in the community. “They have a reputation for being hysterically funny and unpredictable,” Chekin said. Last year’s performances of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Macbeth” drew audiences of 200-300 people. In 2012, the show goes on, as a new company of students aim to create their own interpretation of the classics.