How Ánimo Mae Jemison Integrates Reading through Drama
At Green Dot Public Schools California, we encourage our teachers to innovate lessons to meet the needs of our students as a path to their academic success. For this Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School English teacher, she combined reading and acting to make an effective arts-based curriculum.
Leah Lambert, known to the students as “Mrs. Lamb,” has been teaching for more than 20 years, after earning her teaching credentials at California State University, Northridge. She joined Ánimo Mae Jemison in 2015 as an English Language teacher, but transitioned to teaching primarily drama courses in 2017.
Lamb became enthralled in the art of drama when she watched The Sound of Music for the first time when she was five years old. Years later, she has taken that same love for the art and used it to transform how students experience reading.
“I consider my reading intervention class to be an ‘intro to drama’ course, and my English Language Arts drama elective to be a ‘reading enrichment’ course,” Lamb said. “I meld the two together because I know that struggling readers love to get up on a stage and act out things they love to do.”
Integrating Drama into Reading
Lamb teaches three drama courses, and two reading intervention courses, but she has designed them both to work in tandem. Ánimo Mae Jemison counselor Jimmy Morales has seen the improvement this drama pathway has made in the middle school students. “I challenge students to bring out their best in order for them to test out of intervention courses into electives,” Morales said. “Even if students are at the borderline, I encourage them to take on the next challenge. Rather than having students wait until the following school year, they have the opportunity to take electives as soon as they are ready.”
In the beginning drama reading course, students practice reading and acting out scripts. In the drama elective, the students refine their visual and performing arts skills—while still practicing becoming better readers as they progress through middle school. “I take the best of both worlds and try to meet my students’ needs,” Lamb said.
To guide students through the dramatic process, Lamb has forged several crucial partnerships to help students cultivate their abilities. In 2018, Ánimo Mae Jemison collaborated with Theatre of Hearts to provide a 26-week training program with a professional actor to mentor students. That same year, students performed published monologues and scenes in the local drama festival and competed with schools across Southern California. In 2021, Lamb partnered with the Shakespeare Institute to teach students how to use narrative improvisation to bring more life to their scripts.
Outside of Ánimo Mae Jemison’s partnerships, Lamb has worked with the students to start original scene writing by walking students through writing an original monologue, and guiding them through the drafting process. “Through this, they can see the transition from the very beginning drafts to what they’ve accomplished today,” Lamb said.
Alariza Nevárez, a professional actor aligned with the Theatre of Hearts nonprofit, has worked with Mrs. Lamb for three years offering in-class support to all levels of drama. “I’ve seen some of [her students] come out of their shells and challenge themselves as performers. For some, even the ability to speak in front of their class is a huge victory,” she said. “The students are so lucky to have Mrs. Lamb as their teacher. She is so compassionate and is ready to jump in and assist them at any moment.”
The Big Show
The students also host several end-of-the-year projects as a group. The drama students performed a live puppet show, which Lamb said has been instrumental to helping shy students perform through their own creations. “They’re able to do group scenes and bring the puppet characters to life. It has really upped the game for their scenes and their performances,” Lamb said. “It's very important that our students are just developing their listening and speaking skills, and confidence, to get out of their box.”
One of the biggest performances that the drama classes hold is called “The Big Show,” which is a cumulative school-wide assembly that Lamb began hosting with her drama classes in 2017. During the show, students present original scenes and skits, and “perform warmups with the audience, tongue twisters, and improv in the assembly space next door at sister school, Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy.” Since its inception of 2017, students in this drama elective have performed live in front of hundreds of students and family members.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to operate in remote learning, Lamb continued the Big Show over Zoom. “We did a lot of videos last school year, where we performed and shared it out to everybody,” she added. This year, Lamb plans to continue to use the remote format for the Big Show.
Student-led performances continue to be at the center of attention for Lamb. Recently she has campaigned on DonorsChoose to acquire additional drama and performance equipment for her class. Her classroom is equipped with stands, but she also received over $700 in donations to purchase a new platform, winged curtains, and curtain stands to give her classroom a theater touch. “We’re planning to do smaller group sessions, so I can invite one classroom at a time, where we can perform our creative stuff, especially the puppet theater,” she said.
Making it Happen
Lamb said her work would not be possible without the support of her administrators and colleagues. Drama has been an important part of Ánimo Mae Jemison’s history, dating back to 2014, when the middle school opened. Angela Rodriguez, a long-standing administrator and principal at Ánimo Mae Jemison is looking forward to the work that Lamb will continue to support. “I love the work that Mrs. Lamb is doing with our scholars. Music and the Arts is such an important part of our scholar’s education. Many of our scholars who don’t otherwise excel in other areas, excel in the arts. Ánimo Mae Jemison is lucky to have Mrs. Lamb who is passionate about the Arts and has brought our program to another level,” Rodriguez said.
At Green Dot Public Schools California, our schools look for any and every opportunity to unlock the full potential of all of our students. We believe that success in college, leadership, and life is attainable for all students, and we will continue to create more opportunities for students to find and celebrate success across our schools.