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Carole Lehrman sits on a small stool before a crowded floor of energetic fourth-graders, wielding a thick marker in front of an easel pad nearly the size of any of her students.
She writes "pioneer" across the page. Within minutes a wheel of words has formed around it. Prompted by some pointed questions from their teacher, the students bombard her with ideas, which Lehrman scrawls down and connects like spokes to the middle. Pretty soon they all know where the pioneers traveled to (the West), how they got there (covered wagon), why they went (for the land and a new life) and what they did upon arriving (farm it).
The students aren't rewriting Fodor's guide to the Wild West, nor are they exchanging tips on braving the wilderness for a future round of TV's "Survivor" series. They are preparing to attend a matinee performance of "O Pioneers!," Darrah Cloud's musical adaptation of the 1913 novel by Willa Cather.
The production was presented last week at Queens Theatre in the Park by The Acting Company, a nationally touring classical repertory theater. This weekend (Jan. 13-14) the company will shift gears and perform another piece in its repertory, Trevor Nunn's musical version of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors."
Lehrman soon turns the lesson over to the school's arts coordinator Lois Olsham, who slips into the room half an hour late after getting caught in Manhattan traffic with another class she had brought to a poetry reading.
"That's called overbooking," says her principal, Ruth Cohen, boasting rather than scolding. After all, overbooking is a rare phenomenon for a public school arts program, and it's a privilege for PS 144 to have such a problem. Five years ago the school was awarded a portion of a highly competitive grant through the Annenberg Arts Challenge. The school won a share of the largest single gift ever made to public education - $500 million, donated by Ambassador Walter Annenberg and distributed nationwide to restore the arts in schools.
The grant asks recipients to look beyond the schoolyard and into their neighborhoods for arts lessons by forging partnerships with local cultural institutions. The program at PS 144 is dubbed "Promise in the Park," since the school has joined forces with the cultural lights of Flushing Meadows Corona Park - QTP, the Queens Museum of Art, Queens Botanical Gardens, and the New York Hall of Science.
Excursions such as seeing "O Pioneers!" are commonplace, and their effect on the school is palpable. Cohen describes PS 144 as a "nirvana for the arts."
"Look at the graphics our kids already do, in the sixth grade," she says as she points to a student-designed poster advertising a bake sale, and as the timbre of child sopranos echoes through the hall from a rehearsal in the auditorium. "We want to give students a smorgasbord of things to discover their talents in the arts."
Having started kindergarten the same year the school initiated its Annenberg program, Olsham's fourth-graders have spent five years tasting - more like gorging themselves on - this smorgasbord of art. This afternoon, they are playwrights; on other days they've been graphic designers and Broadway babies.
"Pretend that you are Willa Cather's prot
©2001 Community Newspaper Group
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