The play's the thing

To teach English, an innovative instructor takes high school students from the classroom to the stage.

play 88 (photo credit: )
play 88
(photo credit: )
When students at two Beersheba schools head back to classes this week, they have one big thing to look forward to: the play! For 19 years, award-winning teacher Mitzi Geffen has worked to create an interesting and practical way to teach her students English. Wherever Geffen has taught, she's also produced, directed - and, lately, written - an entire musical production. "Putting on an English-language play accomplishes two things," says Geffen. "It lets the kids have fun, and it teaches them English." In recent years, Geffen has been the English coordinator for Beersheba's Makif Amit Junior High School while also teaching at Beersheba's Ulpanat Amit, a high school for religious girls. "For the students, it's strictly an extracurricular activity," she says. "They join to have fun. For me, it's like teaching an extra class, except there's no comparison in the amount of work it takes or the amount of fun we have." Geffen encourages every student to join. "In the Makif, the kids are 12-14 years old and may not be familiar with the idea, so I go into each classroom to explain the play and how much fun it is to perform and learn English. The play can't have a romantic story line and has to include a lot of kids. We did Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Cinderella. We ran out of those kinds of plays, so I decided to write them myself." Last year's all-original production was called The Case of the Missing Taffy. "The kids wanted a murder mystery, but stolen candy was all I could handle. It's about a candy store owner who's jealous of the grocery store owner, so he steals a whole carton of taffy, and the kids feel deprived." In the Ulpana the girls are 14 to 17 years old; most of them have been looking forward to the play since last year's production ended. "I don't have to sell the play to the girls," Geffen says. "For them, we do popular Broadway musicals." Ultimately about 30 students in each school sign up, but few plays have 30 roles. "We divide up the parts. In Peter Pan , everyone wanted to be Wendy so we had three Wendys; we just pass the costume along during the play. One year I actually had seven Wendys. One of the parents told me how clever that was to have had two girls sharing the role. 'I had seven Wendys,' I told her. 'No,' she said, 'you had one with brown pigtails and one with blond curly hair.' I had to work to convince her there was one Wendy with blond curly hair and six with brown pigtails." Sharing the roles serves a purpose. "The play is a team effort. There are no stars. That's true in the music, too. Everyone sings everything together - either the people on the street join in the song, or the trees and flowers sing. It's a group effort, all the way." Making the scenery involves the entire school. "In the Ulpana, three women - Melissa Test, Debbie Lasker and Judy Neumann - mastermind all the scenery. They start with huge pieces of fabric. Kids from the whole school are on their hands and knees, drawing and painting," she says. The plays have a minimal budget. "Sound and lights always cost something, and sometimes we rent a hall. But for everything else, we recycle - we paint cardboard boxes and borrow props and costumes. The focus is on the goal: to have fun and learn English." Through the years, the plays have brought about major personal breakthroughs. "One year in the Makif, I started by going into each class to teach the students a song to get kids interested," Geffen recounts. "We were doing The Wizard of Oz, so I taught them 'We're Off to See the Wizard.' I created a monster - all over the school, everyone was singing, and a hundred kids wanted to be in the play. But there was one classroom I'd missed - a ninth grade boy's class. They were weak in English and I didn't think those big boys - bigger than I am - would want to play little Munchkins." But one boy was disappointed. "He came to me after class and said, 'You didn't come to our class! Why were we left out? We're never included in anything.' He was right, so I said, 'Are you sure you want to be in the Wizard of Oz? He insisted he was. Their teacher agreed, but she told me that if they caused any problems, I didn't have to put up with it. 'Just kick them out,' she said. Well, that did it for me - those kids were in! That's what the play is all about: learning English, feeling good about yourself and being proud of what you've learned." Still, for ninth grade boys, maintaining interest in The Wizard of Oz was a challenge. "I taught them to sing 'Somewhere over the Rainbow.' I wanted them to make this rainbow sign with their hands, over their heads. The big boys were appalled and said 'We're not gonna make that dumb sign!' There was a little rebellion, so I relented. 'Okay, we need some movement up there on stage, but you can decide what to do yourselves. You make up something,'" recounts Geffen. "For a whole week I watched them practicing. By Sunday, they gave up and agreed to make the rainbow sign." Predictably, the plays are filled with heartwarming stories. "There was a boy who wanted a big part," Geffen recalls. "It didn't seem like a good fit - he was very weak in English and a bit of a troublemaker. I warned him that the part was very long, but he insisted so I gave it to him. Then I began working with him all by himself, ahead of time. Not until he knew his lines perfectly did we rehearse the scene. When some of the others realized this boy had a big part, they started to complain. 'What's he doing here? He doesn't know anything. He can't do it.' So I said to them, 'Look, if you want to be here, you have to be nice to everyone. I won't let you talk like that.' We rehearsed the scene. The boy was wonderful - he was even a little dramatic. When he finished. everyone burst into applause. That day, a lot of things changed for that boy." For Geffen, producing plays is a labor of love. Since she and her husband David made aliya from Silver Springs, Maryland, 20 years ago - having four children and two grandchildren in the interim - she cannot remember how many thousands of hours she's devoted to the plays. Her work has been rewarded: Last year, Geffen was one of three Israeli teachers honored by the British Council for her innovative English teaching methods. "The real credit should go to the two principals, Michael Benson of the Ulpana, and Drora Gopas of Makif Amit," she says. "Many school principals want 'industrial peace' - just shut the door and teach. But my two principals understand that good education is sometimes noisy and messy. Without their full support, these plays wouldn't happen." In Beersheba, Geffen's plays are becoming a family tradition. "One day I was in the market and a man came over to talk. He was wearing a black hat and was carrying a baby. 'Don't you remember me?' he said. 'My wife and I were both Indians in Peter Pan. It was such great fun. Now I'm just waiting for my kids to be in your play.'"