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Barrel of Monkeys makes writing more fun; ‘Thoughts and ideas matter’

Barrel of Monkeys artist educators Alejandra Zavala and Barry Irving work with Chalmers Elementary School students on creating group stories during a multi-week creative drama workshop on May 17, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Children want to talk. The third-graders in Mrs. Javor’s class at the Chalmers School of Excellence strain their twig arms toward the sky, fingers fluttering, desperate for permission to say what’s on their minds.

They have the desire but, at 8 years old, can lack the communication skill to make themselves heard. When called upon, some speak in tiny voices, inaudible a yard away, their disjointed whispers trailing off.

Enter a Barrel of Monkeys.

“My friends, hello!” booms Mary Tilden, striding into Room 202 with four confederates: Alejandra Zavala, Marianna Green, Jo Jo Figarella and Barry Irving. “I’m so excited to see you.”

The next 90 minutes are a whir of free-form storytelling boot camp, where students are led through fast-paced exercises that are part kiddie Stanislavski Method actor training, part junior Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


“We’re trying to teach competence and creative self-expression,” said Corrine Neal, executive director of Barrel of Monkeys, an arts program that has run in 60 Chicago public schools over the past 20 years. “We’re trying to teach creative writing skills, working on the hard skills of being a writer and writing stories, and relay the confidence and ability to go in front of the class and act it out.”

Though right now the class doesn’t have a front; the students are standing in a circle, clapping rhythmically.

Barrel of Monkeys artist educator Jo Jo Figarella helps Chalmers Elementary School student Amir Richmond with a writing exercise. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“Are you ready?” Figarella chants. “To start? To start what? Start the show!”

You can’t unleash the energy of 18 third-graders without ground rules, however, and those are quickly outlined. Not in a grim, you-better-behave fashion, but as a series of joyous exercises touching on values like respecting one another.

The kids point to each other on command.

“Hey, you’re really cool,” they repeat. “Your ideas are really cool. I support you. I respect you, I’m ready to work with you.”

This is the sixth and final week of the program at Chalmers. “The first week is beginning, middle and end,” Neal said. “The second week they write a story inspired by a picture. The third week all true stories about themselves. The fourth week, super-powered language. The fifth week is dialogue.”

This week they are being trained in a skill their parents might think they already excel at: argument.

“Today is a special day cause we’re going to be learning about persuasive arguments,” said Tilden. Various topics of debate are offered: Is summer better than winter? Cats better than dogs? The pool better than the park?

Irving unspools a rambling dialogue about wanting a puppy “because I really want one . . . and it would be really nice.” Figarella, as his mom, marshals sound arguments against the puppy. “Dogs take a lot of responsibility. Who’s going to get its food? . . . You gotta pick up the pooh.”

That last line draws laughs that quickly subside. Some teachers use the 90 minutes to grade papers, but Kerry Javor moves smoothly among her students, a gentle touch on the shoulder here, a whisper there, making sure everyone stays with the program.

The kids help Irving improve his argument. He could tell his mother a puppy will help teach him responsibility. He’ll clean up the poop. More laughs.

They divide into four groups, each with a big pad, to chose something worth arguing about. Ideas are floated. Hoverboards for everybody? For a moment, the outside world intrudes.

“If the police get to break the law, I think we should,” a boy suggests.

“Most surprising is how engaged and knowledgeable students are about current events, what’s going on in their communities,” said Neal.

Lawbreaking doesn’t make the cut. But a new sofa, rooftop pools and the need to fix the air conditioning in their hot classroom do. The pads are filled and read.

Then they write stories in their journals. Some of the stories will be performed later at a school assembly, and some even will be used in repertoire by Barrel of Moneys. The kids strive to write something worthy.

“They just love it,” said Javor. “It’s so beneficial to their writing skills. Their thoughts and ideas matter.”

Barrel of Monkeys artist educator Marianna Green helps present a group story from Chalmers Elementary School students during a multi-week workshop on May 17, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
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