On Friday afternoons at 3 p.m., most students at Smithton Middle School are outside swapping stories about their day, waiting for rides home or nailing down plans for the weekend.
But for the cast and crew of “Number the Stars,” Smithton’s current theatrical production, Friday afternoons are spent in the drama classroom or on stage rehearsing under the direction of drama teacher Debbie Baldwin.
Smithton is the only one of Columbia’s three public middle schools that offers a course in drama for sixth-graders and the opportunity to try out for a schoolwide production.
In choosing “Number the Stars,” as with previous Smithton productions, Baldwin is connecting with what’s being taught in other subjects. “Number the Stars” is a Newbery Medal-winning book by Lois Lowry, converted into a play about two families, one Lutheran and one Jewish, in Denmark during the Holocaust.
Many teachers at Smithton are teaching “Number the Stars” or the Holocaust in their classrooms. Baldwin has made it a point to perform books students are reading in class, “to bring them alive for the students.” Smithton has been recognized by the International Reading Association’s Secondary Literary Focus Group for using theater to get students interested in reading.
Linda Bradley, Smithton’s literacy coach, is a member of the focus group and praises what Baldwin has done to weave theater productions into other teaching. “It all interacts,” Bradley said. “Debbie tells the teachers and tries to get them to fit it in.”
It is important to Baldwin to choose plays with real-world context to teach students lessons and help them understand perspectives different from their own. By performing “Number the Stars,” students are learning what it was like to live in fear during the Holocaust and how non-Jewish Danes helped Jewish Danes hide from Nazi soldiers.
Past plays include “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Holes,” “The Orphan Train” and “Bridge to Terabithia.”
“Unless it is a big issue, they (students) don’t learn much from the experience,” she said.
Baldwin said Smithton students overall have shown a lot of interest in trying out for the school plays. In December, 90 students auditioned for “Number the Stars,” and in a couple of weeks 20 actors and six crew members will bring to the stage what many Smithton students have been learning in class.
“Theater is, in my opinion, the best way to reach people, especially young people,” Baldwin said, “because if they can step in someone else’s shoes and understand them, they are changed.”