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IN THE CLASSROOM

Pros Have Supporting Roles in Scriptwriting Sessions

September 03, 2003|Kathleen Flynn | Times Staff Writer

At school, Peter was teased for being poor. He lived with his 100-year-old mother in a shack. But one day, Peter found a magic shop and all his dreams came true. The shack became a palace "and all the rusted mugs turned into beautiful glasses with angels on them."

That's the opening of 8-year-old Steven Miramontes' first script, "The Magic Shop," soon to be performed on stage by professional actors.

The third-grader at Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School received some valuable adult advice about his work from a group of Hollywood screenwriters, actors, producers and directors. The Young Storytellers Foundation volunteers seek to nurture creativity and confidence in grade-schoolers through the art of scriptwriting.

With Steven, they seem to have succeeded.

"I used to like only math," the young author said shyly. "But now I like writing too."

Over the last five years, the Young Storytellers group has expanded from working at an average of five Los Angeles public schools concurrently each semester to an expected 12 campuses this fall. Its more than 100 volunteers hope that their program will grow to include 50 schools in the near future and branch out to New York, Boston and Denmark.

At each school, 10 mentors work one on one with third- through fifth-grade students. During seven weekly one-hour sessions, they help guide the children's imaginations into fluid stories, which the adults later type into scripts.

On the program's last week at each school, actors -- who have included Fred Savage ("The Wonder Years"), Kevin Richardson (The Backstreet Boys) and Cheri Oteri ("Saturday Night Live") -- put on "The Big Show" and bring the scripts to life in front of family and friends. Cheremoya, a year-round school in Hollywood, is getting ready for this week's Big Show.

Sharon Langman, former principal at Playa del Rey Elementary, where the program began, said that students in Young Storytellers showed much improved scores on tests for English as a second language and that their overall comprehension "zoomed."

The process has also impressed Elena Salinas, Steven's teacher at Cheremoya, who has had students in the Storytellers program for two sessions.

"Writing is one of the hardest things to teach," she said. The Young Storytellers instructors "manage to get students through the whole process, and the students actually get it."

Danish immigrant Mikkle Bondeson thought up the idea for the program in 1997, when he was a 26-year-old film student at the American Film Institute.

"Growing up in Denmark, I was pretty much not good at anything related to school. But what I did have was a great creative writing teacher in elementary school," Bondeson said. "I realized that was a medium where I could talk about my life."

After hearing about cuts to arts programs in Los Angeles public schools, Bondeson gathered friends and did some grass-roots organizing. As word spread, more and more volunteers joined, most from the Screen Actors and Writers guilds.

Teachers and school officials select which students will participate, and each school has a different method of picking them, said Cara Schneider, a Cheremoya employee who helps coordinate the program there.

"We try to choose students who aren't necessarily the superstars in their class, but who aren't under-achievers either," she said. "We get those students who are doing well but they are too shy and unassuming and need a chance to shine."

A head mentor leads a group discussion, in which the shyest of students are asked to name their favorite movies and come up with possible story lines.

Most of the time is spent in one-on-one pairings of mentor and assigned student. Mentors teach such fundamentals as: a main character, an antagonist (or "arch-foe" as the children call the part), a setting, the problem and resolution. But the rest comes from the students' imaginations -- no plagiarism is allowed -- with constructive questioning and guiding from the adults.

The young writers are asked to describe their stories, first in two minutes, then in five, then in 15, as the mentors transcribe them. The pupils add details and dialogue in subsequent sessions.

"Some kids come in with an idea, and others have tons of plots in their heads to narrow down from," said Blair Hickey, an actor who is head mentor at Cheremoya and Steven's partner.

"The thing that got me, in addition to exposing the kids to the powers of creative writing, is how it affects their self-esteem and empowers them in a way they may not get in public schools," Hickey said. "This lets the kids know they have a legitimate voice."

The students' scripts are about adventure, family, friends, school and magic, Hickey said.

In one, a boy wanted to fulfill his dreams, but he happened to be a drinking-straw living in a Sizzler in Detroit. And then there was a monkey who wanted to be a duck, but not a real duck, a member of the Mighty Ducks hockey team.

Seven-year-old Tulsi McDaniels wrote about a ballet dancer who traveled all over the world. The third-grader at Cheremoya said she had enjoyed the classes. "I've learned that it's great to open your mind," she said. "Anything you think of, you shout it out and don't be shy."

Young Storytellers became a nonprofit foundation this year.

"The reason we put the foundation together was to be able to grow and reach as many kids as we can in Los Angeles and around the country," said Jay Gibson, a screenwriter and president of the organization.

The program's benefits, mentors say, go in more than one direction. Witnessing the flow of children's creativity helps with the adults' own writing, said Randy Sklar, a comedian who had a show on Comedy Central and volunteers at Cheremoya.

"I could be having the worst week ever, and then I come here and see these kids pouring out creativity, expressing themselves," Sklar said. "It's not just fun; it is inspirational."

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