Teachers often jokingly say that their favorite things about teaching are June, July, and August. Of course this is not true because every teacher I know spends a great deal of time getting ready for the next school year, and pursuing other educational interests during the summer months. Teachers take coursework, attend professional development, read professional books and spend time searching the internet for new strategies and ideas to improve the teaching and learning for their next group of students. It only takes a few days and teachers begin looking forward to the next school year. Teachers also can be found using their talents and skills to help the community during the summer. Teachers teach Bible school, help with community book programs, camps and find themselves teaching in many capacities during the summer months. The community theater in Murray is where I spend a great deal of time during my summer.
This summer Murray’s local community theater started a new initiative called The Penguin Project. The Playhouse is the first Kentucky replication site of this amazing program that began in Illinois under the direction of Dr. Andy Morgan. “Dr. Andy” is the founder and director of The Penguin Project. He is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and the former head of the Division of Child Development at the University College of Medicine at Peoria. He is the primary medical specialist in Central Illinois involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities. He also loves theater, and through this project he has brought two of his passions together to give children with disabilities an opportunity to experience the performing arts.
The Penguin Project participants take to the stage to perform a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical. This production is unique, however, because all of the roles are filled by children with disabilities. Cognitively or physically disabled, they are joined on stage by their “peer mentors”, a group of children the same age without disabilities, who have volunteered to work with them side-by-side and guide them through four months of rehearsals and the final production.
The project is named adeptly after penguins because of the way they play and work together to survive in the harshest of conditions. The penguins form groups, and they share warmth. The warmest part is always the middle so they rotate around. This means that everyone at some point is the warmest spot and everyone is also at some point is in the coldest spot. They have one common goal they all work towards. The penguins all work together so they all can survive. They take turns, and share — not bad lessons for theaters or schools, or life.
Dr. Andy is mentoring our theater, Murray’s Playhouse in the Park, through our first Penguin project production. The performance is scheduled to take place the last weekend in September. As the director, it has made such an impact on me personally. I have learned more about working with special needs children in a few weeks than I have learned in 27 year of teaching. I have seen firsthand the impact that the arts can have on people. I have watched children find their voice, learn dances, and bravely try new things. Each rehearsal I experience pure joy. I have seen the lessons that the mentors are learning, too — about putting someone else’s needs before their own, and patience, and love. I leave every rehearsal so pumped up. Our theme song is “Don’t Stop Believing”, and after I am with this group, I believe!
As The Penguin Project’s website so accurately states, “Penguins may not be able to fly, but they sure can soar.”
Holly Bloodworth, a teacher at Murray Elementary School (Murray Independent), was named the 2014 Kentucky Teacher of the Year on Oct. 16, 2013. She will be sharing her educational experiences in and outside of the classroom with Kentucky Teacher readers during her year-long reign.