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"Valued Voices" makes debut during CELEBRATE!

A repeat 9th grader at “Southwestern High,” Jamal Harris is what the American educational system would describe as an “at risk” student. But the lead character in a play written by Jean Rohr in the School of Education shows that many factors influence student performance – and the first staged reading of her work, “Valued Voices,” met with praise Wednesday night in Whitley Auditorium.

An audience of well over 100 faculty, students, local teachers and community members watched the hour long reading, which involved teenage actors from the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. It also featured a performance by Richard Mihans, another faculty member from the School of Education at Elon.

The things that affect student learning are many, Rohr said, especially in schools with heavy minority populations: parental involvement, unequal distribution of experienced teachers, the “pedagogy of poverty,” education reforms and low student expectations, to name just a few.

She wove those themes throughout her play. Harris, played Wednesday night by teenager Chris Harper, is given in-school suspension when he scuffles with a classmate in an English class studying Shakespeare.

Harris’ attention dwindles after his teacher, played by Mihans, dismisses an explanation of a sonnet that the teen provides using modern language. Scenes with principals, relatives, friends and school staff begin to unfold, demonstrating for the audience how many students like Harris are “talented thinkers” overlooked by a system that places heavier emphasis on standardized tests and rote memorization.

Assistant professor Richard Mihans (center) took part in the production. Here, he helps break up a fight involving Jamal Harris, the protagonist in the play.

“The people who really need to see this are teachers and students themselves who are not reading scholarly journal articles,” Rohr said of the performance, which has its roots in an academic article that examines such issues. “We get to a wider audience with this kind of venue.”

Rohr hopes the play, debuted as part of the CELEBRATE! 2009 events at Elon University, will eventually be performed at regional and national teacher conferences.

“It is crucial that educators begin to seriously consider the importance of valuing the voices that minority students bring into the classroom,” Rohr said. “The kids really enjoyed themselves (onstage), I could see that. But more important, they got it.”

The play was directed by Mabel Robinson, artisitic director at the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. Georjean Moore served as the choreographer.

Chris Harper (with headphones) plays Jamal Harris, a repeat 9th grader, in Jean Rohr's "Valued Voices." The initial staged reading took place April 29 in Whitley Auditorium.
Eric Townsend,
4/30/2009 4:02 PM