Photographs by Rafael Tongol
Pop quiz: What’s the most entertaining way to teach civics, the required seventh-grade class perhaps most notorious for its earnest (and endless) discussions of how a bill becomes a law?
One answer, as Dawn Dunham learned, is by involving her students in splashy musicals. Dunham connected her classroom at Maitland Middle School to the stage at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in a two-year project that enlivened mandatory lessons about politics, government and citizenship.
In June, Dunham’s collaboration with Dana Brazil, director of education at the Dr. Phillips Center, won her the Broadway League’s Educator Apple Award. The commercial-theater trade group, founded in 1930, recognized just three educators nationwide for their creative partnerships with venues that present touring Broadway shows.
During two seasons of the Fairwinds Broadway in Orlando series, Dunham, of Maitland, and Brazil, of Winter Park, helped students experience civics in new ways through the stories and songs of Newsies and The Sound of Music, both of which were staged at the center’s Walt Disney Theater.
During Newsies, for example, youngsters attended performances and, dressed in newsboy caps, sold copies of newspapers they had produced to raise money for charity. The musical, which was inspired by the newsboys’ strike of 1899, dealt with themes of child labor and the power of organized dissent.
The fortuitous partnership between Dunham and Brazil, like the plot of many Broadway musicals, unfolded as the result of a seemingly unremarkable occurrence: Brazil’s older son, Joseph, was a student in Dunham’s civics class.
“Joseph didn’t love civics, but Dawn was his favorite teacher,” Brazil says. “I think that she’s always looking for new and different ways to engage the kids.” With all the curriculum standards imposed on teachers these days, Brazil notes, “it’s tempting to just stay in your lane. Dawn just wasn’t that person.”
Plus, the two women are clearly kindred spirits and outside-the-box thinkers who are passionate about what they do. Former Michigan residents, they share a philosophy of incorporating the arts into every aspect of education, making what Dunham calls “cross-curricular connections.”
Dunham, a former banker, waited until age 45 to fulfill a long-deferred dream of teaching social studies. She first worked as a substitute teacher, and was eventually certified through a program that offered credit for her classroom experience and her business degree from Western Michigan University.
“I try to make it fun and hands-on as much as possible,” says Dunham, now in her 12th year of teaching full-time, who sprinkles visual art, skits and other role-playing into civics instruction. “I really try to make students own their learning.”
For example, she brings in local attorneys and judges for mock trials of historic cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines from 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students who protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to class were engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment.
Brazil, an equally dynamic innovator, is widely regarded as a well-connected arts-education advocate who makes a difference. A Michigan State University grad, she was formerly associate director of an arts institute at that school’s Wharton Center for Performing Arts.
With Brazil at the helm, the Dr. Phillips Center Florida Hospital School of the Arts began offering a broad array of classes in dance, music and theater for kids and adults in January 2015, followed by intensive summer camps in the arts.
This past spring, the school enrolled more than 200. Brazil’s efforts in creating and expanding the center’s education program won her the Broadway League’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Education and Engagement last year.
As part of the center’s outreach effort, Brazil also organizes the judging of increasingly sophisticated high school musicals across Central Florida and serves as an adjudicator herself.
The process culminates in the center’s annual Applause Awards, the centerpiece of which is a Tony Awards-style showcase of the year’s best performances. Forty-one productions at 28 high schools were judged last school year.
For the first time this past summer, the center also nominated two top Applause Award winners for Jimmy Awards, the Broadway League’s national recognition program for high school performers. It was during June’s Jimmy Awards ceremony in New York City that Dunham received her honor.
But it all started when Brazil became intrigued at her son’s descriptions of his energetic and enthusiastic teacher. When Brazil wanted to apply for a Broadway League grant for integrating theater into schools, she immediately contacted Dunham and found an enthusiastic collaborator. Over the two-year period, the organization awarded their project $7,500.
Their initial focus was Newsies, the first show of Broadway in Orlando’s 2014-15 season. In the “yellow journalism” style of the time, students wrote articles about rival press lords William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and the events leading up to the strike.
Their stories were assembled into a sepia-tone tabloid called Our Voice — The Young Press, with printing donated by the Orlando Sentinel. “If this strike were to happen, we have heard that the Newsies would march up and down the Brooklyn Bridge, halting traffic for hours,” one Young Press article warned.
In the winter of 2015, 140 students and chaperones were bused to the center to see Newsies free of charge. Wearing newsboy caps and period clothing, the youngsters sold copies of their paper before performances, raising more than $500 for Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS.
“There were patrons thinking these were the kids from the show,” Dunham says. After the curtain dropped, students chatted with the cast, and actors came to class to teach Newsies dances.
The language-arts teachers with whom Dunham was “team teaching” at the time also integrated the project into their classes — Laurie Fletcher for Newsies and Barbie Barbara for The Sound of Music. And throughout the project, Brazil visited the school to teach about theater and character development.
“Anytime you do something like this, it brings the curriculum to life,” says Dr. Stefanie Shames, who was principal of Maitland Middle then and now oversees leadership development for Orange County Public Schools. “It wasn’t just studying a time period anymore. They could relate to real people during that time.”
Just ask Lucy Bosses, who was in Dunham’s class during Newsies and attended a large-scale musical for the first time. Now a student at the Winter Park High School 9th Grade Center, she recalls the experience as a highlight of a civics class in which she was always creating. “I think it gave us a better understanding of how people acted and spent their normal days,” Lucy says.
During the following Broadway in Orlando season, Dunham and Brazil used The Sound of Music — set in 1938 Austria — to teach students about different forms of government and the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Lucy’s younger sister, Katie, had Dunham for civics that year, and helped create posters exploring the lives of the musical’s major characters.
The posters, which were displayed at the center during the show’s run, helped the eighth-grader understand the people and the issues on which The Sound of Music was based. “I’m more of a visual learner,” Katie says. Brazil’s younger son, Dylan, took part, too, as a member of Dunham’s civics class.
But Dunham’s collaboration with Brazil wasn’t limited to her own students. In November 2015, all of Maitland Middle’s seventh-graders attended a daytime “School Series” performance of Warriors Don’t Cry, the story of the Little Rock Nine based on a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the students who, in 1957, risked their lives to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Dunham’s civics students, like civics students everywhere, still learn the mechanics of how a bill becomes law. But, through their exposure to theatrical productions, they also learn why those laws are needed and how societal wrongs are redressed. The topic comes alive in a way that lectures and charts could never replicate.
As for Brazil, she hopes that by making theater part of the curriculum, she can help foster another generation of theatergoers. “At the end of the day, I want to create memories for kids in theater,” she says. “I want to create future audience members — to change somebody’s mind about how they think and feel.”