Gloversville Middle School students to present historical musical

Gloversville Middle School students work on the historical musical "Brown's Raid" that premieres today. (Photos courtesy of Allyson Kaczmarek)

GLOVERSVILLE — A historical musical created and performed by Gloversville Middle School students will premiere today in the auditorium with a preview show at 4 p.m. and the performance at 6 p.m.

Program developer, city resident and parent volunteer Allyson Kaczmarek received a $10,000 Innovative Instruction Technology Grant and a $2,000 Saratoga Arts Grant to fund the creation and production of the show, “Brown’s Raid.”

Kaczmarek said she came up with the idea for the play after attending a historical reenactment with her family. “Brown’s Raid” that tells the true story of how a number of small skirmishes starting with Brown’s Raid at Fort Ticonderoga. Those skirmishes led up to the Battle at Saratoga and provided the U.S. with a key victory that contributed to France joining the revolutionary cause.

Kaczmarek’s production seeks to capitalize on the popularity of two modern creations to interest students in the production; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” and the video game “Minecraft.”

The American Musical and Dramatic Academy graduate-turned-computer programmer said she’s seen young people singing the difficult songs from the historically-themed Broadway musical all over the place and not just theater students.

“We’d be at the park, fishing, swimming,” Kaczmarek said Wednesday.

Viewing “Hamilton” as a way into teaching history, Kaczmarek thought to use another new idea from Broadway in which many productions use minimal physical sets with digital screens projecting digital images to create backgrounds. In a play featuring major battle scenes, “Minecraft” was the perfect stage on which to build the action she said.

“We’re using ‘Minecraft’ mainly for the sets and the action we can’t do like cannon bombing and fires and that kind of stuff, rowing boats, riding on horses, but the actors are the ones telling the story,” Kaczmarek said.

Kaczmarek, who has a masters of science in educational psychology and methodology from the State University of New York at Albany, has worked to develop educational programs for students that incorporate the world building game as a way to teach them about computer programming.

This historical musical balances the concepts of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics as an entry point to reach students and she reached out to GMS to see if she could run the program through the school to secure the grant funding.

The GMS Drama Club director and director of “Brown’s Raid,” Jennifer Flynn, noted Wednesday that the unique production reached a new set of students.

“None of them have ever been in a play before with me,” Flynn said Wednesday. “This is neat to be able to reach out to some kids that don’t quite often participate in some of our extracurricular activities. This was something they were very interested in.”

The cast and crew are more directly involved in creating the show than students typically would be. While Kaczmarek researched the events depicted in the play and wrote the script, the students are designing and building the sets from the ground up.

Kaczmarek recruited her cast last week by setting up Xbox systems in the cafeteria after school where students could play “Minecraft.” The first day students could free-play and explore the game, after that Kaczmarek started teaching the students different programming techniques to create objects and structures in the game setting.

As their skills grew, Kaczmarek taught the students more advanced techniques eventually helping them build an accurate representation of Fort Ticonderoga for use in the show.

“I don’t have a lot of experience with ‘Minecraft’ other than what I’ve watched my own kids do, but I mean they’re teleporting, they’re understanding coordinates and it’s not just basic computer programming, it’s some pretty heavy stuff that they know how to do. And they come with a lot of knowledge,” Flynn said. “For Allyson’s program to be able tap some of that knowledge and that interest is really neat.”

The students were hooked, coming after school all last week despite having taken state tests during the day and again this week. About 15 students committed to participating in the play, with other students stopping by after school when they could to help with the programming. In all, the students had two weeks to put the show together.

“They come from a whole day of school,” Kaczmarek said. “I like how enthusiastic the kids get, to put mildly.”

“They come charging in here at 2:30,” Flynn added.

Both Kaczmarek and Flynn said they were impressed with the way the sixth-through eighth-grade students have stayed on task everyday while working together to create the world and various actions that will be featured in the show including historically accurate battle scenes.

“If I would notice one student started doing something a little silly they would jump right in. ‘No, no, that’s not what we’re doing right now, we’ve got to work together. You’ve got to build this and build this and we only have an hour left,'” Flynn said. “They don’t tolerate off-task stuff.”

The students are involved in other ways too. While there will be avatars for all of the characters in the play depicted in the digital sets, the students who will act out the parts decided they wanted to be live onstage instead of using pre-recorded dialogue to accompany the scenes.

“They feel like they’re being listened to and it’s very directed by them. We didn’t know what they wanted to do for the lines,” Flynn said. “They said hands down they wanted to do a live read of the lines and that’s a big deal for them to want to put themselves out there and have the confidence to go for it.”

They’re also working with musical director Elizabeth Sterling to update three songs from the 1800s for use in the show, altering the music in the computer program GarageBand for songs that they will sing themselves.

“The kids want to be in all aspects of everything,” Flynn said.

Kaczmarek and Flynn agreed that the two-week program has taught the students and teachers a new set of skills.

“It shows teachers that you don’t have to be the expert in order to run this program,” Kaczmarek said.

“Just yesterday when they were ready to record that big cannon scene, Allyson was going to turn their avatars invisible in one particular way and one of the boys jumped in and said ‘just do this,'” Flynn said. “He just had a quicker way to do it and she was like ‘oh, that makes sense.'”

This was one of Kaczmarek’s idea behind the production and the purpose of the grants she received, to show teachers a new way to teach.

“I think when you talk to an adult and you say ‘Minecraft’ they assume certain things and I think they’re missing bigger opportunities, especially with kids who are not engaged,” Kaczmarek said.

According to Kaczmarek, these disinterested students may see futures for themselves in non-traditional careers like creating content for Youtube, which presents a path to learning a lot of different skills like writing, computer programming, video recording and editing.

“There’s so much that goes into it. If that’s what would interest you in school, then let’s tie that into learning,” Kaczmarek said.

Once the show is over, Kaczmarek will give the students a quiz on programming to test their knowledge, then she will present her program at the Conference on Instruction and Technology at the SUNY Cortland later this month and will post her program on the educational website Coursera as a free massive open online course that teachers can use in their classes.

In the future, Kaczmarek is hoping to secure a grant that would allow her program at the middle school over the course of 300 hours, with students meeting after school 10 hours each week for a completely self-generated production in which they would also select and research a time period to write their own script.

“It’s exciting when they find something that they’re excited about and it happens to be good for them,” Kaczmarek said. “They’re only limitation was lack of time. They wanted more time.”

“Brown’s Raid” created and performed by middle school students will be performed today with a preview at 4 p.m. and a performance at 6 p.m. in the Gloversville Middle School auditorium. The hour-long historical musical is free to attend.