Sit still. Be quiet. Focus. Listen. For most students, these are familiar instructions. And while they're not bad skills to learn, drama teacher Kay Kleinerman likes to approach her classes a little differently.
An instructor at the brand-new School for the Performing Arts at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Kleinerman leads rigorous workshops and holds high expectations for her students. Yet her ultimate goal is the opposite of order and control: She aims to let their imaginations run wild. Sometimes the results can be a little noisy or chaotic, but that's OK. In Kleinerman's classroom, success is when students "don't question -- they just go into a scenario and live in the imaginary world."
In its first term, which launched in early February and is open for registration through the end of the month, the school is offering afternoon drama and choir classes to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Come September, the school will expand offerings to include dance and instrumental music; plans for the future include a jazz ensemble, song-writing class, rock band and computer coding for music. Classes take place on the JCC's Fabian Way campus; each semester will culminate in a collaborative public performance at the Center's Schultz Cultural Arts Hall.
A former professional actress and singer, Kleinerman is also the director of Music in the Schools, a nonprofit organization that provides music education to elementary and middle school students in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park. Whether she's teaching music or drama, her goal is the same: to encourage uncensored creative exploration. Through games and improvisational exercises, movement and dialogue, observation and discussion, she guides her students to take creative risks.
During drama class at the JCC last week, Kleinerman asked her 10 students, ages 9 to 12, to pick a partner and stand across from that person, one arm's length apart.
Then she asked them to hold hands and make eye contact.
Immediately, giggling and wiggling ensued. One boy reached out to his partner with rigid arms but avoided catching her eye, instead looking around the room with a panicked expression. Another girl convulsed with silent laughter.
Unphased by their struggles, Kleinerman continued to give calm instructions.
"I want you to ask each other serious questions," she said, designating a questioner and an answerer. She began walking around the room, quietly listening.
Soon enough, the discomfort of the exercise faded, and students exchanged information: family size, favorite classes at school, vacation destinations, the names of their friends. Once finished, they sat in a circle to debrief.
"How did it feel to hold hands?" Kleinerman asked.
"Awkward!" said one girl.
"Weird," said another. "My partner's hands were sweaty."
"I didn't want to make eye contact because we were too close," a third girl admitted sheepishly.
"But you did it!" Kleinerman observed. "That's because in a class like this, which is about using your imagination and creating atmosphere, you have permission."
That permission is precisely what spurred head of school Edna Koren to launch the program. A concert pianist and arts educator, Koren explained her desire to merge her passion for her Jewish heritage with her expertise in the performing arts. She wanted, she said, to offer children a unique opportunity for creative expression within the context of Jewish culture and to give them a place where following rules was less important than following one's creative impulses.
"One of the wonderful aspects of a performing-arts background is that it provides children with a place where they can focus on their passion and dedicate their time in a way that has depth and meaning," Koren said, noting that as a parent and educator, she has seen firsthand how the arts foster cognitive skills and self-esteem in young people.
Back in drama class, it was clear Kleinerman shares Koren's belief in the power of the arts to teach life lessons. She had her students up on their feet again, this time for a silent improv exercise. Though gentle and mild-mannered, she had the focused intent of a drill sergeant.
"I'm going to set up situations for you, and whether or not you'd be comfortable with them in real life, you need to be comfortable with them in the realm of imagination," she asserted. "I do not want to hear the words, 'I don't know how to do this.' Figure it out."
With that, she had students sit in a semicircle, leaving the space in the middle as a stage. One by one, she called them up and named a particular place she wanted them to evoke through movement: a gas station, a pool, a phone booth, a bathtub. Then it got trickier: In pairs, they had to create a silent scene and the audience guessed where they were.
One student in particular seemed to struggle with following directions. He was the kind of kid who'd probably get in trouble in a traditional classroom: He talked when the teacher was talking, sat when others stood and stood when they sat, fidgeted and got distracted easily. Yet Kleinerman said this student's way of being is actually a blessing in drama class. She told an anecdote about the first day of class, when she asked her students to imagine they were on a farm and to busy themselves with appropriate tasks.
"None of them had ever been on a farm, and yet they started threshing wheat, gathering it up, putting it in a box and grinding it for bread," she said. "Then the last student went over to the opposite end of the room. It looked like he was trying to keep something from happening. It seemed to be a productive movement, but I couldn't quite tell, so I brought the exercise to a close and asked each student what role they were playing. When it got to him, he said, 'I was keeping the horse from coming out of the barn.' This one student had a completely different idea of what role he should play in this community, yet what he contributed was something really valuable that no one else thought of. It made everyone else see that there was another way of thinking, and it let him flesh out his idea in a way that was holistic and realistic."
To Kleinerman, that moment represented more than just a successful drama class; it was an example of the way unfettered imagination can lead to creative breakthroughs.
"In another atmosphere, his different way of thinking might not have been supported," she pointed out.
"Yet this kind of cognitive exploration really empowers a child's sense of storytelling. No one is censoring them. While it seems like games, they are actually building language and interaction skills and developing thought processes."
Play and fun are central to singing classes as well. The choir instructor for the JCC's School for the Performing Arts is Deborah Rosengaus, a mezzo soprano who like Kleinerman has studied widely in the arts, from opera and instrumental music to theater and dance. Rosengaus said her main goal is to foster in her young students a love of music in general.
"I firmly believe that music is an expression of joy, and it should be something that makes you happy," she said, adding that her classes combine vocal technique and physical activity.
"Singing is a whole mind-body thing," she explained. "You are your instrument, after all."
While performing-arts opportunities for young people in the Peninsula region abound, from music ensembles to drama programs, dance schools and numerous in-school offerings, Koren feels she's offering something a little bit different by incorporating an appreciation of Jewish heritage into the classes.
"Our program is all-encompassing and open to students of all backgrounds, but we felt it was important to integrate a certain amount of Jewish content," she said. "This is a wonderful avenue to educate our young generations and help them make connections to their heritage."
According to Kleinerman, whose teaching is deeply influenced by the methods of Jewish-American actor and theater instructor Sanford Meisner, introducing students to the contributions of Jewish dramatists will come after she has established a solid foundation for creative play in her classes.
"I am teaching (students) to develop critical-thinking skills and use their imagination to interact with the world," she said. "That's going to open so many possibilities about how they lead themselves through the world as adults with a sense of self-efficacy -- and that's key to personal success. I don't mean earning a lot of money; I mean leading the life one wants to. This kind of education can bring out the best in a student."
What: OFJCC School for the Performing Arts
Where: Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Tuesdays and Thursdays through June 4. Drama 4-5 p.m. and 5-6 p.m.; choir 4-5 p.m.
Cost: $30 per class. 10 percent sibling discount
Info: Go to paloaltojcc.org/schoolforarts or call 650-223-8700.