2016-05-19 / News

Middle schoolers act on desire to support drama coach

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

SACO – A group of current and former Saco Middle School students will perform one-act plays this week to raise money to send drama coach Gwyneth Nicholson to a PBL World conference in Napa Valley, California, where she will learn about project-based learning.

The students have been secretly rehearsing the plays since March, but only revealed to Nicholson last week that they had scheduled two public performances.

Nicholson has taught English at the school for eight years, but has also been coaching the school’s drama club, Bobcat Players, for two years.

Megan Orlandella, a junior at Thornton Academy, and eighth-grader Jade Kruczek organized rehearsals at Saco Grange and Gov. John Fairfield School, so that Nicholson wouldn’t catch on to the surprise stagings. Orlandella said the student-run production includes three Thornton Academy freshmen who were Bobcat Players last year, and 15 current members of the middle school drama club. Four of the five plays are directed by eighth-graders, and one by a Thornton Academy student.

Noelle Gallant, also an English teacher at Saco Middle School, said the students planned the rehearsals and performances on their own, including booking spaces to rehearse, arranging for performance space and planning concessions. Orlandella said Kruczek organized all the logistics for reserving spaces. Kruczek is a student in Nicholson’s English class, but has also been stage manager for the productions Nicholson directed for Bobcat Players.

On Wednesday, May 11, the students finally revealed the event to Nicholson via a scavenger hunt that led her to complimentary tickets to the showcase.

“I was completely surprised, I had no idea they were up to anything,” Nicholson said.

The students sent her pictures of different rhymes that gave her hints on where to go. The first rhyme, “Go to the place where it all began, Where Alice and Bugsy used to stand,” sent her to the stage, where the musicals “Bugsy Malone” and “Alice in Wonderland” had been performed. There, Nicholson found some students who performed a scene from this year’s play. The students then sent her to the gymnasium – where “Happy memories will be found, In the place where basketballs are thrown around” – and several former students performed scenes from a play produced at the school last year.

The students then sent Nicholson back to her classroom – “In your room we all come together, With the people we will stay with forever.” There, Nicholson found the complimentary tickets to the showcase.

“I knew that they were doing something as soon as Jade gave me the first rhyme. I knew something special was going that I understood they were doing, but I didn’t know what,” Nicholson said. “It shows a level of thoughtfulness that is not all that common in eighth-graders. It really is extraordinary that they would be thinking so thoughtfully about another person.”

Nicholson said she isn’t sure how the students got wind of her desire to attend the conference to learn about projectbased learning. Nicholson said she might have mentioned something in class, or that a Facebook page might have got noticed, even though she is not friends on Facebook with any of her students.

“Project-based learning is all about trying to get kids learning in more authentic ways instead of having them sit behind desks all day,” Nicholson said. “Get them using real projects and interdisciplinary learning.”

Nicholson said her work in theater drew her to project-based learning because theater is interdisciplinary in nature. The drama club is an extracurricular activity at Saco Middle School, not a formal part of the curriculum.

“The PBL World conference will hopefully teach me how to achieve really good quality project-based learning,” she said. “It’s not as easy as it looks. There are a lot of strategies teachers need to know.”

Nicholson said she has witnessed as drama coach how some students can excel more while working on a project such as a school play, than they do in the classroom.

“Some kids don’t really shine in a traditional setting,” Nicholson said. “When they get into the drama club, they blossom because they’re able to experience learning in a different way. Suddenly these kids are becoming part of a learning community where they are achieving. Definitely one of the things I want to work on at the conference, is how to achieve all the curriculum goals but in a different way.”

Nicholson said the display of support from her students is the most touching thing she has experienced in her teaching career.

Orlandella said Nicholson had been trying to raise $2,000 to attend the conference through a GoFundMe.com page, and the students hope that they will raise enough to help her reach her goal. The PBL World Conference is being held from June 13 to 16.

Orlandella said directing and organizing the one act plays has been stressful for the eighth-graders, “but they have come through as independent actors.”

Orlandella credited the Thornton Academy freshmen – Natalie Ben-Ami, Theresa Orlandella and Megan Walsh – with keeping the students “sane” while organizing the secret fundraiser.

Orlandella, who is 16, said she was actually never a student of Nicholson’s when she attended middle school, but met her when her siblings became involved with Bobcat Players.

“She’s always been such a great person to be around,” Orlandella said. “She’s outgoing and kind and we wanted to give back to her for the past two years.”

Nicholson said the student-run fundraiser is an example of “how sweet and thoughtful middle school students can be.”


A One Act Showcase will be performed on Thursday, May 19 and Friday, May 20 at 7 p.m. in the Bobcat Bistro, the middle school’s cafeteria. The students are asking for $5 admission and will provide food concessions as well.

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