Ensemble Arts Philly is the new presenting brand from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Cultural Campus. LEARN MORE


Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts will be rededicated as Marian Anderson Hall, home of The Philadelphia Orchestra

A student group from Princeton Public Schools attends a performance of the Broadway musical 1776 at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia

Theatrical Learning: Bringing the lesson to life on stage

Posted by:  The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Cultural Campus on February 23, 2023

There is nothing quite like watching a student become fully engaged in what they are learning. To see the sparkle in their eye and hear the joy in their voice is an experience that happens not just in the classroom, but also on field trips where learning comes to life. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Cultural Campus strive to provide accessible opportunities for students and teachers across the region to visit us and experience the arts in-person.

We sat down with one educator, Joy Barnes-Johnson of Princeton Public Schools, who recently brought her students to see a performance of the new revival of 1776, an award-winning musical about the writing & signing of the Declaration of Independence.

1776 group - 2.jpg

Joy with two of her students.

So great to talk with you, Joy! What was your path to becoming an educator?

I grew up believing I was going to be a dancing doctor, so when I became a teacher, I was honestly surprised! I started teaching in 1992 as a Teaching Assistant at Spelman College and I fell in love with teaching. Afterwards I started teaching chemistry at my high school alma mater in Montclair, NJ, before eventually finishing graduate school at Temple University. I realized how much I missed teaching, so I eventually returned to teach earth science part-time at Princeton High School in 2007, where I have been ever since. I mainly taught science-based courses (earth science, chemistry, engineering, and material science), but the real “beautiful know in my flow” is my racial literary class. I have always been an interdisciplinary thinker so getting the chance to teach a sociology class for the last five years has been wonderful.

What prompted the idea to connect your students to a live performance field trip as part of the curriculum?

Growing up as a “theater kid,” I know how much can be learned by going to see live shows. When I saw the ads for 1776, I thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate our multicultural community of students. All students are required to take a racial literacy class in our school—a bonus course in the overall curriculum, and the introductory course explores identity. Stage performances embrace various representations of people in a wonderfully human way. This particular revival production of 1776 has a multicultural cast of female, non-binary, and people of color as the Founding Fathers.

1776 group - 3.jpg

A bulletin board celebrating Black History Month in Joy’s classroom.

We want to celebrate Black History and Heritage Month differently—by bringing students to see a multicultural cast stage the American narrative of independence, we are hoping to inspire students to create their own story-telling tools for staging key moments in Black History around key years (1619, 1776, 1865, 1947, 1963, 2008). We hope to use historic years in Black History as a throughline to a bigger story about the United States.

1776 group - 4.jpg

Joy with other educators from BEACON.

You mentioned you are part of a group called BEACON; can you tell us more about the collective?

BEACON (Black Educators Affirming Coalition Opportunities and Networks) is a coalition of about 50 Black educators in our school district that identify as Black or African American. Like many other school districts, educators of color are often isolated from each other. BEACON aims to provide a space for us to be present for each other and promote collective joy, and the advocacy of joy, in our community. The group was founded in 2018 and also works to develop pathways for Black student achievement through shared agency and the collaborative efforts of parents, teachers, and stakeholders of the Princeton Public Schools community.

1776 group - 5.jpeg

Members of BEACON in 2017.

Why is it important to make history come alive like this for students? What does a hands-on, in-person experience like this add to their studies?

Sometimes when students read structural text (from textbooks or primary sources), they find it inaccessible because of the language or style it is presented in. Theatrical performances of historical events allow students to be immersed fully in the language because they are hearing it and experiencing it in a real-time setting. Unlike in movies, live performances showcase living situations because students can see the actors moving, breathing and interacting with each other. Everything from costumes to make-up helps students to understand the constraints that historical figures may have been under.

After seeing 1776 with her students, Joy shared the below about the experience:

The show was absolutely amazing. We had a wonderful time. A fun moment was when the character of “Reverend Witherspoon” was presented on stage. Our middle school recently had a name change in 2020 from John Witherspoon Middle School to Princeton Middle School, so when the students heard “Witherspoon” they went absolutely nuts! We are hoping to make this an annual experience for the students!

1776 group - 1.jpg

The group at 1776!

Thank you so much for joining us with your students, Joy! Are you interested in bringing a large group (10 or more people) to our Campus for an artistic experience? Find out more info about special discounts and experiences when booking with our Group Sales team.

< Previous Article Next Article >

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website and personalized content.

Learn More.