Skip to Content

Thriving in the Spotlight

English language learners take center stage at a Virginia high school theater program

By Anita Merina

Theatre Without Borders players shine in their production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

With students from Central and South America, West and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Annandale High School, in Annandale, Va., has one of the nation’s most diverse student populations. Many of the students must juggle academics and learning a new language with settling into a new home and school, and an unfamiliar culture.

To offer her students a creative outlet for learning and a break from academic stress, Leslie Chekin, teacher and chair of the English as a Second Language Department created “Theatre Without Borders (TWB)” in 2003. The program allows students to study classical theater and literature while boosting their English skills.

“We began TWB as an after-school activity with no budget for a stage and most sets and costumes paid for out of pocket,” explains Chekin. “We wanted to provide students with additional support and a creative outlet. The final performances were small affairs held in a multipurpose room.”

“We had applied for a county grant, but there was no money,” Chekin says.

Finally, Chekin and her partner Michelle Picard received a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant from the NEA Foundation. Chekin and her performing arts department colleagues used the funds to transform the existing program into what she describes as a “total theater concept.” It exposes students to all aspects of theater—from design and stage management to lights and sound. In 2014, TWB received another grant to produce Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

From those humble beginnings, the program has slowly built its reputation, and gained a foothold at Annandale. Six years ago, TWB became an elective course, and productions moved to the auditorium. These days, the final shows attract 200 to 300 people.

For TWB students, the first challenge is to conquer stage fright. Every student must audition. This even applies to non-speaking roles. Students learn about acting, directing, public speaking, and organizing publicity campaigns, and one another’s plays’ themes, characters, and plot.

To prepare for their roles, students attend performances at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C. The students use the experiences to help mount their own productions.

With each production comes internal drama, according to Chekin. Many of her students have struggled with the displacement of moving, learning a new language, and difficult home lives. But in overcoming their theater challenges says Chekin, the students gain important life skills. “They see themselves as a company,” she says. “That feeling of pride and identity? They pass that on to each other.”

“During my first year in the program, everything about theater was challenging,” recalls student Fabiola Alba. “I couldn’t even pronounce my lines.” But she persevered, and has now performed in, and even directed, a handful of Shakespeare’s plays. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, but by the year’s end, her language skills had improved dramatically.

These days, students begin each semester by reading and dissecting the play that they will put on, breaking down dramatic monologues or Shakespearean sonnets until they can understand and explain the story behind them. Then production begins in earnest as students take on all aspects of theater: acting, set design, lighting, stage management and more.

“Participation in our program strengthens students’ academic achievement,” says Chekin. “It promotes interest among immigrant students in literature and the performing arts and fosters an understanding of the universality of literature and the arts. It improves students’ English proficiency skills and enhances their self-esteem. In turn, these factors benefit students’ academic success at school.”

Chekin says the program has also helped to “lower the barrier between performing arts and ESL students,” and the theater crew has built a small following in the community. “They have a reputation for being hysterically funny and unpredictable,” she adds.

To help strengthen ties with the nearby immigrant community, the theater group does not charge admission to performances. Says Chekin: “Most of our students receive free and reduced lunch, they can only provide a limited contribution toward the expenses associated with productions. That’s why we depend on donations and grants. Local businesses and community members are responding.”

The program is also boosting students’ performance on the state’s ELP test. “Many students moved up an entire level, if not higher,” says Chekin. And students are finding new opportunities. She points to a student who later became a certified lights technician. Another became a student ambassador to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and returned after graduation to lead an interactive workshop on “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“I would love to see others replicate our success—not only throughout our county but throughout the country,” says Chekin. “That’s what happens when our teachers and students let learning take center stage.”


Published in:

Published In