What do we want our children to learn on their way to adulthood, and how do we want them to spend their time as they get there? How can schools and communities provide authentic work-based learning experiences where young people can gain the skills they need in life?
Those are some of the questions educators and employers have been asking in workshops across the country, as I've mentioned numerous times in this column.
In Glendale this month, the questions are coming to life on the Alex Theatre stage, as 16 local teens prepare for the July 22 performance of the original musical, "Be."
Written and directed by award-winning playwright Jennifer Berry, the play will be the culmination of "Act Out With Alex," a five-week performing arts program sponsored by Glendale Arts and led by Berry and her team of industry professionals.
"Be" centers on a group of young people auditioning for the part of adulthood. In the process, the characters start to wonder whether they really want to take on the stresses their parents exhibit, and they also begin to look at their own interactions as teens.
Are they focused on each other or on their phones? Are they enjoying their time together? How do they relate to their parents?
Berry, born and raised in Glendale, first produced the play 15 years ago in Colorado. In an interview published then and available on her website, jenniferberry.net, she commented on the message she hoped to convey to the young actors and their audience.
"Be yourself. Be who you want to be. Just be," she said, adding that she wants teens "to explore and celebrate this place in their lives."
Since moving back to Glendale and becoming a parent herself, Berry has updated the production and, with the help of her longtime friend and Glendale High choir classmate, Lisa Raggio, transformed it into a musical.
Now, Berry and Raggio hope the Act Out participants will embrace the play's message as they work together to develop the skills they'll share with their audience.
I had a glimpse of those developing skills when I visited a session of Act Out last week. As I arrived, the cast was sitting in a circle on the stage, reviewing their activities of the morning, which included dance, voice training, and readings of Shakespeare.
Going around the circle, each participant said what they'd especially liked, so far, that day, followed by a word of appreciation for the person next to them.
"Dance gets more fun every day."
"I look forward to the air conditioning we don't have at home."
"I appreciate our amazing singing teacher."
"I appreciate having lunch time to talk to each other."
"Dance class was poppin' today."
"I appreciate you [Berry] pushing us to do better as professionals and yet knowing us as kids."
For her part, Berry said she appreciated the way the students had tackled Shakespeare, and she praised the stage presence of the student sitting next to her.
The circle time was a great example of teaching important skills employers say they're looking for in job seekers, "soft skills" such as listening, communicating, and teamwork.
In the song and dance rehearsal that came next, I saw some of the more technical skills being developed. I also saw the professional way Berry interacted with the students in the program. She addressed them as colleagues, using the specialized vocabulary common in the business.
Without spending time defining or explaining her directions, she communicated her instructions so even those students without previous dance or acting experience understood her meaning.
When she told the boys on the side of the stage to "protect the dance" the girls were performing in the center, and when she told the girls to "protect the joke" the boys were telling through their actions, they all understood. They saw what it meant to be sensitive to each other's roles and respectful of the story.
Watching these students absorb meaning in the context of the play, for presentation on a professional stage, I was reminded of other examples of what educators call contextualized learning. I thought of the young students in our district's language-immersion classes, who grasp so naturally the meanings of words used in context in a language they're excited to speak.
I recalled stories of math-averse students finally making sense of algebraic formulas when robotic competitions were on the line.
At Act Out, I saw adults with high expectations for teens and teens responding with enthusiasm.
Berry and Raggio said they are excited to share with today's Glendale teens the friendship and skills fostered when they were high school students. They hope the young performers will be similarly affected by their own experience.
"It feels sweet and special to be doing this in our hometown…very full circle," Raggio said. "The older we get, the more we cling to the friendships of youth."
If I had school-age children with an interest in performing arts, I'd want them to have this kind of career education.