The Missouri Alliance for Arts Education has awarded Mexico High School speech and theatre teacher Sara Given the creativity and Innovation in Teaching award. Given was recognized at the state capitol for creating the first ever Jellybean Speech Olympics competition. Given’s students who she affectionately calls her “Jellybeans” also performed at the capitol.
Mexico High School student Nick Cook performed a short play with two of his fellow high schoolers. Cook said when he performs, it’s not the nerves he focused on.
“The feeling when I’m performing is like that feeling where I’m kind of in a different world where I just enjoy myself a lot,” Cook said. “And I have a lot of fun doing it.”
The Jellybean Conspiracy is a non-profit organization that writes theater plays specifically for actors with disabilities. Cook is a special needs student, and the two performers he was on stage with were his peer coaches: two regular education students that take part in the program. These students work with the special needs students to help them memorize lines, rehearse and choreograph the plays.
Mexico High School Principal Terry Robinson said Given’s program has been a great addition to the school.
“Every student needs a niche,” Robinson said. “They need a place to belong, and sometimes our special needs students, we struggle with what to do with them –‘what can they do?’ And the fact is they can do anything regular people can do. We have to work with them. I really like the way she’s paired them with mentors, and having that mentoring program with both regular ED students and special needs students has just been golden at Mexico High School.”
But Given realized there was even more potential than just performing at their school. The first year of the program, she decided to put the play up against other plays in the state in the annual high school reader theater competition.
“We chose to take that play to MHSAA district competition, and I felt like MHSAA districts is something that a lot of our special needs students don’t get to participate in, so in theater they have that opportunity,” Given said. “So we did a reader-theater performance. We took third in our district out of about eight schools. We missed state qualification by one place, so it was kind of exciting for us. Our goal however was not to go to state, our goal was to have an experience.”
But this also helped Given come up with another idea, which she calls the Jellybean Speech Olympics. She decided to create a speech tournament around the Jellybean Conspiracy model, and joined forces with the Special Olympics to host the competition at Mexico High School last year. Special needs students showcased their talents through acting, speech, and reading poetry.
Given said it’s great to give these students an opportunity to compete, which is something special needs students often miss out on.
“I would love to see schools all over the state, all over the nation, start working with their students with a-typical developments and getting them involved in the arts,” Given said. “I think the arts builds character, it builds confidence, and I think it’s something that everybody benefits from.”
Given said although she won the award, she said it’s nice to see the students hard work recognized.
“I think it’s important to recognize through theater we’re all the same,” Given said. “We all have talents, we all have gifts, and that’s what we’re trying to really emphasize is that it doesn’t matter your learning ability, or your physical ability. In theater and in speech we’re all the same and we have such a great gift to share.”
Given has expanded this year’s tournament beyond Mexico High School. Schools from both St. Louis and Kansas City will be participating in the Jellybean Speech Olympics, and she’s looking for sponsors to help make the program more accessible for students whose parents might not be able to afford travel costs.