In 1987, an English professor spent three weeks on a teacher-training project in war-torn Nicaragua. Back home, she visited an inner-city middle school where she told students about the effects of civil war on Nicaraguan children: In addition to fear, hunger, insecurity and violence, they attended schools with no books, no pencils, no paper. The middle school students, poor immigrants themselves, wanted to help. They suggested collecting pencils or sending old toys. A 12-year old boy raised his hand. “Why not write books?” he asked. From his vision, Working Classroom was born.
For three years, students and the professor met twice weekly at a local community center to write and illustrate books. They recruited friends. Cousins. Parents. Local artists. By the time the project, called Books for Bluefields, ended, they had delivered over 5,000 copies of 32 original books to primary schools in and around Bluefields, a small town on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
The Albuquerque student authors studied Central American geography, culture and botany (A is not for Apple in the tropics) and improved their reading and writing skills. In Nicaragua, teachers traveled for miles along rivers and through fighting to pick up boxes of Books for Bluefields for their pupils. Hundreds of children learned to read.
The young authors were invited to Washington, D.C., where they were honored at an embassy reception hosted by the Nicaraguan ambassador. In Washington, this group of poor middle school students was invited by George Washington University and the D.C. Children’s Hospital to teach psychologists how to design a similar program for Salvadoran refugees in local schools.
Inspired by the national and international recognition, the young authors wrote their first play, Sueños Sin Fronteras/Borderless Dreams, the saga of a Nobel Prize winner who penned his first words in a book for children in Nicaragua. They studied acting and then performed at community and cultural centers in Albuquerque, the Bronx and Off-Broadway in New York City. Two authors sold their work to Houghton Mifflin Publishers. All graduated from high school, and some went to college.
The student-generated idealism and creativity that inspired Books for Bluefields continue to resonate through all our programs, as does a commitment to craft and education.
Over 21 years, Working Classroom has expanded and matured. Together, our students, staff and parents have created an internationally recognized model program that now includes a street conservatory where students study art and theater, a bilingual theater company, a student gallery, academic tutoring center and college scholarship fund. Every project and program emphasizes community advocacy and incorporates academic, entrepreneurial and life skills. For example, acting students have written, performed and toured original plays about alcohol and domestic violence, AIDS, immigration and New Mexican history. They have performed across New Mexico, at the Latino Chicago Theater and the World Congress on the Family in Columbus, Ohio; represented the United States at the VII International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro and represented New Mexico at the First United Nations Congress on Girls. Art students have written, illustrated and published a comic book about predatory lending and a fotonovela about domestic violence. Their landmark public art brightens homeless shelters, food banks, community art centers and clinics and is anchoring a major cultural tourism project in one of Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhoods.
25 AMAZING FACTS ABOUT WORKING CLASSROOM
1. 95 percent of WC’s enrolled students have graduated from high school; almost 70 percent enroll in college.
2. WC students and guest artists have created 17 landmark murals in Albuquerque and one in Toronto, Canada.
3. WC alumni have graduated from: the College of Santa Fe; Institute of American Indian Arts; Hampshire College; Macalester College; Pitzer College; Pomona College; School of the Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Art Institute; Theatre School at DePaul University; New Mexico Highlands; New Mexico State; University of Miami; University of New Mexico.
4. Our first college graduate received her BA from UNM in 1996.
5. Our alumni have earned two law degrees; an MA in speech therapy; two MFA’s; a Master’s in community & regional planning.
6. Our first PhD candidate will become Dr. Edelman in 2014.
7. WC’s theater company has performed across New Mexico and across the country including: at the Latino Chicago Theater; World Congress on the Family at Ohio State University; for the Association of Community Based Education in Washington, D.C.; and Off-Broadway at Henry Abrons Theater in New York.
8. WC alumni and brother and sister Gabrielle Uballez and Michael Lopez are collaborating on arts, education and economic development projects in Albuquerque and the south valley.
9. The Institute of International Education designated WC as a model program and host site for its South African Career Development Program.
10. Additional international collaborations include Partners for America (Mexico, Colombia) and artists from France, Thailand, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia Haiti, China, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
11. WC student authors’ original short stories were published with a press run of 150,000 copies by Houghton Mifflin’s in …elementary school Spanish-language reading series.
12. Alumni brothers David and Victor Meneses each have two careers. David is an award-winning composer with a degree in composition from Montgomery College in Maryland AND a professional magician. Victor is the guitarist with Predator, an internationally touring heavy metal band AND the executive chef at Park Tavern in Delray Beach, FL.
13. WC artistic partners include the National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago), Tectonic Theater Project (New York) and Tamarind Institute of Fine Art Lithography,
14. Guest instructors include faculty at Yale School of Drama, Arizona State University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
15. WC students participated in the First United Nations Girls Conference.
16. WC students represented New Mexico/ the U.S. at Mexico’s 2nd Annual Youth Congress
17. WC alumna Rebeca Mayorga is the artistic director of ETERneo, an award-winning theater company in Madrid, Spain.
18. Hundreds of students in Bluefields, Nicaragua learned to read with books written and illustrated by WC students and published the Albuquerque Tribune. The Embassy of Nicaragua hosted a formal reception for the young authors.
19. WC students traveled to El Salvador to found Creaciones, an educational theater company for war-traumatized children and teenagers.
20. WC student actors represented the United States at the VII International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro.
21. WC student artists created (Hear) By The River, a video mural installation in the Convention Center, commissioned by the City of Albuquerque Public Art Program, depicting Albuquerque’s diverse character and characters.
22. WC student artists wrote and illustrated Three Months Notice/Tres meses de aviso, a graphic novel, commissioned by the NM Mortgage Finance Authority, to educate low income consumers about the dangers of predatory lending.
23. WC student artists wrote and illustrated Hasta que la muerte nos separe, a fotonovela about domestic violence.
24. WC student actors have performed the Roundhouse Comedy Revue three times at the New Mexico Legislature, where the cast has been joined by over 20 legislators over the past five years.
25. Internationally prominent actors and artists including Edouard Duval Carrie and television actress Ann Cusack have taught at WC.