Silk Road Theatre Project's Alternative Cultural Education / by R. Sheth

Silk Road Theatre Project's Alternative Cultural Education

February 2009

In the heat of immigration reform and the ongoing debate on racial inclusivity, I believe that the preservation of ethnic cultural heritage and ethnic art education are becoming more relevant and important every day. My own interest in ethnic arts practices, multiculturalism and cross-culture experience began with my musical training as a pipa[*] player. Ethnic and folk arts, especially in performance, fascinate me. After graduating with a master’s degree in art education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, my interest in ethnic arts practices continued to grow.

Encountering a Global Theater

Upon my graduation, I had the opportunity to join the Silk Road Theatre Project as arts educator. Silk Road was established in the summer of 2002 by Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury as a creative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Witnessing the aftermath of the tragedy, Gillani and Khoury – of Syrian and Pakistani ancestry — recognized that there was a need to counter the negative representation of and sentiments toward Muslim and Middle Eastern people. They knew that in Chicago, an ethnically and racially diverse city, the authentic voices of historically marginalized groups could enrich a society’s human experience. Their interest began to go beyond the Middle East and embrace a larger geographical area visualized as the Silk Road, a network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting China, Asia and the Mediterranean world. Gillani and Khoury founded the theater company to showcase works by playwrights of those backgrounds, hoping to engender a multicultural discourse addressing issues faced by the peoples along the Silk Road, their descendants and those in the diaspora who reside in North America.

This passion for cultural diversity and preserving the uniqueness of voices of different ethnicities prompted Silk Road Theatre Project to create a new arts-integrated education program in 2007 named “Myths to Drama.”

Demythifying the Myths

“Myths to Drama” adopts an arts-integrated pedagogy in collaboration with participating Chicago Public Schools classrooms. The program incorporates arts, drama, reading, writing and social studies, aligned with the State of Illinois’ Board of Education standards. In my interview with Malik Gillani, executive director of Silk Road, he shared his vision of delivering a global education to young students:

Carol Ng-He: Why did you create the art program “Myths to Drama”?

Malik Gillani: I want to create “Myths to Drama” because as I grew up in Chicago Public Schools, this is where I am from; what I know. The fact is that history, sociology, and so forth, is very often taught with a European focus and it totally ignores the world that we are all part of. We cannot ignore the world, we cannot ignore the people we go to school with, the people we work with. We cannot ignore the peace opportunity. We need to engage citizens, get to know about the people in our world. At the micro-level, Chicago is full of diversity, but the curriculum [in Chicago Public Schools] does not reflect those people. It alienates anyone who is not western-European in the school system; their history is completely overlooked and ignored. So, “Myths to Drama” addresses a couple different issues:

1. Schools should address the history and cultures of the people who attend the school.
2. The curriculum should make non-Easterners familiar with the East; it will allow us to create [cultural] engagement.
3. [“Myths to Drama”] allows Silk Road Theatre Project to live its mission: to create dialogues, communicate the history and stories of local people. We do it in the theater, but our theater deals with adults, and we want to accomplish this mission with children. The best way to engage them is to go to school, and to allow them to learn about themselves through learning others’ experiences. Learning through the theater can help the children to become the person on the stage. To replicate onstage the people they see.

So, our motivations are on three levels. What we find is that the schools are starving for the program. Our budget has been doubled; that was completely based on the recognition we got. We received twice the grants we thought we would. We delivered five units of the curriculum in 2007 and 11 units in 2008. And that reflects the interest [of the schools], and quality of the work that we are doing.

Ng-He: Why did you decide to use myths instead of other alternatives to introduce the cultures along the Silk Road to younger students? What is the significance of myths?

Gillani: Myths are great stories. They are something that the cultures are built upon. These are something that falls away from western-European culture. In Eastern myths there are guiding principles: How you react, how you behave in a society. Myths honor the culture that we come from. They are the great stories that are passed on from family to family. So, we want to bring them back to the classroom.

Myths teach morals and values. I think it’s a great way to engage fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. The school already teaches them in certain way. “Myths to Drama” isn’t another class; this is not just to repeat what has been offered in other classes. It is to provide a different model of learning.

So, the basic theory of how we deliver “Myths to Drama” is the philosophy of multiple intelligences. People learn differently, so you need to give people different avenues of learning. So for us, myth is a way of learning a culture in an alternative model, in a way that social studies are not taught in school.

Ng-He: What do you expect from the program? What is your goal?

Gillani: Our short-term goal is that schools invite us back again. We know students are interested in learning about our cultures. We want to be able to expand the program to multiple schools and classrooms, following the same sets of students as they graduate from class to class — so that students in fourth grade at one school, we will follow them to fifth grade.

The long-term goal is that we will create a group of students, who are more aware of their surroundings; that teachers will learn from us the alternative way of teaching, and then implement this alternative method into their own classroom teaching.

Another long-term goal is that we will have a lasting impact on the schools we worked with, that they value diversity and engage it more deeply, rather than ignore it again.

Ng-He: What are the core values or guiding principles in the curriculum development of “Myths to Drama”?

Gillani: When we talk about the myths, we want the children to learn about the history where this myth came from, its art and aesthetics. We want them to learn about our religion, and engage with others. We want to see the students demonstrate to us that they are able to retain the information they are taught, and give it back to us in their own way. We are not asking them to memorize the myth, but to tell the myth in their own words, to show how it impacts them.

When I was at Stone [Scholastic Academy, on Chicago’s north side], as the Principal for a Day, what fascinated me was to see how the kids took the core values of the myth and internalized them, then retold the story. Each story was different. For example, one student took a story that told about the cotton balls on a slipper, and the way she internalized the story was — how it protected her from pain and misery. To keep the thread of the story, identify with it, internalize it and create a new story, articulate it in their own words

Creating the Model

The two co-founders of the company conducted its planning for 18 months, during which they held meetings with funders, researched models of arts-integration programs at various institutions and spoke to educators and scholars about a curriculum design that would reach the organization’s goals. After a nine-month pilot program, “Myths to Drama” was first fully implemented in four schools beginning in September 2007.

The myths being introduced to the students include stories from five major cultures/countries:

“Early Islamic World” introduces the students to the dominant religious belief in places from Morocco to south Asia.
“Classical India” and “Ancient China” show to the students the major influential cultures in the East.
The “Hellenic Greece & Imperial Rome” units allows students to learn about the legacy that makes the West what it is.
“Pharonic Egypt” takes the students back to the origins of human civilization.
The curriculum is customized according to the grade level that is being taught, so students participating in the program can fully engage based on their learning capacity. Each of these units consists of seven sessions, each lasting one classroom period (50 minutes). The unit begins with the storytelling of a myth, followed by sessions introducing the relevant culture, religion and aesthetics through discussion, theatrical exercises and, finally, a group or individual project presentation by the students.

Making Tradition Contemporary: “Ancient China” in Today’s Chicago

Working along with another arts educator from September to November 2007, I co-facilitated the program in different schools, including fifth-grade classes at Stone Scholastic Academy on the north side of Chicago, and at Ray Elementary School on Chicago’s south side.

In the “Ancient Chinese” unit that we facilitated in two of the classrooms that fall, we told the Chinese myth of “The Journey of Meng,” a story about a courageous and loyal wife, Meng, who gave her life in honor of her husband who died building the Great Wall for the cruel Emperor in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). As the unit proceeded, students were able to learn about the diversity of deities and religious beliefs in ancient Chinese society through small research and writing exercises. In addition, they were introduced to the Great Wall, including its historical background and architectural functions in the past. In the following sessions, through the traditional Chinese visual art forms of watercolor painting and shadow puppetry, the students learned about Chinese traditional aesthetics and theatrical expression, as well as the meaning of the expression and its embedded cultural philosophy.

Growing up, learning the traditional arts helped me to know about my roots, my heritage, my people and who I am in relation to the world. Watercolor painting, one of the art forms that is introduced in the “Ancient China” unit, is something beyond simply an art form or technique. Unlike western-European style, traditional Chinese watercolor painting does not aim to portray objects or landscapes realistically; neither it is filled with layer after layer of color. One common characteristic among many ancient Chinese painters is the concept of “likeness through unlikeness,” which means that a painting’s value lies in its being like but not exactly depicting the actual object itself. Chinese painters value the impression of transcendence over physicality. This idea links very closely to the ancient Chinese philosophy that connection to and integration with nature can rid one of material pursuit, as they believe this is the highest state of the human spirit. Therefore, in Chinese watercolor-painting aesthetics, strong emphasis is placed on individual expression of freedom. For Chinese painters, it is not necessary to depict the background, and sometimes the background is left blank because the painters believe the “emptiness” provides viewers room for imagination and a space to allow their minds to wander without any external restricted imposed. The intention of interactivity in visual art has long been actualized in traditional Chinese watercolor painting. So, then, it is the viewers who complete the painting, not the painter himself.

Furthermore, it was not atypical for artists to incorporate poems in their paintings and, because many artists in ancient China were scholars and/or politicians, often they subtly revealed their political points of view in their paintings and poems, helping depict the society and culture of the time.

Similar to watercolor painting, Chinese shadow puppetry, known as pi-ying xi, plays an imperative role in our introduction of Chinese culture in the curriculum of “Myths to Drama.” According to Stephan Kaplin, a Chinese traditional-arts admirer and currently co-artistic director and arts educator of the New York-based nonprofit organization Chinese Theatre Works: “(Chinese shadow) puppet theater often provides travelers with their first glimpse into an alien culture. Because puppetry is as much a visual as a language-based performance art, the outsider is less at a disadvantage for not speaking the native tongue.” Kaplin agrees that the art form is a powerful bridge between culture.

With over 2,000 years of history, Chinese shadow puppetry is believed to have come into being during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) in Shan-xi, a province in China’s northwest. It spread to South, Central and West Asia, later North Africa in the 13th Century. In the 17th Century it spread to Europe. The famous German poet Goethe staged European opera in the form of Chinese shadow play, derived in part from this ancient Chinese art form.

Chinese shadow puppets are made of translucent donkey and ox hides; they are painted or stained in red, blue, green, yellow (the original color of the hide), white and black, and are about ten-to-12 inches tall. The facial features and design of the costumes are all delicately incised with a sharp knife. The puppeteer holds and manipulates the puppets with a rod or wooden stick. In the play, the puppets are illuminated by light that casts a shadow onto white cloth. It is estimated that there are some 300-700 traditional plays using a variety of frames, such as heroic tales, historical legends, love stories, folklore and episodes of magic and the supernatural world. Some typical plays are “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” “Journey to the West” and “Legend of the White Snake.”

Throughout history, this puppetry served as vehicle for telling stories and myths in families, on the streets, even in the palace of the emperor throughout China (Tsao, 1987). Contemporary entertainment for children and families can take the form of television programs, video games, theatrical films, etc., but through learning about shadow puppetry, students can partake in a pastime that is a precursor to today’s popular pursuits.

Music is an integral part of shadow-puppet theater. Like opera, live instrumental music and singing accompany the play, with the tone, style and rhythm varying from region to region. I was delighted to incorporate my music in my own teaching. In the first section of the program, I performed with my pipa in the introduction of “The Journey of Meng.” Students at both schools where I taught paid close attention to the storytelling, and the music heightened the sensory experience.

They carried that experience through to their hands-on projects at the end of the unit. Working in collaboration with their classmates, they created watercolor paintings and shadow puppets based on the scenarios of the myths they explored, and presented their projects to the rest of the class.

Ethnic Arts & Cultural Studies: A Humanized Education

A curriculum of diversity can humanize our definition of success. … If we look at diversity, we look at other functional value systems that people have tapped into and believed in and which have helped them to prosper in a humanitarian modality rather than seeing competitiveness and individualism, qualities that we call being American, as the highest and the most responsible values (Cahan & Kocur 9).
Silk Road Theatre Project’s approach reminds us to ask ourselves what the ultimate purpose of education is. Silk Road’s “Myths to Drama” echoes educator/activist Adelaide Sanford’s ideal of a humanized education. Sanford says educators bear the responsibility to help develop students’ sense of global vision and understanding of the concept of the interconnectedness of world cultures. She states, “…the end result of education should be a person who values the environment and looks at the pieces of the world not as separate, but as being irrevocably intertwined and interdependent” (Cahan & Kocur 5). The absence of or resistance to cultural diversity in education, Stanford warns, means that schools and society at large are telling our next generation that certain experiences or cultures are not important. This alienation is what eventually leads to violence, conflict and wars between nations. Therefore, according to Stanford, a curriculum of diversity teaches students not only to help prevent human conflict, it also help students learn to value life — as she emphasizes, “all life, not just the lives of Americans” (11, italic added).

An ethnic arts-and-culture curriculum like “Myths to Drama” enables students to re-examine our own culture, the current state and values of our own nation. More important, an alternative curriculum of diversity can help students transform their own social values. An example of students’ engagement and transformation through the program was demonstrated during a session in which students were introduced to the ancient Chinese deities. In the session, students learned about Chinese folk gods and goddesses such as the Eight Immortals, Buddha and the Kitchen God. Then, we asked them each to create an art project based on what they learned from their research on one Chinese god or goddess. Students each created their own gods with specific powers, drawing them and describing them in written form. A student from one of the classes drew her deity as a god who has the power to bring toy animals and dead animals to life; another student created a god of medicine who could heal people of sickness.

“Myths to Drama” brings the world to the students, unlocks students’ imagination; it also encourages students to be more aware of their surroundings and to discover their own potential and power to contribute back to the world. A humanized education helps students to see the beauty of diversity of humankind, develop their connection to the world, and express their care and compassion for surrounding environments. This process of discovering one’s own voice and learning to speak in one’s own words, equipping individuals to eventually take action to realize their ideals, is what Brazilian critical pedagogue Paulo Freire call as conscientization – a practice of transformation.

Educational Reform at Work

Through integrating self-reflection, theatrical experience, peer interaction, words, visuals, music and studies on religion and history, as Gillani stated in the interview, students participating in “Myths to Drama” are engaged with their multiple intelligences. Developed by Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, the theory of multiple intelligences refers to eight different aspects of human ability, which include: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence and naturalist intelligence. Acknowledging these various potential pathways to learning, as illustrated in the example of the “Ancient China” unit, “Myths to Drama” is educational reform at work, proving that ethnic arts-and-cultural studies provide multiple entry points to learning with a humanistic approach.

For Silk Road Theatre Project, “Myths to Drama” is always and will continue to be arts-integrated. In Chicago, Silk Road set an example of an alternative education model. With the increasingly diverse population, Chicago as well as other places in the United States must face the change of the upcoming generations and adopt new strategies to meet their diversity. “Myths to Drama” shows that it is one such strategy. Perhaps this humanized education through the learning of ethnic arts and culture will no longer be the alternative, but the mainstream.

Carol Ng-He is an interdisciplinary artist who currently teaches at Columbia College Chicago, Roosevelt University and Oakton Community College. She freelances as a teaching artist with Silk Road Theater Project after receiving a Master of Arts in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

[*] Note: 
Pipa is sometimes called the Chinese “lute”; it is a plucked string instrument with a pear-shaped wooden body, originated in China about 2,000 years ago. It was later taken in different forms to Japan, Korea and other southeast Asian countries.

Special Thanks to Malik Gillani, Executive Director at Silk Road Theatre Project.


Adams, D. & Goldbard, A. (Eds.). (2002). Community, culture and globalization. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation

Cahan, S., & Kocur, Z. (Eds.). (1996). Contemporary art and multicultural education. New York: Routledge/New Museum of Contemporary Art..

Tsao, P. Y. (1987). Puppet theatres in Hong Kong and their origins. Hong Kong Museum of History.

Kaplin, S. (2001). Bridges and shadows. Retrieved on December 15, 2007, from

Original CAN/API publication: February 2009