The Making and Sharing of a World Premiere

The Rutgers Prep community had the distinct pleasure of a recent visit from Newbery Honor recipient Gail Carson Levine, whose novel, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, was adapted for this spring’s drama production. The play, as adapted and directed by Ms. Cora Turlish, the director of the Rutgers Prep Drama Program, is an energetic and engaging rendition of the novel’s story, which Ms. Turlish described as follows: “In Bamarre, monsters roam the land, keeping the two princesses behind the castle walls. Staying home suits shy Princess Addie just fine, but her sister Meryl longs for adventure, delaying her quest only for her sister’s sake. But when an illness endangers not only Meryl’s dream but her life, it is up to Addie to face her fears and try to save her sister and the kingdom.” This world premiere adaptation of Gail Carson Levine’s novel featured a cast of 22 as well as ogres and gryphons and dragons (oh my!). Ms. Levine’s best-known work to date is perhaps Ella Enchanted, which was the basis for a 2004 movie of the same name starring Anne Hathaway.

Here are some of Ms. Turlish’s thoughts about the genesis of her adaptation:

“When I first came to Rutgers Prep, I taught seventh-grade English, and I used to read a lot of Young Adult fiction as part of that. Sara Solberg, a then-colleague in the Middle School here recommended Ella Enchanted to me – her daughter had raved about it, so then Sara had read it and then she raved about it to me, and justly so – it is an amazing book, one that I’ve re-read many times since.”

“Moving forward to 2012, to another story I found enthralling: I saw Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway, and I loved the show – I found the script and staging inspiring. But there was a catch: as much as I loved the play and wanted to direct a show like that at RPS someday, I knew it wouldn’t be that particular show, which had only one female actor in the cast. But after I read the Young Adult novel that play was based on, I started thinking about trying to find a YA novel to adapt that would feature female characters more prominently.”

“I immediately thought of Ella Enchanted, but while it’s a story I would love to see on stage, I don’t think I could cut it down enough in length – there’s so much I would be crushed to lose. So I started taking a look at Gail Carson Levine’s other books, and the plot description for The Two Princesses of Bamarre immediately jumped out at me. I have one sister whom I’m extremely close to, and she is also much braver than I am – she is the Princess Meryl to my Princess Addie. And after reading the book, I decided I was just brave enough to try my hand at adapting it – although in the past I’ve directed some plays I’ve written with the Upper School students, each time it feels like a huge challenge: exciting, certainly, but also a little scary. I was even intimidated about approaching Ms. Levine’s agent to ask for permission to write the script, but not only did she approve the project but she then agreed to visit the school and attend a performance!”

“Aside from the appeal of the Princess sisters, one of the things that really struck me about The Two Princesses of Bamarre was the passages of epic poetry it featured. The novel includes verses written by human poets but also by elves and dragons – and naturally they have different perspectives on things. This idea of speaking a story, and how these spoken stories reveal truths about the tellers as well as the tale, seemed very theatrical to me. The play has a group storytelling style, and we have a large cast or students, each of whom tells part of the tale and portrays characters both human and not. There are a lot of elements that need to come together for this production, but the effort and the effect have been extremely rewarding.”

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When Ms. Levine came to campus, she spent time in all three divisions at Rutgers Prep, visiting with the fourth grade, participating in Q&A with the fifth and sixth grade (some of whom had read her book in their Reading Club), and attending a special performance of the Upper School’s spring drama production alongside students in our Middle School. She also held a workshop session for Upper School students in the English Club and members of Excelsior (the Upper School literary magazine), during which she read an excerpt from the draft of her upcoming novel, a prequel to the novel adapted by the drama department this year.

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About the special performance, Alyssa Finfer ‘15 (Princeton ’19), who was cast in one of the two title roles, shared, “We actually had an extra rehearsal after the regular run, just to make sure we were ready. The idea of performing for the author was a bit nerve-wracking beforehand, but then once the curtain went up it was just a regular performance.” The students were all very pleased when the lights came back up and it was clear that Ms. Levine had enjoyed the play.

In addition to appreciating the talent of the actors, Ms. Levine specifically shared that she enjoyed the special effects and the narration passages performed by a student rapper. She also volunteered that her favorite scene was when two passages of epic poetry were woven together to compare and contrast two perspectives on the same event. Earlier in the day, she had expressed surprise after one of the actors drew a parallel between the hero and the villain of the story each clinging possessively to another person — another example of two perspectives combining. The students who were able to connect with Ms. Levine in person were very appreciative of the opportunity. “I hope she’s coming out of this with lots of new fans,” shared Alyssa.

Throughout her visit, Ms. Levine was met with enthusiasm, curiosity, and enchantment by those who interacted with her, and we are so grateful for Ms. Turlish’s vision, our students’ talent and dedication, and for Ms. Levine’s time with Rutgers Prep’s students and faculty!

(For more “behind the scenes” glimpses into the creative process, please see Gail Carson Levine’s blog at http://gailcarsonlevine.blogspot.com.)

Kindergarten and Physics

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A little while back, our Rutgers Prep kindergarten students learned about the laws of motion by creating their own shoe-box marble runs. Kindergarten teachers Ms. Jankowski and Ms. Merges have actively been seeking out STEM curricula and opportunities for infusing even more hands-on learning and design-thinking into their classrooms; the marble run idea was a perfect match for these young learners.



Mythili Lahiri, the Director of our Innovation Center, provided support while each student was given a shoebox, tape, and cardboard tubes. The students were also given some basic parameters… the runs had to stay within their shoeboxes, and marbles needed to go on a defined run through a path provided by tubes. The only assistance that the teachers provided was in cutting tubes down to size, but the students helped each other instinctively as they looked around and picked up ideas from one another.

“I liked the part where we put the marble in!” ~ Alan

“I liked that everyone got to make one.” ~ Julia

“I liked taping everything together.” ~ Brody

Last year Rutgers Prep faculty member Circe Dunnell helped to get our Innovation Professional Learning Community (PLC) started. This group now meets every other week, offering faculty members an opportunity to talk and trade ideas about their plans and hopes for their classes. Upper School Physics teacher Dr. Allan Furtek learned at an Innovation PLC meeting that the kindergartners were heading into their marble run unit, at which point he said, “You know, our Upper School students just won an award in the Physics Olympics…” Fellow teachers smiled and congratulated him. “No, wait, that’s not why I’m telling you,” he continued. “They made a marble run roller coaster!” Of course this immediately resulted in a scheduled visit from the victorious Physics Olympics students and their roller coaster marble run to the kindergarten classroom, where the Upper Schoolers were greeted like visiting dignitaries.

Rachel Yong ’15, a leader of the Physics Olympics team who will be beginning her studies at Dartmouth College in the fall, shared, “When we met with the kindergartners, their first reaction was one of astonishment… they couldn’t believe how big our roller coaster was! We let each one of them put a marble through our roller coaster, and it was so sweet to see the intense focus of all the students who were waiting for their turn; you could really feel their curiosity. As the marble slowed down towards the end of the run, we talked a little bit about friction, and you could see that it really was a learning experience for them.”

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And of course the Olympics had proven a learning experience for the older students, as well. Approximately 45 teams from throughout NJ participated, and in just their third year of competing, one of the two Rutgers Prep teams took first place in the category called “Fermi Questions.” Physics Olympic team coach Dr. Allan Furtek explains, “The Olympics comprise six events, the most challenging of which (in my opinion) are the 10 “Fermi” Questions. Typical Fermi questions are 1) How many marbles does it take to fill the Grand Canyon? or 2) How many revolutions does a tire make in a year?” Rachel adds, “You need to to have a lot of general information memorized so that you can use that along with your common sense to come to an answer. Another question was, ‘How many times will the song ‘Wrecking Ball’ be played on a rocket traveling from Earth to Jupiter?’ We had to have someone on our team sing the song in order to estimate its length! It was pretty exciting to win first place in that category… I am so proud that we displayed outstanding teamwork.”

Our Physics students are already on the lookout for additional opportunities for collaboration and real-world applications of their learning. The Rutgers Prep third grade has a structures unit later in the year; Upper School Physics students are hoping to partner with those classes as well as with the Upper School Art & Architecture students working with Mr. Laurion. We are pleased to provide all our students with these kinds of exciting opportunities to engage their intellectual curiosity.

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Tea in the Sink, Battles in the Hall

As Upper School History teacher Dr. Easley-Houser thought about her American Revolution unit this fall, she remembered a grant proposal that she had previously submitted for consideration by the NJ Historical Commission. As she thought about the positive feedback she had received on her proposal, she realized that now that she was at Rutgers Prep she was in a position to try out some of her ideas in a classroom setting. So after conferring with Lower School teachers Ms. Klinger and Ms. Miller, she gave three groups of high school juniors a mission: design and execute a lesson plan that will help bring an aspect of American Revolutionary history alive for our third graders.

George Washington and His Troops Each group came up with several different lesson proposals, which Dr. Easley-Houser helped them assess and re-design as needed. Students worked with Mrs. Kalista, Mrs. Engelson, and Ms. D’Introno in our library to refine their plans. The final lessons were on the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Trenton and Bound Brook, and the first-person accounts of Joseph Plumb Martin, a Revolutionary soldier who kept a diary about his experiences. Each lesson had its own style and focus, and the third graders responded enthusiastically to all three.

RPS Juniors Teach Third Graders At the end of the class period, during which the three teams of eleventh graders had all taken a turn at the front of the third graders’ classroom, Dr. Easley-Houser queried the third graders about what they’d liked best. “I liked it when they poured out the tea!” exclaimed one. “I liked going out into the hall for our battle… because we got to be loud and run around, which we don’t, usually,” said another grinning youngster.

Excited To Learn Dr. Easley-Houser shared: “I see some of my Upper School students in a different light now. For instance, some of my students who are typically on the quiet side in class were quite gregarious and demonstrated some great leadership abilities during their presentations. It really was also fun to see how third graders responded to such activities.”

Back in their junior year history class, the eleventh graders reflected on their experiences:

“The best part for me, as a student who was here at Rutgers Prep as a third grader, was remembering my own experience of being a third grader learning from an Upper School student; I don’t think I ever thought I would BE a high school student! And I have been a camp counselor at a Rutgers Prep summer camp, so I had a connection with some of those students. That feeling of community is what I really appreciate.” — Kayla Bancone ‘16

“I really liked this assignment, and I think you always learn something better when you teach it. It was so much fun to create an interactive event and to watch the 3rd graders make it come alive. I helped with the scavenger hunt and it was so great to be there to help and witness their excitement!” — Pooja Casula ‘16

“When we were planning our lessons, we had to try to take into account a third grader’s level of understanding and interest. We felt like we were prepared, but then in the moment it was kind of scary, at least at first.” — Rana Said ‘16 (aka the Queen of England)

“I liked that we took our ideas and thought about trying to appeal to as many different kinds of learners as possible.” — Bianca Pergher ‘16

“I felt like not only did they get something from us, but we also learned something from them… we learned about the importance of thinking about how to communicate with a young person, and also the importance of doing your very best, because sometimes you only get one chance.” — Natalie Bai ‘16

“In our re-enactment, I was the leader of the rebellion – I was George Washington – and this morning on the way into school, a little third grader actually saluted me. Of course I saluted back!” — Michael Barbato ‘16 (aka George Washington)

Rutgers Prep students are so fortunate to have the support of a community of caring professionals who regularly help them move beyond their comfort zones in the service of deeper learning. And it’s always great to see our faculty taking advantage of the unique opportunities our preK-12 community offers!

Third Grades Are Good Listeners