On a drizzly morning in late April there was an intoxicating energy emanating from two third-grade classrooms at Madison’s Lincoln Elementary. The daily routine was being shaken up by a group of visiting teaching artists with their weekly interruption.

The visiting teachers exclaimed “whoop it up” and the students replied with “sock it to me” before the room quieted.

Whoopensocker had arrived.

A concept originally derived by Erica Halverson, Beau Johnson and Amanda Farrar, Whoopensocker is an outreach program that helps children explore the possibilities of imagination from wherever they may be on an academic or personal level.

“The skills that kids bring are so broad that it’s an adventure for us,” Halverson said. “This kid is super-duper talented as a performer, but doesn’t use words. How do we meet that kid where he is at the same time as we’re meeting a kid who is a very verbal performer, but a reluctant writer?

“We expand the practices of engaging kids and what we value. There are so many kinds of kids in the classroom.”

Halverson is an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Education, director of education for Theatre LILA and — as the kids like to call her — mayor of Whoopensocker City.

Whoopensocker, a colloquial Wisconsin term that means “something extraordinary of its kind” is based on the curriculum and style of Chicago’s Barrel of Monkeys, which Halverson co-founded 20 years ago.

The two-year-old program is a six-week arts residency which brings guest teachers into classrooms for 90 minutes once a week to engage students in active learning, writing and performing based on different topics. This year, Whoopensocker went to Sandburg, Emerson and Lincoln Elementary schools.

An initial residency was held at Sandburg Elementary last year.

According to Halverson, Whoopensocker is a partnership between Theatre LILA and the UW-Madison School of Education.

The artistic side lives with Theatre LILA and the curriculum development comes from UW, she said.

What the program does is allow the students to feel validated in their ideas whether they’re big or small.

It’s about trying to get their imaginations going, which is something that adults could benefit from too, said Jessica Lanius, artistic director and co-founder of Theatre LILA.

“It’s one thing to go to school and write and do your work all the time,” she said. “But what’s really cool is if you write something ... and you hand it to adults to put on stage to laugh or cry or respond to. To me, that’s the power in this residency. To have (the students) see that when you put the idea on stage and validate it and say ‘this is what you did.’ This is the moment you hope the kid feels that they have the power to create something special, to be heard and to have their voices feel validated.”

During the six-week program, the students are encouraged to write in their journals using the topic of the week as a guide.

At the end of the residency, the Whoopensocker teaching artists gather the journals and create vaudeville-style plays or musical numbers out of a handful of the writings. Those stories are then performed for the entire school.

On May 31, selections from each of the three schools will be performed at Overture Center.

The Overture Center performance is an excellent opportunity to showcase these stories in a professional setting, Halverson said.

Lanius said it’s great to see what the teaching artists or the actors come up with from what these children have written.

Meeting students

where they are

Sometimes getting the words out is the trickiest part for the students, but that’s an easy fix for the minds behind Whoopensocker.

“There was one student who, in their journal, was just writing x’s,” Lanius said. “Erica is so great that she came over and said ‘I love x’s! What are you doing there?’ She tried to meet him where he was. She put a prompt in each triangle of the ‘x’ and all of a sudden (the student) started filling it in.”

What began as a seemingly frustrating moment for the student became a showcase piece that the students enjoyed.

That writing became a piece about not liking things and liking other things, Lanius said.

“We ended up staging that piece and it was really funny and playful,” she added.

Crafting the writing, no matter its silliness, into a performance piece must coincide with an important theatrical mantra — say yes.

Saying yes means that anything — even the improbable — could happen, but saying yes gives the child the power to create.

“Whoopensocker is embracing the experimentation of ‘what if,’” Lanius said. “What if the tooth fairy ate a dinosaur?”

Growing the program

Since Halverson co-founded Barrel of Monkeys in Chicago 20 years ago, the world of education has drastically changed. There is little room to offer extra programs like Whoopensocker in an academic environment that is more focused on test taking.

She said schools used to have a lot more flexibility for additional programming, which is no longer the case. So, Halverson is grateful for the schools that have shown that creativity is a priority by allowing Whoopensocker to come into their classrooms.

Before the rise of standardized learning, schools were “much more flexible with their time and about what they thought quality learning could look like,” she said. “They were much more open to the idea that good learning could look more like looking like a tree than filling in a bubble on a test.”

Since the second year of Whoopensocker has been successful, organizers plan on holding a week-long training program for teaching artists.

After-school pilot set

In the next school year there will be four schools participating in the program and Whoopensocker will be piloting an after -school program.

The after-school program will focus on performance, with less emphasis on writing, whereas the in-school program is the opposite.

Chances are that not every school is going to need Whoopensocker to come to their classrooms and that’s OK, Lanius said.

Whoopensocker gives children the opportunity to feel heard and connected in ways that they may not have before — it circles back to one of the missions of Theatre LILA, which is to bring thought (or creativity) provoking material to the stage.

“The world would be a better place if everyone had to take an acting class,” Lanius said. “If you feel disconnected in the world, how can you feel connected? How can we feel authentically connected?

“If everyone could come to the theater or a classroom and feel more connected by finding stories or plays that mean something to someone. We aren’t telling the same old stories to the same people. We’re looking for a different array of voices so they can feel validated, especially young people.”


Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.