Seton students perform their own fairy tale for St. Thomas Aquinas students
By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

BINGHAMTON — Once upon a Thursday, 10 talented teenagers conjured a tale and brought it to life before a circle of children who listened, entranced.

Seniors from Seton Catholic Central Junior/Senior High School visited third graders at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Feb. 4 and performed a fairy tale that was written as part of a grant-winning lesson on the arts.

The Seton students came to St. Thomas Aquinas during the school’s annual day in which community volunteers — often politicians and local media personalities — come in to read their favorite childhood stories to the children. The day is part of St. Thomas Aquinas School’s celebration of Catholic Schools Week.

But the fairy tale, entitled Lie, Benji, Lie! was written by two Seton seniors, Liam Kelleher and McKenna Sandell, and was performed as the culmination of a project at the high school that incorporated opera and literature.

The project, entitled “The Enchantment of Fairy Tales, Myths and Music” was funded by a grant from the Arts Partners program.

Students in principal Kathleen Dwyer’s honors English class began by studying the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel written by the Grimm brothers. They considered  the traditional elements of a fairy tale, and then studied the role music plays in the experience of understanding the story.

“I was trying to expose them to as much classical music as possible,” said Jean Goodheart, a teaching artist who wrote the grant proposal and led the students through the project. Goodheart is a professional opera singer who is part of Seton’s artist-in-residence program.

The Seton students then attended a Tri-Cities Opera production of the fairy tale in Binghamton. They saw how this production focused on the traditional story-telling elements of the tale.

Then the students had the opportunity to see the same opera performed at the New York City Metropolitan Opera.

“At the Met, they never could have expected what they saw,” Goodheart said. This production was completely different, she said. “It was very edgy, very dark and psychological. And it was stunningly visual, plus, you know, just that whole experience of seeing something on that scale.”

This gave the class an opportunity to study how a piece of work can change with different compositions, characters and scenes.

It also gave the students an opportunity to experience the magnificence of a world-class performance. This was a dream come true for Dwyer.

“My dream was always to get students to the Lincoln Center and have them see the wonder of the opera at the Met,” she said.

But the wintery fairy-tale setting as 40 students boarded buses to New York City on Dec. 21 very nearly brought the trip to a grinding halt.

“They’d just had that big snowstorm, but we got there,” Dwyer said. In fact, the students made the most of being stuck in Manhattan traffic by singing: “For one hour, every Christmas carol they could think of,” she said, laughing.

“It was a great trip,” said Liam Kelleher, a senior who wrote Lie, Benji, Lie! and narrated it for the children. “We sat way up in the nosebleed section, but it was still amazing.”

After the trip, Dwyer’s students were given the assignment of writing their own fairy tales. Each fairy tale was performed and discussed in class, and Goodheart said she was surprised how willing many of the students were to sing.

Kelleher said he sat down to write his own fairy tale with a jungle setting in mind, but soon discovered he was instead writing the tale of Benji, a lazy little boy with chores to do who lies to get out of doing them.

“We usually do a lot of analytical writing,” Kelleher said, “but I like to do more creative writing, so when [Dwyer] gave this to us I took this as a big chance to be able to show her I could be creative, too.”

Student McKenna Sandell helped Kelleher with the story and some of its rhymes. Then the class worked together to incorporate some music into the tale. Much of the singing was done by Goodheart, who played the role of Benji’s disgruntled mother. The final moral of the story was also sung by all 10 of the Seton students.

The project was funded by Arts Partners, a program from the New York State Council on the Arts that is administered in Binghamton by the Discovery Center, a hands-on museum for children. Laura Hobbs from the Discovery Center attended the Seton students’ performance to see how the grant was put to use.

“I think the best part was seeing how the third graders were just in rapt attention watching them. There was very little wiggling in their seats, very little squirming,” Hobbs said. She said she also loves to see the younger students learning from the older students.

“It was kind of really cool to see,” said third-grader Madison Green. “You have to learn not to lie and what can happen when you get caught.” Her classmate, Annie Bellis, nodded. “And it was Seton kids, and that was cool, too,” Bellis added.

Green said she liked the operatic parts of the fairy tale, and said she might go to see a real opera someday. “And it’s cool because [Goodheart] never used a microphone but it was still loud,” she said.

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