Hillside Elementary teacher Laura Kleve participates in a professional development session on reader's theater.

The Art of Learning at Hillside


Actor and theater director Susan Stauter of San Francisco recruits teachers to participate in a reader’s theater session as they learn how it can be a tool for teaching literacy skills.

When Hillside Elementary teacher Robbie Robinson walked into his school’s media center for a recent professional development session, he may not have realized that he was walking into a theater.

That morning Susan Stauter, artistic director at the San Francisco Unified School District, had transformed the room into a reader’s theater. Robinson, his fellow teachers and visiting district administrators soon became Stauter’s students, reading aloud excerpts from works by Truman Capote, Seamus Heaney and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Stauter’s purpose was not to make Hillside teachers change careers to become actors. Instead, she showed them how to use reader’s theater to teach students the concepts and skills outlined in the Common Core for literacy.


Hillside teacher Laura Kleve stands and reads her lines during a professional development session on using reader’s theater to teach literacy.

“I want them to get excited about the possibility of teaching literature to children through reader’s theater,” Stauter said.

By example, she showed the Hillside teachers how to make connections to poems by exploring how to perform and read with emotion.

She also explained how stage presence can help teach skills such as sitting still. Stauter pointed out that one teacher was nervously shaking her foot as she read. “Your foot is upstaging your words,” Stauter said. Turning to the rest of the teachers, she explained, “The way we teach children not to move is tell them about the power they have when they don’t move.”


Susan Stauter of San Francisco taps WDMCS Superintendent Lisa Remy on the shoulder letting her know which line to read for a reader’s theater presentation.

Stauter is the founding chair of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and served as conservatory director for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She has directed over 60 productions and has served as a writer/director for Disney, Anaheim. She has also been a consultant to the Grammy Foundation in Santa Monica. During a 2011 TEDx talk she presented in San Francisco, Stauter said, “The arts are an engine for educational transformation.”

Her visit to West Des Moines was part of Hillside’s use of a school improvement model based on American composer Leonard Bernstein’s philosophy that the arts can strengthen learning and be incorporated in all academic subjects. All Hillside teachers are trained in the “Artful Learning” methodology, and Stauter’s Master Class was part of their on-going professional development. Hillside has been an Artful Learning school for 10 years, and has been distinguished by the Leonard Bernstein Foundation as a legacy school.


WDMCS School Board Member Milton Cole reads his lines as Hillside teacher John Bixler listens for his cue.

Standing in front of the media center, Robinson reads the phrase, “I am waiting for a renaissance of wonder” from a poem by author Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Stauter believes Robinson and his fellow teachers will unlock a sense of wonder for their students as they continue to discover learning through the arts.