01.17.17

Meow! Middle Grades Students See Cats on Broadway

HIP Writing Program Coordinator for the Middle Grades Program, Upper Division, Avenues: The World School

“Gus the Theater Cat” by T. S. Eliot (an excerpt)

Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His name, as I ought to have told you before,
Is really Asparagus. That’s such a fuss
To pronounce, that we usually call him just Gus.
His coat’s very shabby, he’s thin as a rake,
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.
Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats–
But no longer a terror to mice and to rats.
For he isn’t the Cat that he was in his prime;
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in its time.
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(Which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree–
He has acted with Irving, he’s acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.
But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

Best known to adults as the British poet who penned The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Avenues middle grades students first encountered T.S. Eliot as the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s inspiration for the Broadway musical Cats. In October, students in the middle grades HIP writing program read about the secret life of Gus the theater cat in T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, then imagined their own versions of what kind of secret life their pet would have. This lesson served as an introduction to the poems in the musical and as an opportunity for students to practice empathy and creativity by imagining what it would be like to be a pet and to step into those shoes for 20 minutes of writing. The results were thoughtful, inventive and often hilarious:

“My pet is not just my pet, she is also a secret agent for the NRA. The year is 2300 and the NRA has realized that having a secret ninja agent is way cheaper than lobbying congress. So, that is her job, to fly in and do some secret ninja moves to change the votes in congress. My pet is more powerful than the president. It is one thing no one expects, a secret NRA ninja hacker spying chickadee! My pet is among the richest of the rich; she dines on vintage bird feed and smokes 300-year old cigars.” –excerpt from an eighth grade piece

“I’m Lucky, agent of Operation FE (fly elimination). Code name? Agent LWD, that’s me! Truthfully, that just stands for “Lucky Water Dragon,” as I am a Chinese water dragon. My role in the operation was to stay in my area and eliminate all the flies. At one point, the operation sent me and another water dragon (we’re actually a species of lizard) to a pet store where he was told to behave badly in order to get me out and continue.”—excerpt from a seventh grade piece written in first person

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The lesson set the scene for an optional field trip to see Cats on Broadway, and on Tuesday, November 1, more than 135 Avenues students, teachers and parents attended the evening show of the musical. “I remember seeing Cats when I was in seventh grade, so this was a great way for me to see it again with my own child who is in seventh grade,” said one parent. At intermission, students were allowed on stage to see the intricate set up close while the actor playing Old Deuteronomy stayed perched on his ledge mid-stage. “I wasn’t sure what the plot was, but I enjoyed all of the dancing and hearing the poems we read in class,” a student remarked. It was a perceptive comment, since the musical does not follow a specific plot but rather strings together Eliot’s poems and invites the viewer to take away what they will.

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In the same way, the prompts in HIP writing are designed to be a jumping off point for students to explore their own unique imaginations and writing styles. In these meetings, students are encouraged to “find a way to make the prompt their own,” to allow themselves to be inspired by the idea behind the prompt, just as Andrew Lloyd Weber was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s cast of practical cats.

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