Opera, movies, zombies, ice skating are all part of Jane Austen takeover of Modesto

See the original Modesto Bee article by Deke Farrow HERE


“Pride and Prejudice,” as a novel and as a board book, is discussed at a 244th birthday party for Jane Austen at the Modesto Library on Dec. 16, 2019.

Jane Austen’s takeover of Modesto began quietly enough this fall: An emphasis on her works by LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers for its adult learners. A 244th birthday party for the English novelist in a downstairs room of the downtown library. An escape room, also at the library, with puzzles designed to inspire participants to read her works and learn more about her life.

Soon, though, it will take to the streets, the stage, the silver screen and even a skating rink. And it won’t be over until the slender lady sings.

It’s a Jane-vasion, with Opera Modesto and its production of the opera “Mansfield Park” at the center.

Opera Modesto board member Hillari DeSchane long has wanted to do an opera based on a work by Austen, said Roy Stevens, the company’s general and artistic director. Her wish is coming true thanks to “Mansfield Park,” a 2011 chamber opera by composer Jonathan Dove, based on Austen’s third novel, published in 1814.

Stevens said he and his opera-singer wife, Annalisa Winberg, who is Opera Modesto’s artistic consultant, saw a way to stage the work primarily using members of the company’s TOP Young Artists program. Before long, “we realized we had a potential catalyst to do something more with the community,” he said.

That “something more” ended up being the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative, for which Opera Modesto has partnered with LearningQuest, the Stanislaus County Library, the State Theatre, the Becoming Jane Austen Book Club (of which DeSchane is a member), city and county schools and the Downtown Modesto Partnership, among others.

The initiative is a great way to build excitement around literature and the arts, said library director Sarah Dentan. “We’re excited to partner with Opera Modesto to promote books and reading, as well as the arts and humanities,” she told The Bee in an email. “By offering complementary events at the library, we can extend our existing fan base, and perhaps introduce readers to storytelling through song.”

Built around the opera production Jan. 11-12 at the State, a so-called destination weekend also includes a Friday, Jan. 10, presentation by the State’s Late Night Horror Film series of the 2016 movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” preceded by a zombie walk costume parade across the theater’s stage. The next evening will bring a screening by the Book to Film Club of 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” starring Laurence Olivier, preceded by a lecture/discussion led by Arnold Schmidt, a professor of English at Stanislaus State.

A Jane Austen convention, called Jane Con, will include activities both that Saturday and Sunday. Among the first day’s events are a Regency Period arcade of “unique, artisanal, handcrafted or locally sourced gifts” on the library portico, an All Things Jane information session inside, and the lectures/workshops “Gowns and Groans: A Costumer Looks at Regency Costumes on Film and Stage,” “ Defining the Definitive Darcy,” “Starting Your Own JA Book Club” and Dressing the Regency Lady.”

The second day will bring Regency dance lessons, “No Sweat, No Debt Costumes: Regency on a Budget” and “Bonnets on a Budget,” which require a materials fee.

At the close of the weekend will be a special Jane Austen On Ice session at the Modesto on Ice outdoor skating rink downtown. Those dressed in Regency attire will receive a discount.

For information on Jane Con registration, costs and more, go to www.modestojanecon.com, call 209-523-6426 or email admin@modestojanecon.com.


Photo booth props are displayed at a 244th birthday party for Jane Austen at the Modesto Library on Dec. 16, 2019.


The public performances of “Mansfield Park” are at 2 p.m. both days at the State, with fun events during each intermission. Saturday’s will be a Regency costume parade and contest, and Sunday will be a Jane Austen game show with the audience.

Directing the show is Carolina Stevens, daughter of Stevens and Winberg. She promises that while opera can feel very slow and drawn out, Dove’s work is fast-paced and exciting. Conceived as a touring production, it eschews big sets for minimalism. At the State, the director will make use of the movie screen and employ rolling furniture and other small set pieces.

“As the composer makes the scenes move and change, she’s got the same thing happening, with footmen moving people around the stage, and it’s really quite lovely,” Roy Stevens said.

Carolina Stevens added that not being able to use traditional sets and set changes began as a challenge and ended up a benefit, helping to create a more “dynamic” show.

The 23-year-old director said Austen — whose works also include “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility” — wrote very interesting characters, especially her female ones. They are fleshed out, strong and thoughtful, especially for the author’s time period, Stevens said, and people still draw inspiration from them.

“I think that’s part of why she’s taught in schools, is that we still can connect to the type of people she writes, to the type of struggles they have,” she said. “We connect to their emotional lives. We connect to trying to figure out your way in the world.”

“Mansfield Park,” about heroine Fanny Price and other young people trying to work their way out of difficult situations and find freedom in various forms, also is quite funny, Carolina Stevens said. She noted that Austen is known for writing evil aunts, “and this has the most evil aunt of them all, Aunt Norris.” Mrs. Norris, the unpleasant feline pet of Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch in the Harry Potter books and movies, was named for the Austen character, Stevens noted.

Opera Modesto’s production is the U.S. premiere of Dove’s orchestrated version of “Mansfield Park.” Because it’s primarily a touring opera, Dove’s original music was for “four hands,” meaning two players on one piano, Roy Stevens said. But the show at the State will have a chamber orchestra in front of the stage.

On stage are just 10 singers, he said, seven of them from the Young Artists Program, which includes some of the region’s best teen talent and regional/national emerging young professionals.

In addition to the public performances, Opera Modesto will stage “Mansfield Park” twice more as shows for readers selected by schoolteachers and LearningQuest tutors. These will be audience members who have prepared and come familiar with the story and interested, Roy Stevens said.


LearningQuest Executive Director Karen Williams praised the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative as a creative way of introducing readers of all ages to classical literature.

“We are honored to have a partnership with Opera Modesto in order to provide an enriching experience of literacy for our adult learners,” she told The Bee in an email. “LearningQuest will have a booth at Jane Con to inform the community about our free educational services, and we hope that the spirit of Jane Con, ‘Mansfield Park’ and SISLI inspires the readers in our community to become volunteer tutors and teach other adults how to read.”

Opera Modesto intends its “Mansfield Park” production to be just the first piece of an ongoing Story Into Song program. The second year, said Roy Stevens, will be based on two famous Spanish and Spanglish novels and two one-act operas based on them: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de La Mancha” and Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.” The literacy initiative will be focused even more on the Spanish-speaking part of the community, with “many new and developing partnerships and collaborations with Latino businesses and organizations,” he said.

Looking toward Year Three, the Opera Modesto director said it probably will be based on something by Edgar Allen Poe.

LearningQuest’s Williams said the initiative is different and important because it involves a regional effort by teachers, professors, administrators, librarians, volunteers and more, representing collaborative partnerships with an educational and literacy focus.

“Knowing this is something that will continue in future years with other works of literature, I believe this idea will grow over time,” she said. “This year is the infancy of what I believe will soon become a mature project with even more impact as it evolves.”

To learn more, visit www.operamodesto.org.

LearningQuest literacy center programs draw kids into helping parents’ ESL progress

See the original Modesto Bee article by Deke Farrow HERE

Modesto Bee: LearningQuest literacy center programs draw kids into helping parents’ ESL progress

Rosa Cisneros looks through a workbook during her LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.  AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Eisenhut Elementary School fifth-grader Jeanette Cisneros has a straightforward way of helping her mom, Rosa, improve her English language skills.

“Sometimes I don’t understand some Spanish, so I just tell her, ‘Speak English,’ and that helps her,” the child said. Her blunt comment drew laughs from her mom and Karen Williams, executive director of LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers, as the three sat at a cafeteria at the north Modesto school one recent evening.

Every occasion to speak English does help Rosa Cisneros, who more than 15 years ago immigrated to the U.S. from Peru with her parents and little brother. Just 15 then, she was thrust into high school, where she struggled to improve her language skills.

“It was really hard for me,” she said as she waited for her LearningQuest ESL night class to begin at Eisenhut, and Jeanette and her brother, Daniel, took part in the Kids Club offered for children of the English-as-a-second-language students. “But with the passage of years, I just get a job and my English started coming out.

“And now my kids help me a lot because they only want to speak English at home. It’s hard for them to speak Spanish at home.


Jeanette Cisneros, 10, participates in Kids Club, for children of English-as-a-second-language students, during her mother’s at LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. ANDY ALFARO AALFARO@MODBEE.COM


Daniel Cisneros, 5, participates in Kids Club, for children of English-as-a-second-language students, during her mother’s at LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. ANDY ALFARO AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Living in the home are Cisneros and the kids, her parents and her Chicago-born husband, Daniel, who’s of Mexican heritage and speaks both English and Spanish fluently. Cisneros’ parents are Spanish speakers, but her mom has joined Rosa and the children in LearningQuest’s family literacy/ESL classes for three years.

The classes work with parents on English skills and also are structured to provide the children with additional support in English reading and writing skills, Williams said. Parents receive books throughout the year to form a home library, attend library events and are issued a library card to encourage attendance at story times and checking out books for the family.

“Rosa has also participated in our PACT (Parent and Child Together) programs the last two years,” Williams said. “These programs are an additional four weeks a year of demonstrating learning activities parents can do with their children in the home by having parents and their children learning in class together.”

PACT themes have included:

  • Art — paper lanterns, canvas art and dream catchers, growing a garden

  • History — dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, medieval times

  • Science — creating slime, ice cream, crystals

  • Safety — water safety, stranger danger, community leaders (firefighters and police officers)

Jeanette recalled that one fun activity was creating “elephant toothpaste,” the rapidly expanding, foamy result of combining warm water and yeast with hydrogen peroxide, food coloring and liquid dish soap.

PACT teaches parents that not having strong language skills doesn’t have to be a barrier to helping their children learn, Williams said. “We show them you can be a teacher of your children, and here’s how.”

Cisneros is one of LearningQuest’s highest-scoring ESL students, Williams said. When she entered the program, she tested at a “high intermediate” level and has since increased two levels, now testing at the highest.

She’s passed all objective tests, performing certain tasks such as:

  • Communicating with health care professionals — asking questions during an examination, or about medicine prescriptions, and scheduling an appointment with a doctor.
  • Interacting with the school system — communicating with the school office about a child’s absence, asking questions at a parent/teacher conference, and being involved as a volunteer at school.

Jeanette has seen great improvement in her mom’s communication skills. “When I was younger, she tried to talk English but mostly spoke Spanish.” That usually left the girl to turn only to her father for homework help. “Little by little, she’s gotten to speak more English, and I can understand her now.”

What Cisneros primarily gets from her ESL classes now is help to improve her writing. She took college courses for a couple of years, she said, but was hampered by her poor writing skills.

The 31-year-old, who works full time in fast food in addition to being a parent and student, said she realizes that improving her writing will be key in finding success in college and a career. She recommends LearningQuest to others like herself because “most people don’t want to stay in one place, they want to grow in job and life and give more opportunities to themselves and their kids.”

She wishes she could get more ESL instruction than her two-hour classes twice a week. “We hear a lot of that: ‘Can we get four days?’” Williams said.

But LearningQuest, which according to its website gets 88 percent of its funding from government grants and contracts for service, can’t meet existing demand. There’s a waiting list of more than 100 people who want to take classes, but services have been capped because of the staffing level, Williams said.


Rosa Cisneros prepares for her LearningQuest ESL night class as instructor Mark Lawicki looks on at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.  AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Donations will be crucial to the organization’s ability to thrive. Its site says the goal is to “continue to increase funding from donations by 4 percent per year until at least half of all income is from donations.”

Monetary contributions can be made through The Bee’s Book of Dreams, and LearningQuest also has a need for volunteer tutors and book donations. It just ended a holiday book drive, but “we take books all the time,” Williams said. “We give books to the kids because a good predictor of how well they will do in school is how many books are in the home.”

To learn more about LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers, go to lqslc.com.


Our Featured Agencies

Nov. 10: 2018 donations make an impact

Nov. 17: Jessica’s House, Turlock

Nov. 24: Center for Human Services (Pathways), Stanislaus County

Dec. 1: Cricket’s Hope, Modesto

Dec. 8: Haven Youth Center, Modesto

Dec. 15: LearningQuest, Modesto

A list of 2019 contributors. To donate online, go to www.modbee.com/donate2bod

Give the Gift of Literacy for the Holidays!

LearningQuest students, Beverly Hardee, Karla Flores and Beatriz Gonzalez, are all mothers wanting to reach their educational goals in order to support and become role models for their children.

Beatriz Becoming A Role Model

Beatriz Gonzalez is learning English and also earning her High School Equivalency (HSE) diploma at LearningQuest.  She said, “I decided to focus on my education for my kids because I want to be able to communicate with the teachers at school and also teach my kids how to read and write.  I want my children to know the importance of education.”

Growing up in Mexicali, Mexico, Beatriz worked from 9 am to 9 pm and still did not make enough to financially support her family or even have enough time left in the day to spend with them.  Beatriz said, “In Mexico, you need to have a good job because education is expensive.”  In the U.S., adults with parents without a high school diploma earn a lower income (less than $28,000 a year) than those whose parents have a high school or college diploma.*

Gaining independence as an English speaker and role model for her children, Beatriz said, “My child knows English and I’ll depend on him to translate for me, but he is not always going to be there for me.  I had to learn for myself.”  Now, instead of asking for a Spanish speaker at stores, Beatriz has the confidence to communicate in English.  “I want to set an example for my children.  I want to teach them that if you set goals and you work hard, anything is possible.

Beverly Hardee

Beverly Hardee, smiling brightly under the spotlights, nervously approached the podium at her graduation ceremony this past October to share her story with the audience.  As Valedictorian, she was able to reach her goal of earning a diploma – and then some.  Beverly dropped out of school after 8th grade and it took years for her to get back on track, she said, “I realized after a while that I had chosen the wrong path in life, but thought it was too late for me.”

Her case worker showed her that LearningQuest was a free option for her to earn her diploma.  However, shortly after enrolling, Beverly became homeless.  She and her family lived in their car for most of the scorching Central Valley summer.  Beverly was still determined to go to class, she said, “I wanted more, not only for myself, but for my children.  That was no life for them and I wasn’t setting the example I wanted them to follow.  It was time for me to find my path.

After spending every spare moment studying books that barely made sense to her, focusing hard in class, and learning from instructors, she graduated!  Beverly is enrolled in Administration of Justice classes for the spring at MJC.  With research showing that adults with college educated parents score almost 60 points higher than adults whose parents had no high school experience,* Beverly is doing her part to set her children up for success.

Karla Flores and Tutor, Janette

Karla Flores is learning how to read and write in LearningQuest’s Literacy Tutoring program.  She was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco where access to resources and education is limited.  Karla said, “Life in Mexico is very beautiful, the people are nice, the food is delicious, but the economy is very different than in the United States.”  When she arrived in the U.S., Karla knew that her next chapter would begin when she could confidently read and write in English.

“The need to have a better chance at a better job” is a priority in order to support her family.  Karla said, “To know is power in all aspects.  When a person has more knowledge, it is easier to have a better job opportunity, a better salary, and a better work environment.”  We have seen that adults with high school educated parents are 11% more likely to be employed than an adult with a parent that has had no high school experience.*

She aims to learn more every day from her volunteer tutor, Janette, in order to sharpen her reading and writing skills – all in hopes of finding a better job to provide for her children.

*Literacy data provided by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR).  Learn more about adult literacy competencies at bit.ly/piaacproject

To learn more about LearningQuest’s Literacy for the Holidays campaign, click the button below or visit www.LQSLC.com/holidays

Giving Tree Book Drive Brings Literacy Home for Children of Adult Learners

The first annual Giving Tree Book Drive, hosted by LearningQuest – Stanislaus Literacy Centers, invites community members to visit a Giving Tree site to pick up a tag and donate two to three new books for the child of a LearningQuest student – an adult learner working toward their educational goals.  Over 100 children have been signed up to receive the donated books in order to start or add to their home libraries.  The book drive ends on Dec. 12th, just in time for students to bring the books home for their children during the holidays and continue the foundation of literacy in the family.

Giving Tree - Modesto 1

Giving Tree Sites

LearningQuest Learning Center

1032 11th St., Modesto, CA 95354

Katelynn Library

Stanislaus County Library

1500 I St., Modesto, CA 95354

Giving Tree - Turlock 2

Turlock Learning Center

1570 Fulkerth Rd., Turlock, CA 95380

The Giving Tree Book Drive was inspired by the many parents enrolled in LearningQuest’s free educational services and the growing research showing the impact of a parent’s education level on the literacy and employment of their child as an adult.  Earning a diploma, learning English, or learning how to read and write holds an even greater responsibility when statistics* show:

  • About 50% of young adults will reach the same level of education as their parents.
  • Adults with high school educated parents are 11% more likely to be employed than an adult with a parent that did not graduate from high school.
  • In the U.S., adults with parents without a high school diploma earn a lower income (less than $28,000 a year) than those whose parents have a high school or college diploma.

“The Giving Tree Book Drive is the first phase of the annual Literacy for the Holidays fundraiser where checking “Literacy” off a student’s wish list is made possible due to the contributions of those advocating for education in the community.,”  Karen Williams, Executive Director, said.  “Keeping LearningQuest services free to access removes one large barrier for many hopeful adults and gives them a real gift for the holidays – the ability to do things often taken for granted, such as read a book to their child, ask a question in English, or apply for a better job.“

*Literacy data provided by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR).  Learn more about adult literacy competencies at bit.ly/piaacproject

To learn more about LearningQuest’s Giving Tree Book Drive, click on the bottom below or visit www.LQSLC.com/givingtree