Consider the typical high school class beginning its study of a required novel, perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird. Books are passed out, students read and discuss as a class or perhaps work groups, answer questions for comprehension, and finally write a paper or take a test before going onto the next unit. Study might be enriched by having students research the history of the time in which the book was written or in which the narrative was set. Such approaches can all work.
But in addition to these, The ArtsLiteracy Project, begun twenty-five years ago at Brown University, offers a framework, a Performance Cycle, for teachers to integrate into any study a creative use of the arts. Providence middle and high school teachers have been invited to a development conference on this approach, to be held January 20 at Brown.
The Performance Cycle
In an ArtsLit classroom reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, students might be drawing portraits of Scout, Atticus, or Tom Robinson, paying close attention to what the text says about each one. Other students might be writing a script for a contemporary trial dealing with any issue defined in the book. Another group might be writing a questionnaire to interview parents or friends about reading the book (since To Kill a Mockingbird has remained one of the most taught texts in American schools). Interviews might be videoed. The culminating performance step, as formal or informal as desired, shares the collaborative expression of what has been learned. The Performance Cycle gives a format that can adapt to a single class or expand into a semester’s work.
The ArtsLiteracy Project assumes first a safe environment for expression. Once a text or topic is studied, student comprehension is not measured exclusively in testing or writing. The creativity in crafting responses that can be “performed” is not limited to scripts or text, but can take the form of artwork, video, drama or written report, read and/or illustrated. Possibilities are limitless. All stages of the Performance Cycle are connected to the class’s repeated reflection, an exercise in critical thinking. Artistic expression becomes more than an “add-on,” but a way of reading the art for meaning in what has been learned.
This Saturday is part of a two-day conference organized by Eileen Landay, retired Brown University Clinical Professor of English Education, and Kurt Wootton, one of her former students with whom she co-founded the ArtsLiteracy Project. Landay and Wootton have written two books on this pedagogy. The first one, A Reason to Read, lays out the flexible Performance Cycle developed for teachers and education leaders. Their second book, Engage: Creative Strategies for Teaching, develops the same core framework with new tools and strategies, stressing application this time across the curriculum. Sam Seidel, author and professor, reviewed the book, “If you believe that collaboration, creative practice, and presenting to authentic audiences are essential components of education – and life – read this book.” Engage promotes adapting the strategies to any learning content, not just literature.
The Performance Cycle, as Landay describes it, “combines elements of what some practitioners have come to call arts integration and other practitioners know as multiple literacies.” The ArtsLiteracy Project practitioners have spread across the country and beyond. Wootton and his wife Marimar founded and run Habla, a language lab school and education center in Merida, Mexico (https://habla.org/).
In the workshop, Providence teachers will be part of approximately fifty educators working with a Young Adult novel, The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, applying ArtsLiteracy strategies. The workshops will take place in Brown’s Granoff Center for the Performing Arts. Wendy Wallace, Director of Civic Engagement at Brown, thinks a program like this one can “empower teachers as essential contributors to each student’s education. These teachers and students are not only our neighbors but also partners. . .towards a more vibrant and unified Providence.”
Participants will include teams of teachers from Hope High School and DelSesto STEAM Academy, both schools part of the Providence Public School District’s (PPSD) School Redesign plan for five schools: (https://www.providenceschools.org/cms/lib/RI01900003/Centricity/Domain/2984/Encl5a_RedesignDeck.pdf). After the PPSD was placed in the hands of the Rhode Island Department of Education in 2019 following a devastating report by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, a Turnaround Action Plan was posted in 2020: (https://www.providenceschools.org/cms/lib/RI01900003/Centricity/Domain/2984/Encl5a_RedesignDeck.pdf). The School Redesign followed in 2022.
On the second day of the conference, educators who were introduced to the ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown, as well as a network of leaders who have practiced and refined its principles, will meet for a day of sharing presentations. “I thought it would be fun,” Landay said,”to invite many of the people who helped start the project back to Brown to share where they’ve gone and what they’ve done, and about fifteen of the original students and faculty accepted our invitation.” Presentations to, and conversations with, the audience will be built around the question, “What makes ideas ‘stick’?”
Eileen Landay, with the perspective of twenty-five years, is taking pleasure in anticipating the conference “opening doors” to yet again more teachers. In hosting the conference, Brown University is strengthening its partnership with PPSD. And Providence Schools will be exposed to proven strategies that could be key in their own redesign.
Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator and has lived in Elmwood for more years than she cares to count.