If Education Needs a Revolutionary Idea, No Need to Look Too Far


In the late 1990s Len Newman was 50, an experienced and successful teacher of English in Central Falls, when he saw a notice enlisting teachers for the Brown Summer High School. He thought he could do that. He did not expect that the summer would “change my life” and revolutionize his approach to teaching, turning it upside down.

There’s nothing more predictable in the classroom than the latest educational revolution that comes with the purchase of a new series of books, a new principal, a new superintendent. Brown University’s Summer High School in 1998 was not selling a program, but developing a paradigm, what they called the Performance Cycle. Professor Eileen Landay, Clinical Professor of English Education at Brown, and one of her graduate students and later co-founder, Kurt Wootton, sought to put the creative arts, anything from drama to visual art, at the center of learning. Their plan, The ArtsLiteracy Project, paired teachers who signed up for the summer with a working artist to then reshape what most would consider a traditional classroom.

That first summer Newman was teaching George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Newman’s artistic partner was Fred Sullivan, an experienced actor. What evolved from that collaboration was a practice in which Newman would begin his courses with his personal story, a strategy to engage students who did not know him yet. Newman’s story included that of his parents, who came to the US from Germany after the holocaust of World War II; it addressed history and social justice.

To make the class a safe place to tell stories, Newman went first. Students were then asked in varied ways to tell their own stories, to write and rewrite them, and to make comparisons and connections to the course’s text by Shaw. Students wrote and acted a ten-minute play, their version of Shaw’s plot. A cycle of activities, writing, drafting, acting, always ended in a performance, in this case, a drama, not a summary of Shaw, but a demonstration of what they had learned in reading Shaw, discussions, and new writings. Performances could be in one classroom, but more often were “public” to the whole school. Between the opening storytelling and the culminating performances lay programmed stops for reflection, or what amounts to critical thinking, where students would already have a personal investment, having put their own stories into the mix. This was the Performance Cycle.

Over the next decade, with the help of artists in his classroom, and mentoring from others using the Performance Cycle, Newman concluded that his job was turned upside down; he was “not to explain, but to empower.” He saw that the essential question in the minds of students was “What does this have to do with me?” By honoring and articulating and working with the approach any student has to a class text, Newman helped connect the text, not just its generally perceived meaning, to what it meant to students. Each class then creatively and collectively enacted what they learned. Newman is retired now but travels to schools everywhere to tell his, as well as his parents’, story.

Len Newman was one of approximately twenty-five participants in Brown’s ArtsLiteracy Project who returned to the campus for a two-day conference in January celebrating the 25th anniversary of their time at Brown. On one day, Newman and others shared how their lives and careers were influenced by the Project. Providence teachers had been invited to participate on the other day. Catherine Anderson was one of the teachers from Hope High School; other teachers came from DelSesto Middle School. Like Newman, Anderson is an experienced teacher of English, confident in her commitment to teaching and her students at Hope. Both Hope and DelSesto are among the first five schools in the Providence Public School District to be undergoing redesign. At a time when rethinking is taking place at all levels, Anderson found the day’s activities nourishing and affirming.

Anderson felt immediately that she was being “seen as professional, able to collaborate,” a comfort and support that characterized the day. Activities demonstrated strategies of the ArtsLitercy Project. One of the many activities uses what the Project calls the “cordel,” literally a clothesline that dangles texts before students and across the room. The term cordel is Portuguese, coming from the practice in Brazil of hanging inexpensive books, poems, songs, pamphlets to be sold on the street or in the marketplace. In Anderson’s classroom students got out of their seats to read and select a text, part of a poem off the cordel, to work with. A short writing about each selection of text by individuals was paired with others for more writing and/or presentation.

Anderson used the cordel in her class on research writing and public presentation. The class read the poem “Accents” by Denice Frohman, a text that no doubt registered with her students, some of whom might speak with identifiable accents themselves or are from families where more than one language is spoken. They chose lines from the poem to work with, to understand and to perform for each other, and after the class had gathered layers of meaning from their activities, they watched with engaged appreciation the video of the poet Frohman presenting her poem to the public. Anderson was ecstatic with their insights. The conference’s presentation of the Performance Cycle validated what Anderson calls her “instincts” while offering a simple schema, a structure applicable to almost any learning.

Catherine Anderson, English teacher at Hope High School.  Photo: Aiyah Josiah Faeduwar arewefreelance@gmail.com

The pressures of teaching today inevitably mandate education’s success based on data-driven curriculum assessments. Anderson, like Newman, found rooting the curriculum learning in the power of student stories to be effective and satisfying, without sacrificing practical standards.

Students in Anderson’s class, for example, drafted and rehearsed the stories of their interests and abilities before interviewing for jobs at Electric Boat. Each one received a job offer. Anderson’s students, after writing a 15-page research paper, were required to present the paper to the class. They then added the self-reflective “I” narrative, not part of most formal research, the story of why the topic was of interest to them, where the information was found, and which information was seen as relevant. A final step asked students to relate a next step, not yet taken. Where does the research lead? What comes next? Such steps went beyond information gathering and writing; relationships between students and their work, between students and the world were discussed to be made clearer.

Reunion of Brown ArtsLit participants after 25 years.. Photo on top, Elizabeth Keiser, Reif Larsen and John Holdridge. Photo on bottom, Donald King. Photo: Aiyah Josiah Faeduwar arewefreelance@gmail.com

The conference at Brown for Providence teachers and ArtsLiteracy veterans recognized on-going potential for creative energy primarily in the classroom. People attended from all over the country and beyond. Co-founder of the ArtsLiteracy Project, Kurt Wootton and his wife, Brown graduate student Marimar Patron Vazquez, continue their ArtsLiteracy work in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, establishing Habla: The Center for Language and Culture. From this base they now teach and consult on language and literacy around the US, including their proposed work for Brown’s connection to Providence schools.

Providence prides itself as a creative hub for the arts, thus the lasting artistic energy from participants of the ArtsLiteracy Project not surprisingly can still be found here. Among these creative influencers are: Carin Algava, in the Pembroke Center at Brown University; Angela Brazil, Trinity actor; Jonathan Goodman, English teacher at Hope High School; Jori Ketten, educator and artist; Elizabeth Keiser, graphic designer and illustrator; Steve Kidd, Chair of the Performing Arts Department at the Moses Brown School and a Resident Actor at The Gamm Theatre; Donald King, founder of the Black Repertory Company; Mary Beth Meehan, photographer, writer and educator; Erminio Pinque, founder and artistic designer of Big Nazo Puppets; Nancy Safian, former Executive Director of Providence CityArts for Youth; and Patricia Sobral, Senior Lecturer of Brazilian literature and film at Brown, comparative literature, and the intersection of arts and second-language acquisition.

Eileen Landay, Faculty Director of The ArtsLiteracy Project 1998-2008. Photo: Aiyah Josiah Faeduwar arewefreelance@gmail.com

Coming up against a great idea can turn one’s life and career upside down. At this time of redesigning schools, ArtsLiteracy seems to offer an idea proven in practice as a matrix for change far beyond its local origin.

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who came to Providence from the South for graduate school. She has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, having taught students from eighth grade to graduate school. She is active in the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, The Community Library of Providence, and lives in Elmwood.