Picture these scenes from the lives of Chicago public schools:Middle-school students from 11 neighborhood schools across the city work their way through a professional art gallery that has on display 400 works of outstanding quality. The show includes installations, sculpture, masks, paintings and remarkable writing about personal and social issues. All were created by the students who fill the gallery today, alternating between articulate docent and respectful listener and observer. The teachers, parents and guests who accompany them are amazed at the depth and scope of the students’ insight and understanding.
A writing workshop is in progress in a 4th-grade classroom. Students are working independently, revising ideas from their writers’ notebooks. The teacher weaves among them. She asks for volunteers to share their writing. Many hands shoot up. A student reads while the class listens with focused attention. The class gives him feedback: They identify strong passages, laugh at the funny moments and ask questions about his story. The teacher leads a discussion, making connections between this writing and other literature the class has read. The conversation is sophisticated. The mood is relaxed. The class groans when the bell rings.
At a theater company, two classrooms of 3rd-graders fill the stage to perform scenes from an updated version of “The Wiz” and “The Wizard of Oz.” The choreographer and theater director have cast four Dorothys, two African-American girls and two white girls, and have given speaking, singing or dancing roles to all 62 children. It’s a work night, but the theater is packed to capacity with grandparents and parents of many nationalities holding flowers for their children. There is a buzz of sheer pleasure. Everyone here is a star.
What matters in the Chicago public schools? These stories matter. And they are not exceptions. In hundreds of classrooms across the city, teachers are inspiring students to become deeply engaged in their own learning. These teachers share common values and practices. They know the importance of creating a sense of community and trust in the classroom, of giving students a voice in their own learning, of encouraging responsibility and of providing public opportunities for risk-taking and success.
What matters in education is what happens inside the classroom—through the curriculum and among students and teachers. I write from the perspective of an arts education consultant. I belong to a community of educators who work in partnerships among schools, arts organizations, universities and cultural organizations to reform the curriculum through the arts.
In these partnerships, artist-teacher teams use drama, dance, music and the visual arts at all stages of the learning process. In addition to teaching art as a discrete subject, the teams use the arts to help students with reading comprehension, to express complex ideas, to empathize with different cultural perspectives and to bridge gaps between different subject areas.
We see the rewards in the kids’ achievement. In order for the students to have succeeded in the three projects I described above, they had to develop certain skills. They needed to be able to stay focused and “on task” over a long period of time, to work both independently and cooperatively in groups, to make meaning from complicated texts, to make personal connections to their work, to assess and refine their work and to perform for a real-world audience. In other words, they needed to have achieved many of the goals outlined in national education standards. The work of the arts partnerships is at the core of achieving those goals.
Through the vehicle of arts integration, teachers have set up learning environments in their classrooms that help students succeed. But these practices are not limited to the arts; they are being implemented by innovative teachers in all core subjects, history, math, science, reading and writing. The Illinois Writing Project and the Center for City Schools at National Louis University have been invaluable leaders in the field. Working together, we have learned to see the close connection between the reading/writing process and the artistic process. Our partnerships have become more sophisticated in curriculum design, classroom organization and staff development.
How do teachers learn to use these processes in their classrooms? The same way that children learn best. Staff development that is successful is interactive, hands-on, experiential, with lots of opportunity to reflect and to refine teaching strategies. The best sessions model good teaching; they are fun, connect to teachers’ real needs and are safe and supportive, just like the best classrooms. The results are a reawakening of the passion for teaching that is so often deadened in the school environment.
Chicago now has much to teach the rest of the nation. Our years of partnership and effort are yielding results. It is important that the progressive methods and structures teachers are implementing and the resulting student achievement be supported and recognized at the school level by principals, in school budgets, by parents, in the press and systematically throughout the Chicago public schools.
I speak not only as a professional but also as a parent. My daughter was among the 11 yellow-costumed dancers who “eased on down” the yellow brick road. The performance was a highlight of the year for her and her classmates. Their enthusiasm is a good indicator of the road we need to take.
Cynthia Weiss is a painter and public artist who has worked with Chicago public schools for more than 20 years. Currently, she is an art educator and consultant with the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) and with the Chicago Students at the Center Project, a collaborative involving CAPE, Illinois Writing Project, Chicago Metro History Education Center and Chicago Algebra Project.