I sometimes wonder how on earth I ended up doing what I do. I was a troublesome student. In every classroom setting I felt this uncontrollable urge to change the flow of the lesson. I’d lean back on my chair, and eventually fall backwards much to the enjoyment of my classmates. I’d make jokes to get them all laughing. My teachers called me a clown, an oaf, a problem, a disrupter and I was generally labeled as ‘could do better’. I never really understood what that meant. Did my teachers see something in me?
However, when it came to sports and the arts, I excelled. My energy and imagination was channeled – I was in flow.
“We’d provide the students with multiple texts and stories, multiple viewpoints and left it up to them to tell the story they wanted to tell.”
I came to New York from England 25 years ago to pursue a career in theater. For my first ten years I found work as a Teaching Artist, fusing the arts and academics in classrooms across the city. I remember one particular 4th grade class in the Bronx, we created a play around the legacy of Christopher Columbus. My partnering teacher was brave and really wanted the students to come to their own conclusions of how they saw that part of history. We’d provide the students with multiple texts and stories, multiple viewpoints and left it up to them to tell the story they wanted to tell. At the end of year presentations, among the traditionally cute theatrical retelling of fairy tales or well known stories, my students came out and in fifteen minutes had presented a theatrical piece so multidimensional and provocative that the audience was simply stunned. Adults came up to me and said, “That was incredible and disturbing. I just have never seen anything like that before.” Not only had the students grappled with and owned the academic content, they’d developed a collective world view as a classroom community.
At Urban Arts Partnership, teaching artists are paired with classroom teachers for the year to ‘integrate’ their particular art form (theatre, film, poetry) into the academic curriculum (English, social studies, science, etc.). When teaching is a collaborative exercise, there is a world of possibility in every lesson. One teacher is good. A classroom teacher and a Teaching Artist in partnership is better.
“We’re investing in innovation in classrooms across NYC and LA and it seems that now it’s catching on.”
I was appointed Executive Director of UAP in 2003. In my first weeks in the role there were just two of us in an office the size of a closet. Eleven years later, with a full time staff of 40 and a teaching staff of 150, we’ve come a long way. We’re investing in innovation in classrooms across NYC and LA and it seems that now it’s catching on.
Not everyone has an opinion about what public education should look like, but everyone has an opinion on the quality of their own education. If I had been offered a class where the arts were integrated into the lesson, I know it would have been my favorite because there would have been a place for me. There would have been a place for my playful, risktaking nature. In an artsintegrated classroom I would have had opportunities to lead, to be part of a team doing something, creating something, showing off. I needed that. I needed a better classroom experience. And that is what we create at UAP better classroom experiences that promise to bring even the most disengaged, rebellious, disinterested child into a conversation with themselves, and help them find a way to be unique in a system that encourages conformity.
I know what it is to float through the system doing the minimum, trusting that if you just keep your head above water it will take you where you need to go. Luckily, in the privileged school system I grew up in, it did. In the school systems UAP works in, it certainly does not. High School graduation is more important than ever before, so the stakes are high for students attending high need and low performing schools. UAP works solely in Title I schools, and with the most underserved populations of students. It is in these schools where the arts can have the greatest impact, where the arts can help the most vulnerable young people find success where they have only seen failure.