Michele Kotler, executive director at CWP, joined us in a telephone interview to share how the organization is using arts education to inspire kids, what teaching artists gain from the experience, and how the greater community is impacted by the organization’s artist residencies.
NEA: Could you tell us about Community-Word Project’s creative writing residencies and the goal behind them?
KOTLER: At the Community-Word Project, we send a writer and another artist—whether it is a visual artist, a musician, a theater artist, or dancer—into New York City Title I Public School classrooms and libraries, where we make 15- to 25-week commitments.
The writing is essential to every residency. The artists are excelling the writing experience, especially for students who have learning disabilities, or who learn non-traditionally, or for those of whom English is a second, third, or fourth language. We see writing as voice. Through this teaching, students access their voice and writing in a way they hadn’t before. Our students do collective writing and individual writing with the idea that we want young people to have the time and space during their school day to think and write together—whether that’s to address a community issue, or to celebrate something in their community that they love, or to explore another academic subject through creative writing.
All the kids realize, whether they’re in second grade or high school, that their voice is part of something that is bigger than themselves. If everyone brings something to the table, if everyone brings their idea, their language to the table, it creates a larger whole.
NEA: How have your students responded to the program?
KOTLER: They love it! I think kids look forward to our artists coming into the classroom for a few reasons. One, it gives them the opportunity to use their voice and to speak to address their concerns and their excitement about the different things that are going on in their lives. It also gives young people the chance to be successful in a way that their teachers might not see them as successful.
When the artists come into the classroom, it gives students permission to be themselves and to use their voice and to try new things and take creative risks and to practice saying something when they know that there are no wrong answers. At first they hesitate, they pause, they’re so consistent to want to find whatever it is that they think is the right answer. The minute you take away that requirement of what is right and wrong, then it opens them up and allows them to go to places where they don’t normally get to go during their school day…intellectually and creatively.
NEA: What are some of the results you are seeing from the program?
KOTLER: We’re seeing kids that are just coming from another country and learning English for the first time. They are embracing English in another way. We also have kids whose teachers, for a number of reasons, don’t recognize what that kid has inside of them. When they [students] are given the opportunity to explore their voice in a new way, through art, it accelerates their ability to put their voice on the page.
We had a young student named Marie. Marie came from the Dominican Republic in the middle of the school year. She couldn’t speak any English, but by the end of the school year, she was performing her poetry in English. We gave her a way to embrace it. Her teacher said that it was absolutely because of the work we’re doing that she got to English so fast. Now, Marie is on the honor roll and doing really well. She’s very proud and excited about it. She said to us, “I wish you could come every day.” It was this bright spot in her week where she got to be with this new language in a new way. It was in a way that wasn’t correcting her, but encouraging her.
NEA: Why are the arts and STEAM education important to incorporate into the school curriculum?
KOTLER: Many of the schools we work with are labeled as failing. The reason why they are failing is because there is not enough percentage of kids getting certain scores on tests. There’s not a lot of room for creative and critical thinking skills to be taught and the truth is, people that stand out in their work are the ones that are creative and critical thinkers. To improve oneself, whether it be in one’s own life, or one’s workplace, or in a learning environment, you need to have strong critical and creative thinking skills. Memory is great, but memory will only get you so far. If you’re in a box that you have never been in before and you need to get out of that box, it’s not by memorizing a set of instructions. You need to be able to think critically and creatively to get out of a situation that is the box and to address the challenges and apply your ideas to those challenges. I think STEAM and the arts does just that and then those skills can be applied to science, math, and other academic subjects. If the arts so naturally develop creative and critical thinking skills, then why are we cutting them? To be competitive as a country of thinkers, doers, we need those skill sets.
NEA: How are the arts impacting your community?
KOTLER: We see every school as a community. Each school has its own challenges that are unique to that neighborhood. We see the administrators affected because they see their students shine in ways they normally don’t. We see teachers impacted. Their teaching actually is changing because they learn new ways to do classroom management using creative tools. They see the engagement that the arts encourages from young people. They think about how they can infuse the arts into their teaching. It [arts] impacts parents because a lot of our parents are in dire situations for different reasons. When parents see their kids’ work celebrated, they celebrate the pride that they have in their own children.
Another thing is, art gives kids and communities another way to see their voices. We’re so used to hearing voices; seeing a poem on a page, hearing a poem performed. However, when they see their poem embraced and celebrated in a mural that’s hanging on their school wall, it’s creative placemaking. It’s taking a school environment and putting this beautiful artwork on the wall that’s student-generated. It’s not just about what kids see, but it’s x-raying their imaginations, x-raying their ideas, and people get to see what their ideas look like if they were paintings. It gives parents the opportunity to celebrate the young people, but also to hear what their kids have to say. We’re investing in schools so they can embrace the creative energy of their students.
NEA: Could you talk about Community-Word Project’s partners and some of your shared goals? Why are partnerships important for the arts?
KOTLER: We work with The Young Women’s Leadership Network (TYWLN) and Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) to bring a writer and filmmaker into a high school classroom so that the girls can develop their voices through the medium of film. We have the shared goal of ensuring that young women have the creative space to express their ideas and work together to be recognized and heard. We have corporate partners such as HBO who help support our residencies and send volunteers to help the kids paint their murals and to help the kids type up their poems. HBO and CWP both believe in the power of story and creating spaces for the stories to live. We team up with the law firm Linklaters. They host publishing parties for our students and support the printing and creation of our student written anthologies. We work with BlackRock, a financial institution, and they come into schools to help with editing. They talk to our kids about what they do and how creativity is a part of their job. Through the kids’ writing, the partners experience what is on our kids’ minds and they also share what they do and how they do it and how creativity impacts what they do. There’s a sharing there…an exchange that is through the arts.
The other piece of this is how writers and artists are affected. As writers, we know the power of voice and we clearly believe in it. It’s pretty magical when you can incite that development of voice in a young person. It’s an honor to go into a community and inspire young people to write in a way that doesn’t feel like school. It feels free and alive. It gives writers the opportunity to think differently. For example, we ask our writers to look at their own creative process and teach from that creative process. It’s giving writers an opportunity to engage with their creative process in a different way.
NEA: What do the teaching artists get out of the program? What does your community get out of the program?
KOTLER: The teaching artists get the opportunity to be creative in a different space. It’s also getting to be creative with another art form, which not all writers have the opportunity to do. The artists are getting the ability to know they’re impacting a community. They’re using their creative skill set to ideally improve a school or a learning environment and making school a place where kids want to be versus where they don’t want to be. They’re doing that because they have this beautiful skill set that they worked on as artists.
What the community gets out of it is that they get to shine. They get to have an opportunity to be seen in a positive light. There is so much art that goes on in the community we serve, but not much of it happens in the school.
NEA: You talked about how the students worked on creating original poems, which they then use to paint murals. How is this crisscrossing of art forms important to their learning?
KOTLER: It’s important in a few different ways. It’s important in that it allows one art form entry into another. For a young person who is struggling with writing, it means they’re usually struggling with reading. If there’s a visual artist that is drawing, this kid might have more comfort in drawing. That drawing will inspire the writing. If it’s a shy kid, theater is not their thing, they are being coached to do that. They are being taught by a professional theater artist that knows the ins and outs of how to regulate your voice and how to bring that voice to life. It’s working with two professional artists and each one supports the other’s art form.
It’s also breaking down the student-teacher ratio. When we go into a classroom, it’s 30 students to one teacher (that’s an average size classroom). Then we send in two artists and suddenly, it’s ten to one. There’s more time for small group work because there are more people in the room. The other thing is, it allows the classroom teacher to develop his or her own skills. A lot of these teachers don’t have access to art in their life. It’s not something that is a part of their life, so they get to be creative too.
To read more visit: https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2016/spotlight-community-word-project
Two Thirds Column