By Plato Karafelis, Ph. D. & Matthew Dicks “The truth is one, the paths are many” Swami Satchidinanda

Strategy 3. A “United Nations” of National Arts Agencies to Identify, Support and Celebrate New Paradigms of Arts Education

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Strategy 3. A “United Nations” of National Arts Agencies to Identify, Support and Celebrate New Paradigms of Arts Education
We have significant personal experience in this area and our story is one of heroism, intrigue, success and redemption. Now that we have your attention, read on and benefit from our learning experience.

In 1994, Jane Alexander, the newly appointed Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts visited our school. She was invited to visit Wolcott School by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She loved our school and offered to fund a five year grant to replicate our model. We call our model “Higher Order Thinking Schools” or HOT Schools.

During the early years of our project, we worked feverishly to replicate our model in urban, suburban and rural districts. We gained insight into the factors that lead to success, e.g. strong, knowledgeable, committed leadership. We also identified the factors that lead to failure, e.g. top down design and implementation.

By the end of the first five years, we had replicated our model in 24 Connecticut schools with varying degrees of success. We did become smarter. We were also tired. In addition to teaching full time, we were conducting in-service presentations all over the country, visiting schools, filming documentaries and developing materials. One of the attractive aspects of our model was the success we exhibited on academic assessments. Over a 12 year period, we raised mastery scores in writing from 11% to 89%.

We were exhausted, however, the recognition we received kept us going. We received numerous local, state and national awards. We were lauded by one and all. Thousands of teachers, parents and administrators visited our school. We continuously refined our model.

We have continued to develop our model with great success. We have explored technology as an art form. We continue to offer in-service and replication services nationally.

As a united arts community, we need to identify and replicate the experience of Wolcott School. There are many awards programs to recognize outstanding schools. They are wonderful and positive and good, however, they fall short of what is needed.

During the 1990’s, the National Endowment for the Arts supported such a program

(Fowler & McMullan, 1991). Once again, our national arts agencies should come together in a more strategic manner to highlight programs and follow up by building bridges between and among the people who run these programs. We need to create formal mechanisms for sharing, discussion, publication, research, public relations, praise, funding and active cooperation.

Strategy 4. Adopt the Long View and Be Ready to Fill the Legislative Vacuum When the Time is Right
Innovation is usually the result of careful planning and hard work. It is rarely the result of random mutation. For example, the NCLB laws of today grew out of carefully implemented initiatives crafted by the policymakers and business community in the 1980’s. At that time, there was a belief that public schools were not producing skilled students. Policymakers and the business community latched onto ‘A Nation at Risk’ as their clarion call. Through various state education enhancement acts, they negotiated with teacher associations and state departments to offer higher salaries in exchange for accountability testing. Accountability testing ushered in the era of standards for each academic discipline. The standards became the basis for all state mastery tests, which laid the foundation for creation of No Child Left Behind. Little in this plan was accidental and it offers guidance for the path we should follow.

There is an ebb and flow to all organizations. Public education is no exception. We move back and forth between conservative and liberal, centralized and decentralized, well paid and poorly paid (OK, poorly paid most of the time!).

People often refer to this as the pendulum of change. Many of our colleagues, who are fed up with the high stakes testing of No Child Left Behind, say, “Don’t worry, the pendulum will swing back”. Although this is true, it will not occur randomly. Also, they might not be familiar with Hegel’s original postulation on the pendulum, otherwise known as “The Hegelian Dialectic.”

According to Hegel, the pendulum does swing to polar opposites, which he refers to as ‘theses’ and ‘antitheses’. What has been lost in modern translation is the fact that when the pendulum swings back, it is actually swinging back to a new convention, which Hegel refers to as ‘synthesis’. That is, a new place of thought that has arisen out of the previous theses and antitheses. As an arts community, we should be prepared for the opportunity of synthesis. Our timing will need to be impeccable, our resolve must be unified, and our plan must utilize the elements of theses and antitheses to create a viable synthesis for public consumption.

Sometime in the near future, there will be a time when the pendulum is at the bottom of its arc, prepared to swing toward a new place of thought. At precisely this point in time, there will be a political, social, and economic vacuum waiting to be filled with opportunity, hopefully, an opportunity resulting from the innovation and hard work of the arts community. It could be as early as 2013, when NCLB will have reached its legislated endgame. It might happen before or after that point in time.

We need to be proactive starting today. We have to place our strategies into motion so that when the time is right, when the pendulum creates a vacuum, our synthesis will capture the conventional wisdom to offer a new way of thinking.

We will need to be as forward thinking and unified as the policymakers and business community were in the 1980’s if we hope to have a powerful impact on the future of arts education in this country.

Arts Integration at Wolcott School:

A Student Perspective
It’s a Friday afternoon at Wolcott School. Town Meeting is in full swing. Children are standing before an audience of 600 people, reading poetry, sharing their art work, and performing for their peers. Standing in the back of the auditorium is Michaela, a former Wolcott student who is now a senior in high school, preparing to leave for college. She’s been asked to attend Town Meeting today, but she’s not sure why. Her little sister, Keenan, is a 4th grader at Wolcott, so perhaps she thinks that Keenan is a Student of the Month and will be honored as such.

But Keenan has a surprise for her 6-foot tall sister today.

Near the end of Town Meeting, Keenan is called to the stage, and Michaela is asked to join her. A moment later Michaela learns that her little sister has written a song about her. The two sisters sit side by side as the music begins.

Before reading on, return to the website. Click on the music slot in the Magical Mailbox and find Wolcott Songs, Volume 13. Take a moment and listen to Michaela’s Song.

She’s six foot one; she’s going off to college,

She’s gonna have fun, she’s getting lots of knowledge…

She’s going away from me,

I’m going miss her terribly.

The song comes to an end and big and little sister embrace. There isn’t a dry eye in the house, including Michaela’s. But the song doesn’t come as a surprise for Michaela, because her sister has been writing them since she was in kindergarten.

“My first song was Cuddles (Wolcott Songs 9),” Keenan reports with pride. “I wrote it and sang it with my friend, Tori.”

When asked why she began writing songs, Keenan’s answer is as simple as her first song. “That’s just the way Wolcott School is set up. Someone told me that I could write songs here, so I thought I’d give it a try. Mr. Hugh (Wolcott’s vocal music teacher) and all the teachers are really supportive. So I wrote my first one in kindergarten and it was great. So then I was in first grade. My mom asked if I planned on writing another song, so I told her that I’d give it a try. And my first grade teacher helped me, just like my kindergarten teacher did. That song was My Dolls. And so I just kept writing after that. Every year.”

Said Keenan’s mother: “Keenan continued to write a song every year because Rob Hugh and the rest of the staff expected it from her.  They wanted to hear her voice. ‘Where's your song this year?’ Rob would ask, and the next week Keenan would be in with a song.”  

Michaela’s Song became one of the more popular Wolcott Songs in recent years and, as with all great art, it began taking on a life of its own. Keenan performed it during Wolcott School’s annual talent show, and later that year it became a featured song in the school play. The following year, Wolcott’s premiere dance troupe, Moving Arts, choreographed a dance number to the song and performed it at Town Meeting while Keenan accompanied them.

“It all began in kindergarten with Cuddles,” Keenan recalls.

Keenan had large shoes to fill when she entered Wolcott School as a kindergartener. Her big sister, Michaela, had passed through the halls of Wolcott School several years earlier and had left her mark as a musician, writer, and leader in the school. Following her graduation from elementary school, Michaela went on to create West Hartford’s Unified Theatre, a nationally recognized program that seeks to create theatrical productions featuring the talents of individuals with and without special needs. Michaela’s Unified Theatre has been an enormous success and has received high accolades. Connecticut Congressman John Larson wrote that “Michaela demonstrates the highest level of compassion, dedication and achievement among the youth of today. As a young adult, she already understands the positive nature of community as she describes through her work in the program.” Big shoes indeed.

For Keenan, what began with song writing soon became much more, as it does for most students at Wolcott. Success breeds success, and one opportunity opens the door to another.

“You can express yourself in so many ways,” Keenan says with excitement. “Writing songs was just one way. But I did lots of other stuff too. Everyone did. You get to find out who you want to be. And then you can be it. Everyone gets a chance to shine. To do their thing.”

Keenan’s classmates also found this to be true.

A young lady whose parents and teachers initially feared that she might be autistic suddenly thrived once immersed in the arts. Playing the French horn, falling in love with writing, and performing on stage numerous occasions allowed the student to emerge from her silence and finally blossom. Said her mother: “There she was, under the lights, eyes wide, verbally sparring with (a classmate). They brandished their fake swords and uttered the glorious words of Shakespeare. They were acting for goodness sakes, not just shouting at each other. They were infusing the words with meaning. The little one who stumbled through last year, asleep, had awakened.”

Later on in the year, the girl offered an explanation of her sudden change to her mother: “Hey Mom, I don’t think that lady said that I was autistic. I think she said that I was artistic.”

Sometimes the arts can work their magic in a child’s life almost instantly. Joe was a student who arrived at Wolcott School in 5th grade from an inner city school. Having lost his older brother to violence, Joe was struggling academically and disinterested in school. Just 6-months later, he was a changed student. Though still not at grade level, Joe is engaged in his school work and making remarkable progress. He is a member of the school’s choir, band, and Street Beat, a student drum corps that performs every Monday morning during the Harambe assembly. He also performs as a Spotlight Twin at Town Meeting each week, introducing the writers that will read their pieces. “I could never imagine myself talking in front of so many people, and I was so nervous at first. But now I love it.”

When asked to talk about his new school, he smiles. “This school is so different. There’s so much that I want to do. I love coming to school. I got to play in the band, and now I can write stories and I’m submitting them to the Magical Mailbox. In the beginning I couldn’t even write a sentence good. I want to be Writer of the Week someday. And now that I can spell better and write with better fluency, I might get picked.”

“I even hate snow days now,” he adds.

Like Joe, Keenan also began writing poetry and submitting as much as she could to the Magical Mailbox, and she found immediate success. She had opportunities to read her poetry at Town Meeting. Her work was published in the school’s seasonal Literary Magazine. She was named as Wolcott’s Writer of the Week. Two of her poems were turned into posters that were featured in the front windows of the school. Those posters are still hanging in her bedroom today. Says Mom: “She always had an opportunity to express herself.  Even though she does not have as many opportunities now, she is incredibly confident whenever on stage because of her Wolcott experience. Most importantly, Keenan considered herself a poet and a writer coming out of Wolcott.”

But one of Keenan’s fondest memories comes not from being a poet, a writer, or a musician. It came from her opportunity to act.

“One of my best memories comes from third grade, because it was my first play, and Michaela helped us.” Keenan’s third grade teacher, a fan of Shakespeare, directs an annual Shakespearean production with his class. After spending the year studying Shakespeare and his work, the class produces a play of their choice using Shakespeare’s original but abbreviated text as a script. It’s a challenge for 8 and 9-year olds, but it’s one that they accept with enthusiasm. Keenan’s class performed A Midsummer Nights Dream, with Keenan playing the role of Helena, the “painted maypole” of the Shakespearean comedy. Anxious to return to her elementary school roots, Michaela served as the play’s assistant director. “I knew that Michaela would be leaving for college soon, so I loved spending time with her during the play.”

“I have to mention the theater piece,” Keenan’s mother says. “It was remarkable. The opportunities that those kids have are just remarkable.”

In 5th grade, Keenan became a member of the student council, eventually rising to the office of President of Wolcott School. “I learned a lot from being President. You can’t just change stuff overnight. There’s a lot of things involved.” Wolcott School’s student council has been in place since 1988, and throughout the years, it has played a key role in the decisions that take place in the school. Whenever a significant change is instituted at Wolcott, the proposal is first presented to the faculty, the PTO, and to the Student Council, and each group is given an opportunity to respond to the proposed change. “It’s great that kids can make decisions for the school,” Keenan says when reflecting back upon her time in office. “It makes it feel more like your school. Like you own some of it.”

Like her sister, Keenan left Wolcott School 3 years ago and has done great things ever since. She is a first string bassist for her middle school’s orchestra and sings in the school’s select choir. She has also begun taking electric bass lessons with an eye on the jazz band next year. “I think that the jazz band sounds like fun. So cool.”

When asked what was most important about her time at Wolcott School, Keenan’s answer demonstrates wisdom beyond her years.

“The most important stuff was the book stuff. The things I learned in class. Reading books, writing, and math. I’m glad I went to middle school with all that knowledge. It’s what you need to succeed. But it’s the other stuff, the songs and the poetry and the art and the play, that gives me a chance to use the stuff in my brain. To express myself. It’s the fun part. The real good part. The best part of Wolcott School.”

We began this article with a story about teachers and the process of change. It is our contention that change can be accomplished quickly and effectively by skilled leaders.

We presented the reader with a set of lessons learned in our school over the years as well as lessons learned through our work with many other schools. We welcome your insights and constructive feedback relative to our ideas. More importantly, we encourage you to join the fight against test driven school culture.

We offered a set of long term, global strategies for promoting the promise of a broad based, enriching school curriculum of the future. Teachers did not enter education to ‘teach to the test’. They entered education because they wanted to inspire students and challenge them to achieve excellence across the full breadth and depth of human endeavor.

We ended the article with the story of one child’s journey toward self actualization. Our careers would be complete based upon Keenan’s experience alone, but we keep finding Keenans! They are in every classroom of every school that we have ever visited. They just need a little help to find their true voice, and it is the profound responsibility of their teachers and parents to guide them to the right path.

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Plato Karafelis, Ph.D. has been the Principal of Henry A. Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford, CT for 19 years. He is the co-founder of Higher Order Thinking Schools and a recipient of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Matthew Dicks is a third grade teacher at Henry A. Wolcott Elementary School. He is widely published and was the 2005 Teacher of the Year in West Hartford, CT.

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