Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Arts education in Boston: Building bridges between Boston youth and the community

I remember the first time I attended a public hearing in Boston City Hall back in 2014. It was led by Chair of the Committee on Arts & Culture, Councilor-At-Large Michelle Wu, now council president. Also participating were Councilors Matt O’Malley, Ayanna Pressley, and Tito Jackson.  I was inspired by the words of those who spoke during the public hearing, and I began to jot down my thoughts on the status of arts and culture in our city, and the importance of collective social impact, bridging boundaries, and breaking down silos.

In the hearing, I heard representatives of arts and culture organizations, individuals, and advocates echoing each other on many topics: funding, public art projects, and the like. But I didn’t hear enough about youth art. I heard questions like, how do we funnel funding toward arts and culture in Boston? “And I thought,” what about the youth? Are young people not the future innovators and creative thinkers of our nation? I believe that bridging youth and the community through art is the most important force to innovate and put our city and its people on the map. It’s building global citizens that will lead our country confidently and creatively.

In my mind, other questions were swirling, too: How can art create a collective social impact involving the entire community? In art, do you need to use your right brain alone or your left brain too? How does a child best learn basic math? Do great mathematicians become the best artists, or do artists become great mathematicians? How do we find alignment and connection? How do we think outside the box?
Julie Burros, appointed Chief of Arts and Culture in September 2014, believes the arts are as important as the sciences to Boston’s culture of innovation, and has said, “removing barriers is a huge part of my vision.” But it would be sad to focus on great art and culture projects in Boston without a clear and strong pledge to include our youth.

I want to transform our city into a place of cultural inclusion that enriches our schools and youth first. My vision is that the city would establish an art and culture “incubator,” working to build a strong foundation to unlock the full creative potential in our young people -- to empower our youth to become artists, scientists, engineers, doctors, and architects. We need the collaboration of great minds to fulfill this ambitious, yet crucial vision.

Funding for public art is imperative, and it’s wonderful that we have artists eager to enrich our city. Nevertheless, I am left puzzled in the face of so many Boston Public School budget cuts, leaving art programs so hard to find in so many schools. While encouraging artists to create public art, why not also ask them to visit schools to work with our students? We need to build a strong foundation for learning during the K-12 years. Through arts integration, ideally with exposure to people who are making a life in the arts, our youth will have an opportunity to unlock their creative potential.

We must all come together to make this happen! As Boston Public School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Chang puts it, we need to create a “culture of we.”

ARCK is helping to create a culture of we. On June 14th, ARCK unveiled the collaborative mural project, “I AM, WE ARE,” across from Fenway Park-- providing proof that the Boston community has the ability to empower our youth. The  mural was created by ARCK’s students at Gardner Pilot Academy, a Boston Public School, in collaboration with ARCK’s teachers and staff and professional artist Mark Cooper, whose participation was made possible by a generous grant from Bain Capital and also Michael Jabbawy from Goodwin Proctor LLP who helped us negotiate our contract with the artist. The 48-foot wide, 12 foot tall mural showcases students’ exploration of their identities and multicultural communities to an audience of millions of passersby. This mural will catch the eye of not only the Boston community and Red Sox fans, but of tourists -- and all will be reminded of art’s ability to bring people together

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Arts and Culture Chief Julie Burros attended the mural unveiling ceremony, and the Red Sox were event sponsors, providing refreshments to attendees, including our student-artists and family members and teachers.

After two years of dreaming and hard work, the “I Am, We Are” mural project became a life-changing opportunity for our Boston Public School students, who were given the power to make their mark physically, visually, and creatively in their own local community of Boston. This mural creation is an example of how art education can develop children's self-esteem, celebrate their community, and guide them on their journey of exploring who they are. They were encouraged to reflect on the facets of their identities and to listen to each other’s perspectives. These exercises in intercultural understanding are reflected in ARCK’s overall curriculum, which emphasizes three key areas of global citizenship: leadership, civic engagement, and social justice.

There is truly power in our youth, and it is important that we give every individual an outlet for expression. This mural project is the beginning of something that could spread nationwide.

I am so grateful to have been part of this unifying artistic and cultural accomplishment. This mural project has validated the vision I had when I first decided to start ARCK back in 2012. I was a mother concerned about the creative development of her children, and I wanted to make a difference. However, in order to make a difference, we must call on the whole community. We're all in this together. I sincerely believe that ART TAKES A VILLAGE.

Sara Mraish Demeter
Founder and Executive Director of ARCK

GPA middle schoolers students working on their canvases to be collaged on aluminum panels

GPA middle schoolers students working on their canvases to be collaged on aluminum panels

Mayor Matin J. Walsh and Sara Demeter celebrating with GPA middle schoolers students in the mural unveiling ceremony 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pajamas of my Dreams! Celebrating MLK day at the Blackstone Innovation School

On Friday, January 16, the author and illustrator of Pajamas of my Dreams paid a visit to the Blackstone School's first-grade classrooms to share their book and help students with a collage project. Laurie Collins, the author, led the students through a fun and engaging meeting with a singalong, a rap, and a read-aloud of her book. Margie Florini, the illustrator, showed her original collages and talked to the kids about how she made them. All of our students were deeply engaged throughout their presentation, singing and laughing along, calling out their observations from the book, and sharing their own dreams.

After the presentation, students continued to work on their own collages, which they had made backgrounds for the week before. They decorated paper pajamas with pictures of their "dreams" - from basketballs and stethoscopes to superheroes and fairies. Our visitors and teachers walked among the busy students, sharing cut-out paper and other decorations and talking to the kids about their collages. At the end of each class, a few brave volunteers came to the front of the class to share their "Artist Statements" in front of an audience of their peers, teachers, and special guests.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Healing Syrian Refugee Children Through Art

During the summers of 2012, 2013, and 2014, Sara Mraish Demeter, ARCK’s Founder and Executive Director traveled to the Zarqa region of Jordan where she conducted a week-long workshop to bring arts education to a group of 40 Syrian refugee children. In addition, Sara worked with Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The morning art workshop integrated reading and writing, storytelling, and painting. The intent was that in turn, expression through art would help refugee children begin the process of healing and rebuilding their lives.

“Each day of the workshop, I learned something new and inspiring,” says Sara. Here are some of her reflections written during the 2014 program, providing an inside glimpse of what the workshop looked and felt like.

Visit our Healing Art for Refugee Children Crowdrise Campaign to DONATE TODAY

Learn about healing the Syrian refugee children through art and storytelling, with these words from Founder and Executive Director or ARCK, Sara Demeter.

Check out these photographs taken during the project.

Day 1: August 4th, 2014

I drove from Amman to Zarqa, arriving at the center at 9 a.m. As we approached, the Syrian refugee and Jordanian children were waiting outside for us with longing smiles and eyes glistening with hope.They welcomed us with kisses and hugs, and graciously helped us retrieve materials from the car.

The day’s program began with introductions to get to know the students we would be working with over the next week. We went around in a circle and stated our intentions, hopes, and objectives for the program. I was amazed by their readiness and their eagerness to jump right into the swing of things.  

After introductions, we gave each student a name badge and a plastic folder, a notebook, a pencil, sharpener, and eraser. They were overwhelmed with joy. They appreciated the simple items that the everyday student would take for granted.

The first day we just wanted to get familiar with the students. We started with some simple warm-up drawing exercises, getting them comfortable with the new supplies and setting.

Day 2: August 5th, 2014

The next day each student restated their names and shared with us what they wrote in the notebook that they took home. We led the children in a “dancing movement,” an exercise we do in our open circle to create connections and establish a group comfort level.

Then, students participated in a “closed eyes drawing activity.” Each was asked to draw an object with their eyes closed, then draw the same object with their eyes open. In reflection, students noted that when drawing with their eyes closed, you have the freedom to be more imaginative. They didn’t feel a pressure to be perfect, and they were not afraid to make mistakes.

Through this exercise, students gained an understanding of others around them who suffered from disabilities. In fact, one of the students was visually impaired, and his results were astounding. Although without sight, his eyes-closed drawing was significantly better than his drawing with his eyes open. Clearly “sight” is not restricted to what we see physically. One of the students spoke about the experience: “We were able to feel what people who can’t see feel, and let our imagination go beyond our written rules and limitations.”

Day 3: August 6th, 2014

Today students worked on a very important project called the “City of Hope.” They were encouraged to create a blueprint of an ideal city to live in. Students made sure to include houses, buildings, airports, supermarkets, mosques, and all the necessities for a fully functioning city. After each creating their own dream cities we decided as a group on the name: ”Hope City,“ مدينة الأمل.” As a group, we determined appropriate laws and rules to be enforced in “Hope City.”

I watched as everyone worked excitedly with ideas streaming out of their imaginative minds. You could see the happiness in their faces, and how these activities improved their attitudes and livened their spirits.

Day 4:  August 7th, 2014

On this day, we showed the children a movie about Icarus and Daedalus, the Greek myth.  
The movie was entertaining, but also led to thoughtful discussion about topics like self-control. One student reflected: “This story teaches us to be creative and be inventors, but no matter how much power we have, we need to be humble and draw boundaries of dangerous ideas.”

Day 5: Friday (Weekend no class) August 8th, 2014

Through art, the children were able to convey very personal themes that they may have found otherwise difficult to find in words. All week, they have worked on creating a storybook, called “Storytelling Through Art.” This therapeutic activity improved students’ self-development and personal expression. Check out the storybook here.

Day 6: August 9th, 2014

The final day! Today was a celebration where we danced and ate traditional Kabseh rice and chicken with yogurt. We expressed our sincere farewells to the new friends we met. It was incredible to see how these workshops healed the children's’ souls. I will cherish the memory of watching these children heal and reconnect with their dreams through the beauty of art.

And this story continues:

July, 2016: The values I learned while working with the students in Zarqa stay with me to this day across the world in my city, Boston, Massachusetts. ARCK is working to develop of our future leaders in Boston and around the world. For example, our  “I AM, WE ARE” project, a student-collaborated mural that now is displayed as public art near Fenway Park, is similar in many ways to our Zarqa work. The self-discovery the Syrian refugee children achieved through art echoes the exploration and discovery I witnessed with the Gardner Pilot Academy students who made the mural in Boston.

No child should be deprived of the amazing potential of art; it truly has the ability to transform a soul emotionally, cognitively, and socially.

Special Thanks: I would like to express my thanks to my sister Manal Mraish for being a co-leader on the refugee  project, and Nadia Bushnaq the founder of the Center for Awareness for allowing us to hold our workshops there.  I also want to thank the staff: Khaula and Lena, and mentors Abdelrahman, Mohammed, Mohammed Haymmour, Mohammed Aljbour, Mona, and Hamzeh.

Monday, November 3, 2014

End of Module 1

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
End of Module 1

“Can we get Minecraft at home, Ms. Chesbrough?”

I think I answered variations on this question about twenty times the last day of Module 1. Everyone was finishing up their monuments and big structures. Some students created pyramids, others an “epic mancave”, an “apartment” turned music studio, a massive indoor swimming pool in a cave, an underwater labyrinth secret lair, and even a huge statue of themselves. Students worked in pairs to collaborate and build “big”, getting out of their comfort zone and exploring how Minecraft can allow students to create on scales that are impossible or impractical to accomplish in the real world in a short amount of time. Keep in mind, students had only two hours total to build these massive structures in Minecraft, meaning they were on task and intensely focused in order to finish.

When the structures were complete (or when students had run out of time), we began our last closing circle. We reviewed our new vocabulary from the module (“three dimensional”, “technical drawing”, “stereotype”, “identity”, and “monument” were just a few of the words students learned). Then, we discussed how the class had developed. For some students, in just six total class hours they went from having never used Minecraft to building large-scale projects in Minecraft. Others had already used Minecraft, and for them, this class had been an opportunity for them to hone their creativity and building skills and to share their expertise with others. It was amazing to compare our first opening circle with this last closing circle. In the beginning of the module, only two students felt comfortable talking to the group, and some weren’t even comfortable sitting with the group, choosing to be on their own instead. By the end, everyone was contributing to class discussion, everyone wanted to show their work, and everyone felt included.

Our survey results showed students were overwhelmingly excited about this STEAM class. All students felt positive about STEAM fields at the end of the module, and six felt more excited about these fields than they had initially. While these results were fantastic, we were also proud of the individual growth our students made. One of our students was so shy on the first day that she wouldn’t speak to anyone, teacher or peer. She didn’t feel comfortable on the computers and felt this class would be “boring” and “hard”. By the end, not only was she working with a partner on her project and speaking up in discussion, but she said on her end of module survey that she was very excited about the same STEAM subjects she had disliked just six weeks ago. Stories like hers are the reasons I started this course. By bringing art into STEM, this student was able to harness her aptitude in other areas, to bring her passions into building and design. Instead of giving her STEM instruction that was dry, devoid of creativity, formulaic, and “boring”, to borrow her words, we gave her a place to explore and develop her own positive relationship with this content.

While Minecraft sounds like all fun and games, all students had issues to resolve throughout the design and implementation process. First, there were the distractions. Should I start building, or do I want to create 500 pigs? Do I start on my project, or do I critique my neighbor’s work? Minecraft gave us, the instructors, the chance to discuss the importance of self-regulation, knowing when you are on-task and when you are not. Moreover, students who were off-task quickly learned that they could not finish projects in time, and then they wouldn’t have their dream idea finished for the class to see. There’s no shame in being half-done, but often these students reflected that they wished they had something that really showed their friends how talented they were. This issue of time-management is a crucial life lesson, and this class offered a great opportunity to experience it.

Also, as any adult can confirm, working in pairs can be a challenge unto itself. Students had to negotiate with their partners on the design and come to consensus. How many beds should be in the building? What color should the walls be? Should we have a lava lake outside or a water lake? How many secret lairs do we want? These were just some of the debates going on throughout the module. As an instructor, my role was one of facilitating these discussions. I never made the final call; instead, I carefully led students through negotiating, talking about how one person can get one thing their way, but then the other person should have a turn doing something the way they want. Alternatively, both students could agree on an idea, or get rid of it. These discussions helped teach students lessons in collaboration and mediation.

Overall, from teaching STEAM to teaching personal and interpersonal skills, this module was an
overwhelming success. The students wanted to know when we’d be teaching this in their school, and
they wanted to keep designing on Minecraft “forever”. This course exceeded my wildest expectations, given it was the first time we had taught this curriculum. I am so excited to take this momentum from Module 1 and continue to Module 2. Next week, we will have ten new students and another opportunity to transform STEAM education.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Two Heads are Better than One:
Building Big

            In this week’s class, our students were taking their Minecraft building to the next level. They had completed their houses; now it was time to go bigger.
            The theme of the last two lessons is Building Big. The students examine examples of ancient and modern large scale architecture from all over the world, from the pyramids of Egypt and Cambodia to the buildings of Antoni Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. Then, working in partners or independently, students build a structure designed to stand the test of time, something that represents who they are for posterity to remember.
            We saw some great collaborative work on these structures. Nicholas and Charles created a “massive mancave” with Nicholas using the keyboard while Charles used the mouse. Yating and Winnie made a two-level music studio with bright colored walls. Jason and Jason made a large diamond structure. Hayden and Wilson created their own version of a pyramid, experimenting with TNT to clear the environment for building. Matilda and Alda worked independently, with Alda digging a massive trench in the ground for her structure, and Matilda building an enormous temple with Dubai-esque proportions.
            Perhaps the best part of this Minecraft project is how collaborative it becomes. Even those working independently are bouncing ideas off each other. They’re breaking things down and iterating through their designs seamlessly. All the lessons of the past four weeks have led to this moment, where the group can work in teams.
Collaborative activities require the highest level of culture and team building to be successful. The fact that students feel comfortable working in teams shows how far we’ve come from day one, when we could only get two kids to talk!
            We’re looking forward to our grand finale for Module 1. Then on to Module 2 and a new set of students!

            We are so thrilled to have this new partnership with BCNC and its Red Oak After School program that brings us back to ARCK’s roots in the Josiah Quincy Elementary School.

Monday, October 20, 2014

STEAM and our Students' Goals

The New Year’s Resolution

“It was my New Years’ Resolution to do Minecraft this year. Now I can fulfill it!”
-Matilda, 4th-Grader, Josiah Quincy Elementary School
            Matilda is one of the fourth graders in my STEAM class, which ARCK is currently running at Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown in partnership with Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center’s Red Oak After School program.
An outspoken girl, Matilda told me during our second class that she was so excited to use Minecraft finally, because it was her New Year’s Resolution to learn to use this building platform. Her statement really spoke to me, because it articulates how much students want to have STEAM (adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) experiences, whether they call it “STEAM” or call it fun. At the same time, the fact that Matilda thought it could take an entire year to reach this experience shows how few opportunities some students have to really engage with meaningful STEAM experiences. This is the reality for many students in the Boston Public Schools, whose families cannot go out and buy every new product or afford technology summer camps.
            Minecraft may seem to be simply a game to many people, but that’s sort of like saying that fire is good for light. It’s true, but that’s not the whole story. Minecraft was modeled after LEGO. Its creator imagined a world of infinite LEGO blocks, available at your fingertips, on your computer, for pennies compared to the cost of that many LEGO blocks. No issues of storing physical blocks, no stepping on painful cubes on the carpet -- just pure, unadulterated creation. If you can imagine how LEGOs could be used to engage students in engineering, science, technology, art, and math, then you can extend those same principles to Minecraft, and then some.
            Similar to LEGO, Minecraft has the kid “cool” factor. I somehow doubt that if I sat a group of fourth graders in front of CAD software that a student would remark that it was her dream to plug vectors into a program. Fourth grade students aren’t ready to jump to that level of complexity without some intermediary steps. Minecraft allows students to model designs in 3-D without having to use formulas beyond their current math knowledge. I have taught Minecraft to 5-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 50-year-olds, and everyone in between. It’s versatile, it’s adaptable, it’s open-ended, and it’s easy to learn. Students think it’s cool because they can make and control their own world. What student doesn’t want to be ruler of their own fiefdom they designed themselves?
            From Minecraft “cool” comes passion for making ideas become reality. STEAM is fueled by this passion. Some might question the pedagogical decision to start with a game to teach STEAM instead of using beakers and lab coats or something more stereotypical of the field. By starting with Minecraft, students can lower their affective filter, and foreign concepts can become concrete.
Here’s an example: As we explore technical drawings, students can better understand that “bird’s eye view” by flying above their house in Minecraft. Students can see how three dimensions are so different from a flat piece of paper. Students can set up chain reactions to demolish their buildings! All of these concepts in engineering come alive in Minecraft.
After playing Minecraft, I see students becoming more able to engage with these concepts in their drawn art. Their technical drawings improve. Overall art quality goes up. And, of course, with art and STEM blending together, we’re bringing in multiple modalities to accommodate all types of learners.

            In our second lesson with Red Oak, we made one girl’s goal for the year come true. We can’t wait to see who else is inspired by our STEAM module in the coming weeks!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

ARCK and STEAM with Red Oaks and the Quincy School!

ARCK is offering a free pilot STEAM program to the Josiah Quincy Elementary School 4th grade students in collaboration with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center in the Red Oaks after school program:

We had our first day of classes at the Red Oaks after-school program on September 18th! Our lead teaching artist Ms. Chesbrough and our in-class mentor Mr. Case met our new group of 4th grade students from the Josiah Quincy School and kicked off our pilot STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) program. This is the first time that ARCK has partnered with the Red Oaks after school program and we have been working hard leading up to this first day to create an exciting and engaging program. At the start of class, we got to know one another, discussed our community standards and the goals of the day. We talked about Minecraft and the overview of the class and students shared their personal connections to Minecraft.

As a group, we watched a portion of the TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie. We talked about identity and assumptions that people can make about others. As a way to further consider these ideas of identity and personal feelings, we created self-portraits and showed things we cared about and hoped other people would see about us. At the end of class, students shared their work and practiced our reflection and group feedback protocol.

Through 2 sessions, each 6 weeks long, this free pilot program will teach STEAM principles, including iterative design process, through imaging, designs in Minecraft, technical drawings and other engineering principles. Using Minecraft as the medium for the digital component of the program, students will use iterative design principles to create their own work, revise it based on personal critiques, and remake their projects. Minecraft is a sandbox (open learning environment) game where students have their own world with trees, hills, desert, water, etc. They can modify this world however they choose, building houses, temples, castles, skyscrapers, tree houses, the possibilities are limitless. Over the six weeks, students will develop foundational skills through activities designed to support sequential learning. Students will create and design on the computers with the Minecraft program as well as with drawing materials and sketch pads/paper. By incorporating such a wide range of skills, media and materials, the lessons will be accessible to a wide range of learners.

To keep this STEAM program in line with the core values and mission of ARCK, each lesson will be focusing on student identities, backgrounds and perspectives in various ways. Examples of culturally appropriate and poignant images, architecture and stories will help drive and inspire the design process. By creating a safe space for student collaboration, reflection and sharing we create opportunities for students to share their cultural perspectives and to authentically connect with the content and each other.

This program furthers students’ leadership skills. Each student is a leader of their own project and must explain how their project meets the challenges of the lessons/activities and the objectives of each class. In addition, students have the chance to collaborate on their projects and take on leadership roles within team interactions. Given the small class size, students have the opportunity to make their voices heard and share their perspectives on the design process and their artistic choices. Through design, public speaking and culturally sensitive critique, students learn critical 21st century leadership skills. The lessons presented through this STEAM program ask students to consider their views and thoughts about the world and their community. By asking students to think about and design structures that could live in their community and influence those around them, we are building on students’ understandings of civic engagement and active citizenship. By presenting students with opportunities to dream big about the influence and change they could create among their community, we are encouraging young people to view themselves as active agents of change in their communities.