of the Soul |
Reclaiming Kids Through Art
Reprinted from NUVO Newsweekly, December 24-31, 1998
for a kid who got kicked out of school, huh?
is such a great way to get kids to write. Not much grammar
involved, it's fun, anyone who can count 5-7-5 will be a successful
haiku poet. Maybe they'll even begin to like writing...at
least a little.
my challenge as I stood in front of a class of high school
students at an IPS alternative school this fall. They were
tough, streetwise kids who had been expelled from their former
schools for various offenses.
was assigned to get them to write.
problem. Give kids some freedom - and exposure to music, movement,
theatre and visual arts for three weeks - and watch them go.
poetry in motion.
fall, Very Special Arts Indiana and IPS alternative
school Community Academy joined forces to bring a multidiscipline
art experience to at-risk youth. Five VSAI artists,
in separate disciplines, worked with fifty expelled
themed "The Diaspora: A Journey of the Soul," was made possible
through a grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis' Africa
based in Indianapolis, provides statewide arts programming
for children with disabilities and, in some cases, extends
its mission to include at-risk youth. Artists, who work through
VSAI, travel to schools to present programs and projects;
they also work as artists-in-residence.
Academy is an alternative school for IPS students who have
been expelled; the Academy has three sites around the city.
Most of the kids will eventually return to their regular junior
high and high schools after their expulsion period is over
but some will remain at CA to get their GED.
it's a last chance to stay in school and finish their education.
the arts to a place like Community Academy? Because art gives
a voice to many kids who might otherwise use negative means
of expression. Music, dance, theater, visual art and writing
give them a few more constructive ways to represent how they
to see why art is important in a classroom when a sullen face
breaks into a smile. There is great pride in accomplishment.
is the second year for a mixed media program at the Academy.
Carey Collins, VSAI's Program Coordinator, said "We had a
project at CA last year that we knew had been really helpful.
The theme of Diaspora is something that the kids are really
familiar with as they had all been forced out of their previous
schools. The artists gave them avenues to express themselves
that weren't available to them in the regular academic setting."
Academy was started in 1996 by Evelyn Hicks, who is now the
Community and Special Programs Coordinator for Alternative
Education for IPS. No longer an educator there, Evelyn oversees
a team of teachers at the school's three sites. A VSAI board
member, she had been involved with the last year's project
and wanted it to happen again.
that what VSAI is doing, all schools should do. Connect the
arts to the curriculum and make them see the relevance of
it," said Evelyn, "You're going to get total cooperation from
children because they're expressing themselves through that
art, music and dance. What makes these artists so special...the
artists who work through VSA...they see the kids, they see
the talent in every child."
the grant was to be used in conjunction with the Africa Celebration
theme, VSAI and CA decided to use the idea of Diaspora as
a way to re-connect the kids with the rest of the world.
said, "The whole idea of talking about journeys, yourself
and your soul and this journey, really applied to them, which
is important when you have kids who are that angry most of
the time and alienated, you need to make sure you have some
kind of hook in there. Most of the kids had not any art of
a substantial type since elementary school so they were real
goals were not what some might call lofty; if these students
participated at all, it would be considered a success. By
these standards, "Journey of the Soul" was wildly successful.
The artistic team was made up of five local artists: Tony
Artis, a musician with San Cocho and Invisible Art; Iris Rosa,
a dance professor at IU-Bloomington and head of IU's Afro-American
Dance Company; Deborah Asante, storyteller and Director of
the Asante Children's Theatre; Theron Mattick, potter and
nstructor at the Indianapolis Art Center; and me. The disciplines
explored were music, dance and movement, theater, visual arts,
artists had different experiences at the three sites, which
showed the advantages of using a multiple-discipline approach.
It would have been hard for any student not to get something
from the experience because there were so many different options.
program was taught over nine days. Music and dance were taught
consecutively as were theater and visual arts. Writing was
the final component, which was taught alone.
and dance were the first of the five disciplines the kids
were exposed to. The goal was for each child to put together
a 15-second recording of music they created and a short videotape
of dance/movement they choreographed.
Iris, who are married, gave the kids a rare glance at a couple
who not only do what they love, but enjoy working together
when they can - and are great as a teaching team.
multitude of percussive instruments, including maracas, conga
drums, an iya ilu (Yoruba for "talking drum"), a shekere (gourd
shaker), an agogo bell, and a cowbell among others, it wasn't
difficult to grab the students' attention. To bring the concept
of movement a little closer to home, Iris played a video of
West African dancing. The tape vividly showed the connection
between African dance and modern African-American street dance.
during that first hour, the kids sat there, arms crossed,
with doubtful looks on their faces.
an interesting observation. "Sometimes I think kids are noise-deprived;
they don't get to express verbally or with their bodies. Instruments
always seem to help facilitate being comfortable with expressing."
didn't take too long after Tony put instruments in their hands
for the group to start a jam session. Fifteen kids at a time
were making music together with spots for individual solos.
regular school might not have had their attention, the music
and dance did.
"I think they're in the program because they're bored. I found
that all the kids were highly intelligent and creative when
they had the chance to be. But they don't get that in the
normal track. These kids should be in a special place where
it's more open, but not a place of punishment. That's why
I think they opened up to this."
accomplishment was to get the students to want to be involved.
main thing that was said to us was that if they were able
to even work together and talk together, then that was a big
achievement," said Iris, "There were some very talented kids
there...they came out with music, and I had three of them
that really did some great choreography. We talked about it
having a political and social edge to it."
second phase of the project involved theatre and the visual
arts. Deborah, a powerful figure who also directs the Asante
Children's Theatre, worked with the kids using improvisation,
family stories, and personal mythology. "What I was using
was storytelling and improv. I was talking about the mythology
that we live, that was my connection. I was trying to make
them understand that they live up to expectations, they hear
stories as they're growing up that determine who they are
and that they can take the active role of being self-determined.
You have to understand first who has power over you and so
we shared family stories, I got them to bring in family stories
and then from those sharing, .... I tried to connect their
family story with traits that I recognized in them."
brought in a potter's wheel on the first day so the kids could
throw pots. As one might expect, working with clay was a big
was one girl who wouldn't [participate] at all. At one point,
we split thing up and I said I'm just going to take kids one
on one and get through some of this wheel-throwing because
with the group, it was hard to get anybody to focus. This
girl actually sat down and just started talking to me. I was
going 'Wow, she's out....' she came out of her shell."
students sculpted masks of clay, which were to depict some
aspect of a soul's journey. Of course, some of them included
replicas of things from everyday life - askew caps, Mercedes
emblems, blunts. But some of the students moved beyond the
commonplace to show great creativity. Theron returned recently
to CA, bringing back the masks so the kids could glaze them.
as a "prop" lends something...it breaks that barrier," said
Theron, "Their attention was like 'Wow, what's that!' It's
a good card to get you in the door and get you moving."
the final week and a half of the program, I hauled 5-gallon
buckets full of paper pulp and sets of watercolors into the
classes. The kids and teachers splashed around in the oatmeal-textured
pulp and hand made what seemed like a ton of paper. To tie
together all they had experienced in the previous weeks on
their own personal artistic journey, students worked on haiku
and poetry and eventually filled a 4' by 4' sheet of paper
on the wall. Many of the writings ended up on the handmade
paper as well.
noticed during my six one-hour days was how "light" everyone
seemed when they were working. Laughing, talking, teasing
each other as they waited for the next available tub full
of pulp. They experimented with paint and texture, size and
shape. More importantly, they were involved and wanted to
know when I'd be back and would I bring more paper. The other
artists had similar experiences.
wasn't just about having-fun-with-art; the project had more
meaning than that. Sure, they got to play music, make up dance
routines, tell personal stories, sculpt clay masks, and make
paper, but more importantly, they expressed something about
who they are, and what's in their souls.
many other parts of the world is still part of a daily routine.
Tony remarked, "If you go to different countries...the arts
are revered. The government supports the arts. The culture
and the arts are much more ingrained in the people. Art seems
to be much more a part of everyday life. That's been taken
that out of us."
trust with kids was paramount. While some of the kids would
jump right in, there were others who were less enthusiastic.
Understandable. After years of being in trouble, to have someone
say, 'come do this fun activity' or even ask 'what would you
like to do' - and sincerely mean it - left many of them wondering
what the trick was going to be.
where the teacher participation helped a lot. By the time
we arrived, the teachers had established some basic trust
so when they participated, it was easier for the kids to join
in because while we were strangers, the teachers acknowledged
that what we were doing was a good thing and not a trick.
CA teachers gave the project an A+. Said Mike Gibbs, who teaches
at the Martin Luther King Service Center site, "The program
went well. The kids loved it and want to do it again in regular
school. You gave them, they said, another way to express themselves."
Like Mike, this is Brian Whitney's first year teaching at
CA and at MLK. "I thought it was tremendous," he commented,
"The best part about it was that it got the kids excited and
working together. They wanted to experiment, they wanted to
learn something that they'd never done. They liked making
a mess. It gave them a sense of ownership, which a lot of
these kids don't have. Art empowers them, allows it to be
their mind with no one else's influence...because they're
so easily influenced."
kids stayed active until the end. Others became involved near
the end. For some, their interest fell off and some never
really got involved at all. But, to the credit of the CA teachers,
everyone did participate...at least a little.
thing you guys did...you didn't come in with a bias," said
Mike. "A lot of people come in with the notion that these
are the worst of the worst kids...you guys came in and tried
to get to know them first. And then you got into the art side
of it. You didn't look down on them, and you didn't talk down
to them. And you laughed with them, which was a big thing."
someone came out of a corner to participate, we all rejoiced.
It may sound corny to say that the reward of teaching is being
witness to the moment when someone "gets it," but it's true.
When a kid lost themselves in a rhythm, a wedge of clay or
an improv, we knew that the art had succeeded.
"So many of the kids get exposed to the arts in so many different
forms and we all know that it improves a quality of life and
helps you to grow in ways and feel confidence in something
that you're good doing, it connects you with people. There
are a lot of things that maybe these kids don't have an opportunity
to be fed in that way."
not like the program didn't have its problems. Sites were
changed, schedules got mixed up, and one class had to be canceled
because of a theft (unrelated to the artists). I even had
a group of high school guys from the 'hood spend one of my
class periods playing hide-and-seek in the basement for the
entire hour. It wasn't malicious - more like little kids playing
monsters at Halloween - but we didn't get much paper made.
those imperfections make the program a waste? Absolutely not.
We'd all do it again in a heartbeat because, despite a few
snags, everyone thought results were tremendous.
describes the dilemma of kids like those in the CA program.
"They don't feel like they're an accepted part of the culture
and so they spend a lot of time being upset about that," she
says, "Nobody wants to be left out. For them to feel like
they are a part of the community, you really have to look
at what's inside of them and give it some value. And kind
of open the door that way to let them back in."
added, "For it to be such a deep subject...talking about connecting
with your soul....I think from being exposed to the different
art forms that they saw art as more powerful than before we
came in...connecting themselves through art as a power base."
thing everyone agreed on was that most of these kids
don't see that there's much else outside of money or
that having the "good life" can mean more than having
money. The riches a person can accrue by doing something
they love and making a living might outweigh the quick
money -- and risks -- of slingin' (dealing drugs) or
the difference between reactive and proactive," said Deborah,
"I could look in the faces of those children, and with the
improvs that they did, the violence that they meet on a daily
basis, if they can come to the point where they can think
more creatively than just shooting a gun, then we have made
a world of difference. And that's something that cannot be
measured because it's proactive, it's not responding after
no one in the group has any illusions about a nine-day
program turning lives around, we do all believe that
it made some difference and set the groundwork for a
more lengthy program that might have some long-term
it best by describing the whole experience as "A little glimpse
of the light. It's like the door cracking open just a little
bit. We need to be the resources to open that door."