By Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM'10
Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

We are trying to keep folks engaged with their own process of learning. It’s about how process impacts each participant’s learning and their agency as learners.”
—Michael Christiano
Director of education and interpretation at the Smart Museum of Art

While attending the Chicago Military Academy, Chante Platt enrolled in multiple sessions of the Design Apprenticeship Program at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, part of the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative. There, Platt learned a new set of skills to create handmade furniture in a woodworking shop. She learned how to use the tools of the craft and safety precautions, and then came the design and building of the furniture.

“I like the program, and I like that it’s close to home,” says Platt. “It’s another stepping stone to meet more people who do what I do, which is,” and she thinks for a moment before laughing and saying, “art stuff.” Now 19 and a high school graduate, she has returned to the program to mentor new students, who will sample all manner of art stuff, as she puts it: “a little bit of everything. We did some acting, poetry slams—everything.”

The program is one of nearly 40 arts offerings across campus for children, youth, and families. Through distinct programming, campus arts organizations have provided significant value individually, but as UChicago arts leaders started to think about how they could collectively strengthen partnerships with area schools and teachers to have a greater impact on the lives of schoolchildren, they began to dream bigger.

Arts + Public Life initiative at the Arts Incubator, the Court Theatre, the Oriental Institute, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, and the Smart Museum of Art are taking their initial collaborations a step further as they work together on a K-12 arts education initiative. With startup funding from the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, these key organizations will assess and marshal their resources to better align with one another and better serve the community.

Bill Michel, executive director of the Logan Center and university arts advisor to the Office of the Provost, sees the development of a K-12 arts education program as an opportunity for the University to potentially create a new national model for how urban research universities can partner with local schools.

“There might be a really exciting and dynamic opportunity to identify a relationship between these programs that would allow us to create impact across multiple age ranges and disciplines. It would allow us to give students—throughout their career in the schools and the communities around us—a really robust and vibrant set of arts experiences,” Michel says.

It’s all about the process

Michael Christiano, director of education and interpretation at the Smart Museum, says the Fry Foundation grant has allowed the initiative’s partners to hire a researcher who will spend the next year identifying the core cultural assets at the University and the impact of existing programs. The researcher also will work with South Side schools to build a deeper understanding of their interests. The partners and schools will then work together to design a collaborative model that integrates the University’s cultural offerings into their teaching.

The Smart Museum already has put an emphasis on collaboration into action, most prominently with the CoCre8 program, which Arts + Public Life, the Logan Center, the Smart Museum, and their community partner Urban Gateways kicked off as a pilot program in 2013. CoCre8 functions as a peer learning community that consists of a cohort of high school teachers, high school students, and teaching artists.

During the past two years, UChicago program leaders have recruited teaching artists from a variety of disciplines, who work with students and teachers from five high schools, including the University of Chicago Charter School-Woodlawn Campus, King College Prep, and Hyde Park Academy.

CoCre8, Christiano explains, allows participants to explore Smart Museum artworks they are drawn to that embody the ideas for a large-scale art project they work on together at the Arts Incubator.

“We also are trying to provide exercises that position each member of the group, regardless of their designation as student, teacher, or teaching artist, as equally invested and empowered to make decisions within their group. So in one sense we’re trying to destabilize the traditional, hierarchical nature of classroom learning, and reinforce the different sets of expertise and perspectives that everyone brings to the dialogue.

“We are trying to keep folks engaged with their own process of learning. It’s about how process impacts each participant’s learning and their agency as learners,” says Christiano.

“One of the early benefits of this cross-University collaboration has been our working partnership with teachers and school leaders who work with each of our programs individually,” says Emily Hooper Lansana, associate director of community arts engagement with Arts + Public Life and the Logan Center. “This allows everyone involved to focus on the needs of the schools. Uniting our ideas with those of teachers and our community partners creates stronger programs that will have greater impact on arts learning,” Lansana says.

Engaging artists and teachers

The Court Theatre’s student matinee program serves more than 3,000 high school students, providing access to each of the five productions that make up its season. “But the biggest thing we do is our in-school resident program, Artists-in-the-Schools,” says the program’s director Cree Rankin, who also is casting director at Court Theatre.

Resident Teaching Artists conduct workshops in six partner schools on the South Side that participate in monologues and scenic design programs focused on the works of playwright August Wilson.

A few of the residencies focus on writing workshops. “We’ve done two essay competitions in the past four years. We did one around Invisible Man, and we worked with Native Son as well, and we may do one involving Gem of the Ocean this year,” says Rankin.”

At the Oriental Institute Museum, arts education outreach is focused on teachers. “Throughout the school year we have a range of professional development programs for teachers across disciplines and grade levels,” says Carol Ng-He, school and community program manager at the Oriental Institute. The programs include a quarterly Educator Welcome Days, a collaborative effort with the Smart Museum of Art, and various workshops that utilize the Oriental Institute Museum’s collections.

The Oriental Institute’s focus on teachers is, in Ng-He’s view, an approach that increases the scale of each program’s impact. “Teachers not only have the opportunities to explore the museum’s collections more in depth,” she says, “but also engage in practical instructional strategies to use in-classroom.”

All in the Family

Chloe Glispie—who was among the first cohort of undergraduates to receive support from the UChicago Promise program, and who now is a fourth-year concentrating in Comparative Human Development—has found a new way to stretch the imaginations of some of her youngest relatives.

Glispie brought her niece Cyrenity to a recent Family Saturday at the Logan Center, where they watched self-described “soul violinist” Lee England Jr. perform. “I enjoyed it myself,” Glispie recalls, but for Cyrenity it was something altogether more profound. “This classical instrument—seeing someone who looks like her play it, and play it in a way that appeals to her, she was just baffled. So, I need her to have more experiences like this, where she’s exposed. I’m definitely going to bring her back over and over again.”

On a second visit, Glispie brought along her five cousins, all under age 6, for a storytelling performance.

“I’ve been exposed to so much during my time at UChicago,” Glispie continues, “it just never occurred to me that there’s an entirely different generation that is coming up with new obstacles—who might never see a black man playing the violin, who might not ever learn the craft of storytelling outside of whatever they watch on TV.”

For Glispie, the monthly Family Saturdays program has been eye opening for her young family members. “It’s an amazing program,” she says, “and I hope it stays around for years and years to come. I want to be able to take my own children there one day.”

The Smart’s Christiano says ultimately, the University’s arts partners hope to bring art into the lives of children and youth who otherwise might not experience it. “Providing a level of access to high-quality arts education that is equitable across our school partner communities is really essential to the mission.

“I feel like this is a really important time at the University, both for the arts and how the arts might also provide compelling new opportunities for arts education on the South Side.”

Originally published on July 21, 2015.