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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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arts@newman: A Creative Effort to Unravel Educational Knots

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

I'm in the middle of reading to my seventh-grade class the book Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli. Our overarching theme this year is Stories of Home, and this book seems a perfect fit.

If you've read this story, you'll understand the image of Cobble's Knot. At one point, Jeffrey "Maniac" Magee accepts the challenge to unravel a very old, tightly wound knot that has been confounding visitors to Cobble's pizza parlor for years. Yet, with some patience, a seemingly intimate knowledge of knots, and a sense of quiet confidence, Jeffrey solves the knot, adding to the level of mystery and respect building around him in the racially divided town of Two Mills.

Cobble's Knot is a powerful metaphor for the social problems that plague the fictional town of Two Mills. In my personal world (one that, at times, seems to take on fictional overtones), the image of Cobble's Knot provides a nice way to begin pulling at the threads of my own practice as I implement a new arts-based alternative program for seventh- and eighth-grade students.

On September 4, 2007, arts@newman was initiated at Cardinal Newman, a K-8 school in Brampton, Ontario, just west of Toronto. For the thirty-four students who chose to enroll in this inaugural year of the program, arts@newman provides an opportunity to use the arts as an approach to traditional curriculum and educational expectations.

Every morning, students immerse themselves in a program that uses the language and techniques of drama, dance, music, and visual and media arts to explore literacy and numeracy. By recognizing the arts as powerful and relevant forms of text, students learn to read, write, and see the world -- and their place in it -- in new and refreshing ways.

Following are some of my fundamental beliefs about education that helped me shape this initiative:

  • Going to school and getting an education are not the same thing.
  • The current model of schooling found in most jurisdictions within North America has likely done the best job it can with our students but has reached its full potential.
  • If we are serious about helping students reach higher levels of achievement, we need to put more energy into creating alternative models of school.
  • Many people have a natural and deep-seated resistance to large-scale changes within our educational systems.
  • Powerful alternatives to traditional schooling should be provided at all levels of the system and be available to all students.
  • The arts help foster a unique perspective on the world that is invaluable in the development of human character.

When you couple these beliefs with the questions I presented in my first blog entry, you can see why the last seven weeks have been an exciting yet complicated time for me and my students.

For the past couple of months at arts@newman, we've been dancing, sketching, singing, improvising, videotaping, and photographing our way through the curriculum. The days are hectic, emotionally charged, and somewhat contentious but extremely worthwhile. And the response from students and parents has been positive. Not only do the students show up for school, they sometimes arrive at my door an hour and half early, announcing, "I'm here to work on my video" or "We're here to work on our dance" or "I'm here because my friends are here," and even "I'm here to get help with math."

In the weeks to come, I'd like to share some of the work students have accomplished in the arts@newman program, discuss the specific assignments and approaches we're developing, and review what has worked or failed thus far. I will also share the tensions of teaching I'm experiencing as I delve further into this new program.

I would appreciate your feedback -- all discussions are important to me as I work to unravel the knot of my current practice and attempt to move the arts@newman initiative forward over the next few years.

Until next time!

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Stephen Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I received an email from a colleague last night about my second blog posting. They asked for some clarification on what I meant by my second belief statement: "The current model of schooling found in most jurisdictions within North America has likely done the best job it can with our students but has reached its full potential."

This is an important one for me and I appreciate the request for clarification. Simply stated, I believe that our traditional model of schooling is limited in the effect that it can have on a student's education. I believe that we have done all we can with that model. We can't squeeze much more out of it. I believe that our reform efforts and energy should now be spent on looking for alternatives to that model.

I'll leave it at that and look forward to some response.


stephen hurley

Carson Allard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Hurley poses fundamental questions that attempt to get at the root assumptions of his practice. Through the process of re-imagining and re-inventing his teaching practice, Mr. Hurley is modeling what is required in a paradigm shift that places emphasis on the educator as learner rather than teacher. It is not just students that learn in our classrooms.
To beginning teachers, Mr. Hurley's act of challenging assumptions could serve as a testimonial that experience and/or expertise alone are not sufficient to bring about educational reform even though evidently he has plenty of both. What seems to matter more is his spirit of inquiry, of action research. There is risk in this activity because we don't always like what our inquiry reveals about us or are practice. Perhaps the "deep-seated resistance to large-scale changes within our educational systems" is more a fear of what we discover about ourselves?

Mr. Hurley is setting out to create new professional knowledge and has invited us to participate in a very public way. I look forward to visiting again and becoming an assistant gardener!

Heidi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think your ideas are intriguing, and I agree with your "fundamental beliefs about education". One of your beliefs is that many people have a resistance to educational change. The biggest problem with this truth is that these people are accepting failure as an option for so many of our students. This is especially true for seventh and eighth graders, who are so vulnerable to failure. I am eager to read more about your program and how your students respond.

j.k.r.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read this posting, because I feel tied up in knots about education right now. Much to my excitement, Mr. Hurley's writing brought to life ideas from a class I am currently taking. Our latest readings included sections on different learning styles and multiple intelligences. I have placed a great deal of thought into incorporating these ideals into my classroom. Mr. Hurley has not only brought the chance to use multiple intellegences into his classroom, but has designed an entire school as a model. The student response seems to overwhelmingly positive. His educational beliefs are an inspiration.

kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is refreshing to hear that teachers such as Mr. Hurley are willing to challenge current models of education as well as commit to principles of lifelong learning. I have to say that I am more than a little interested in discovering to what levels an arts based curriculum motivates its students. As an elementary art teacher I am no stranger to the joy of the arts. Most of my students walk into the room full of anticipation at what they might create. In addition, an arts based curriculum is sure to reach many different learning styles as students get to visualize, problem solve, and create within their lesson objectives. What I think is key above all, is that students may literally create their own curriculum (within parameters)and as a result, education becomes relevant to the learner. The arts have a much higher place in education than what our current education model has assigned them. I am very interested to read future updates and developments from Mr. Hurley.

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