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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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