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arts@newman: A Creative Effort to Unravel Educational Knots

Stephen Hurley

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

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Stephen Hurley

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

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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.

Matt Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like those ideas. I think there needs to be more of an emphasis on the arts. I believe that the arts is an easier avenue to create more higher level thinking. As a high school art teacher that reinforces what I am doing in the classroom. My question to Mr. Hurley how has fellow educators accepted this idea of change in education? I am interested in how this program will work out.

Sue Caplan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read Mr. Hurley's beliefs about education and I couldn't agree more. I have tried in my fifth grade classroom and as a part of the district curriculum committee to integrate the ideas mentioned by Mr. Hurley. Using multiple intelligences and individual learning styles to guide the lesson plans increases student learning. But there is resistance to this style of learning from people who "did it differently" in their day. These people do not understand the depth of collective learning experiences as each member contributes their unique talent to a lesson or project. This can take the wind out of my sails sometimes.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's good to hear your thoughts about making change from the traditional to what touches students. I, too, have such a desire to do that. Many of the ways that you take the content that is being discussed and synthesize it into so many forms is great and I'm sure that your students truly enjoy this. They become their own producer !! I am a general music teacher in a sixth grade school and have understood the enjoyment of improvisation in pedagogy especially as I teach six classes everyday of essentially the same content. I need the variety to reach my students in addition to get my excitement level high. I had a teacher share with me today a picture book of Ella Fitzgerald and asked if I might want to use this in my classroom. I jumped at the possibilities that could develop from this. Thanks again. May you always be blessed as you inspire others and encourage others to grow.

Amber Dorsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a middle school art teacher, and at times it is as if I do not even exist. I am forced to attend meetings on achievement tests and about core subjects. I can understand how our students can be so boared with the curriculum. I could not agree more with changing things up a little. Although, the change would be wonderful, it would never happen here. We teach to the standardized testing, and that is all. It is not fun, but at least we still have an art program so the students can have a little creative outlet. Bravo to you for taking a stand and exploring new things. Good Luck!

Gena DiGiovanni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to take this opportunity to commend Stephen Hurley. His passion for his students and his understanding of the benefits of alternate models of schooling, is very resfreshing. My daughter is a student in Stephens class, so I have seen first hand the benefits of the arts @ newman program.My daughter has always been a very bright student academically, and has been participating in musical theatre since the age of 7, however she has always struggled with confidence in her day to day life. I felt that her being in this arts based program would give her the avenue she needed to start feeling secure about sharing her talents and feeling more confident. I had no idea that having Stephen Hurley for a teacher would have such an overwhelming affect on my daughter. Strangely enough even though she had many theatre performance experiences in her life, school was not a place she would ever show those talents; I along with many of her previous teachers had serious concerns about her ability to deal with the daily struggles of dealing with peers, homework and day to day school life. Attending school was extremely stressful for my daughter, she put so much pressure on herself to get good grades and to please everyone around her that it was taking its toll on her emotionally. My daughter is also a gifted singer, a talent that she was afraid to showcase at school for fear of being judged. Shortly after school began in September I began to see a change in my daughter that was remarkable. A new found confidence was beginning to emerge, with Stephen's guidance and performance opportunities, she began enjoying school and started feel feel accepted by her peers and of course by Mr. Hurley. As a parent it also taught me that school is not just about the basics of reading, writing and is about learning and teaching tolerance, acceptance and confidence in a non-judgemental way. I believe that embracing this philosophy in teaching will bring great things to any classroom. I could go on and on about all the positive things that have happened with the arts @ newman program, but I will end now by saying that we have been truly blessed by having a teacher like Stephen in our lives and in the lives of our children.

Kim Benvegna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Stephen,

It appears that you have found a truly worthwhile alternative to the "traditional model" as you describe it. We all have a story to tell, our children need to know that whether their's appears idyllic or contentious, it is their story and shapes who they are in profound ways. Forgive my corny connection, but Oprah once said that we need to bless our past in order to move forward into our future.

Many of our children have struggled and suffered more in their youth than many adults can claim to in a lifetime. It is essential for them to deal with the issues that have shaped their lives, and in so doing move forward into a future of possibility. Real life experiences make learning meaningful and truly worthwhile, in ways that no test score ever has. These children need to be defined by more than a pass or fail grade, they deserve the rite to share their experiences and express their culture, their passion and themselves and be validated for their efforts.

Congratulations for your efforts, your courage and hard work!


Michelle Cosgrave's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter has been with Mr Hurley for 2 years now .She is absolutely thriving in this environment. This summer she actually couldnt wait to get back to school knowing she was going to be in Mr Hurleys class again .
All I can say is the programme is working !

Arien Christopher's picture
Arien Christopher
Art's Resource Coach - Dance (Project CREATES, Tulsa Public Schools)

Mr. Hurley,
I agree that there is great fear and resistance to change among some educators and administrators. I also feel that there are probably an equal number of very innovative teachers wondering how to get it all done in the confines of the restrictive school environment. How did you come up with a model that both satisfies the district needs (standards, pacing calendars, etc) AND allows for a wholly new approach which sounds very student centered? What is the model you are working with at arts@newman?

chepa - 4056's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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