Turnaround Arts: Making a Difference for Northside Schools

A zombie flash mob is one of many ways the arts - such as live performance - is being incorporated at several DMPS schools in the Turnaround Arts program.

A zombie flash mob is one of many ways the arts – such as live performance – is being incorporated at several DMPS schools in the Turnaround Arts program.

Maybe some of the folks passing through Capital Square Wednesday over the noon hour wondered why all those spooky kids weren’t in school instead of flashmobbing downtown. But they were.

It was the Harding Middle School Drama Club that was responsible for the reenactment of Michael Jackson’s iconic Halloween music video, “Thriller.”

The club is in its first year and is just one example of programming made possible by federal Turnaround Arts grants bestowed this year on all of the schools in the North High feeder pattern. Building on the success of TA initiatives the last two years at Findley Elementary, Cattell, Madison, Oak Park and Harding were targeted for the arts integration funding in expectation of following the Findley example.

Three of the giggling ghouls at Capital Square were the Vazquez kids: 8th grader Jizet and her two 6th grade brothers, Marcos and Antonio. When their big sister joined up for after-school Drama Club Marcos and Antonio had no choice.

“She’s got the key to our house,” explained Marcos. “So far we’re the only boys in the club.”

Not that either of them seems to mind. And not that they will be for long. The club has been meeting every day except Thursdays after school in preparation for the Halloween activities (the group also was involved with a haunted house event at Harding on Tuesday night) but that will taper to weekly meetings on Fridays now, according to Cassie Kendzora, the Arts Integration Specialist at Harding.

“We’re going to change focus now to some sort of variety show where students can explore their individual talents and interests more,” Kendzora said. “There are kids wanting to develop spoken word poetry and breakdancing creations,” including more boys.

Beatrice Vazquez is the mother of Jizet, Marcos and Antonio and she’s all for the increased emphasis at Harding on the arts.

“It’s good for them to stay involved with things connected to their school,” she said in between snapping photos of her trio of zombies. “It keeps them busy with something worthwhile after school.”

Besides the Drama Club at Harding, what are some of the other ways the TA grants are impacting learning curriculum at the other cohort schools? Each of them now has an Arts Integration Specialist on staff and they are finding lots of ways to ignite learning and achievement in core academic areas by using the arts to spark student engagement and interest. Sara Dougherty is the district’s Visual Arts Curriculum Coordinator and she gathered this summary of examples from Kendzora and her counterparts at the other affected schools: Benjamin Heinen at Cattell and Oak Park; Jane Olson and Lisa Hesse at Findley; and Nels Dovre and Kathleen Davenport at Madison:

Findley Elementary
On October 21st, Findley third graders enjoyed working with visiting artists, Fifth House Ensemble – a chamber music group based in Chicago. The group worked with all of third grade to explore how music can help bring stories and writing to life. Students became artists by drawing a character based on the sound they were hearing from specific instruments. Students even participated in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story in which they listened to music and collaborated on how the story would progress based on the sounds, pitches, instruments, and volumes they were hearing.

Cattell Elementary
Cattell has plunged headfirst into the arts integration pool. Fifth graders are choreographing a dance which illustrates the phases of the moon and are planning to share it at the fall spotlight assembly. Fourth graders have been presenting their knowledge of the human skeleton to their peers in the form of tableaus, or living pictures. In addition to blending science content and an art form, these students are learning to work cooperatively in small groups and as a whole class. Third graders are integrating their knowledge of shape and form into math lessons as they create 3-D models of arrays and graphs.

Oak Park Elementary
Students have been working hard on a school beautification project. For this installation students first engaged in a visioning exercise which asked them to write sentences illustrating their hopes and dreams for the school year. They distilled these sentences into a single word which describes how they will realize their dreams or how they will feel when that happens. This project became an integrated lesson for grades 3-5 by asking students to gather together in synonymous groups. The groups then worked together to select an analogous color scheme with which they decorated a ceiling tile featuring their designated word. The tiles will be installed in the main entryway and the project will continue until all of the hallway ceilings have been transformed into an art installation which will serve as a constant reminder of the personal investment required to be successful and how it feels to achieve goals.

Madison Elementary
Madison students, staff, and families created a meaningful art piece this year during fall conferences. Participants were asked to think of a word that best describes them or a word they want to work on this year. They were asked to decorate a popsicle stick with Crayola supplies and write their word on it. Sticks were glued together to create a Madison word quilt. The finished pieces are up in the main hallway, allowing everyone to admire, and point out the piece they contributed to this community art project.

Wright Elementary
Wright isn’t officially one of the TA schools but is a designated Artful Learning school. The arts are a part of the teaching that happens every day in every classroom. Currently fifth grade students will create story quilts based on the work of Faith Ringgold as a culminating project. Kindergarten students are participating in dance workshops which tie into a performance they will attend at the Civic Center. The dancing ties to the curriculum as the students focus on the parts of a story including characters and setting. All of the teachers at Wright deepen learning for students through art integration.

“As the Turnaround Arts initiative gets underway in these schools, we are seeing the foundations being built for school improvement through the arts,” Dougherty said. “Students are given pathways to learning that are engaging and creative; teachers are honing their craft through professional development and support from their Arts Integration Specialists. Even the physical school buildings are becoming more arts-rich and inviting.”

What’s next for the TA cohort? “We are really looking forward to some big events,” she answered, brightening at the question she hoped would be asked, “including school visits by Broadway actors and a collaboration with Des Moines Performing Arts around The Lion King.”

The word on the Northside streets these days is hakuna matata.

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