They’re Back: The Return of the Turnaround Artists

Cristina Pato of the Silk Road Project leads students at Madison Elementary School in a music and dance lesson.

Cristina Pato of the Silk Road Project leads students at Madison Elementary School in a music and dance lesson.

They’re baaack!

Monday morning Kal Penn returned to Harding Middle School, just as he promised last April. And on Tuesday, members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project were back at Madison Elementary School.

“I’ll definitely be back,” Penn declared six months ago, “so you 6th and 7th graders, I’ll see you again. You can’t get rid of me. I chose Harding so you’re stuck with me.”

Lucky them, and here’s why:

Actor Kal Penn spent two days working with students at Harding Middle School.

Actor Kal Penn spent two days working with students at Harding Middle School.

Penn, most recognizably of Harold & Kumar and House fame, might be the most uniquely qualified of the 50 or so professional artists affiliated with the Turnaround Arts program under the auspices of the President’s Council on Arts & Humanities (PCAH). Prior to First Lady Michelle Obama’s launch of PCAH he was already involved in public service as the Associate Director of Public Engagement for the White House. In addition Penn has taught at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn’s Professor Penn?) in the Cinema Studies Program as a visiting lecturer while on sabbatical from his acting career.

Who better to conduct cross-curricular workshops like the one on civics and theater that happened Monday morning in Kevin Klimowski’s social studies classroom at Harding? Students pushed their desks aside and formed a big circle for a series of acting exercises that culminated with small-group tableau depictions of the concept of American liberty.

That’s what Turnaround Arts is all about; integration of the arts into all academic disciplines to spur learning and achievement across the board. And to hear Penn tell it, DMPS has been at the forefront of the federal experiment ever since Findley Elementary was selected as part of the pilot cohort of schools nationwide in 2013. Since then the entire Northside feeder pattern (Cattell, Madison and Oak Park elementary schools in addition to Findley as well as Harding) has come into the fold.

“I think Turnaround Arts is widely viewed as having been particularly successful in Des Moines,” Penn said between classes on Monday. “What’s happening here is considered a national model as the program continues to expand around the country.”

The benefits of Turnaround Arts are both measureable (higher test scores and attendance; drastically reduced office referrals for discipline) and visceral (whole family engagement; higher staff and community morale).

“The positivity of these students is amazing,” Penn said before dropping in on Kathleen Wilcoxen’s Hip Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme class where 8th graders bound for the Urban Leadership program at Central Campus in high school were immersed in multi-genre memoirs they’ve been working on. “They are so inquisitive and excited about being part of something they see as special.”

Wilcoxen’s students were eager to give Penn a peek at the poems and visual artwork they’re working on about themselves. Two of them, Emily and Jocelyn, are launching a Poetry Club this year at Harding that was to hold its first meeting after school on Monday. Another, Carmen, was wearing a t-shirt that read HARDING CHOIRS. Penn the artist was right at home among these kids.

As were Cristina Pato and Shane Shanahan representing Silk Road Ensemble (SRE), a Grammy-nominated, nonprofit Yo-Yo Ma enterprise that includes members from 20 different countries, at Madison.

Pato hails from Spain. Like Penn, she was here last spring. Shanahan’s a renowned drummer and the Lead Teaching Artist for SRE’s arts-integrated education initiative, Silk Road Connect.

When TA artists like Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (Findley), Broadway star John Lloyd Young (Cattell and Oak Park), Penn and SRE come to DMPS they’re not just going through motions. They’re world-class artists honoring an obligation they feel to pass a torch. Pato and Shanahan have been with Silk Road since its inception 15 years ago. They are as gifted at connecting with kids as they are at performing for the audiences they’ve entertained worldwide.

“How did you pick your instrument?” one of the Madison 4th graders wanted to know. Pato, who hails from a small city in Spain where bagpipes are deeply ingrained in the culture, had a ready answer.

“Playing is a way for me to stay connected with my roots and carry on an important tradition,” she said.

“Why do you like to play music?” another student asked.

“Music is a powerful way to express feelings and emotions,” said Pato. “It’s a beautiful way of sharing.”

Tuesday morning the Madison 4th graders shared a couple of folk songs with their guests that they’ve been practicing with their music teacher, Nels Dovre. Their singing was charming but tentative.

“Let’s put some pep in your step,” Shanahan suggested. And a quick lesson in body language ensued. Pato divided the class into “potatoes” and “guacamole.” They liked that and began to loosen. First the two groups were pitted against each other in friendly competition. Pizazz was added to their footwork, then some hand-clapping. Whatever may have still been lacking in rhythm was more than offset by enthusiasm.

“Kids all have a little hidden switch that the arts can flip,” Pato said in explanation of why she lends herself to the Turnaround Arts outreach. She’s good at finding the switch and flipping it.

DMPS Turnaround Arts Coordinator Sara Dougherty, aka the district’s Queen of Arts, emphasized the ripple effect the visiting artists have on students’ families. “What we are seeing in the Turnaround Arts schools is the whole community becomes more engaged.”

Showcase events like visits from professional artists have the residual effect of sparking sustained involvement on the part of parents.

“School becomes something not to be missed anymore,” Dougherty said, and not just for the kids. So the federal investment that makes TA possible pays the dividend of increased investment locally by the primary stakeholders.

The keynote of this round of drop-ins by the pros was a Tuesday afternoon assembly at Madison. Accompanied by Mr. Dovre on guitar the 4th grade singers opened with an appropriately solemn rendition of “Oh, Shenandoah.” Then, exhorted by their morning mentors from the back of the gym, they rocked the house with “Somos El Barco,” a bilingual we’re-all-in-this-together tune complete with peppy stepping, confident grins and a crescendo chorus. With the pump primed by the warmup act, Pato and Shanahan took the stage for a mesmerizing, ancient-sounding duet that mixed moans stroked from a hand-held drum with bagpiped shepherd calls and chants to spellbind a neighborhood full of kids who had never heard such things but will not forget them now that they have.

All that was left was for Penn to relay the greetings of his “boss,” the First Lady, to the audience. He told the Madison kids that he and his partners from SRE were there because she thinks they’re special and they seemed pleased by the notion that now even the President’s wife knows their secret.

Photos of Turnaround Artists at Harding, Madison

DMPS-TV Video of Kal Penn & The Silk Road Ensemble at DMPS

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