Kal Penn Mixes Art and Math at Harding

Kal Penn working with a student

Actor Kal Penn works with a Harding Middle School student during a visit as part of the Turnaround Arts program.

Hollywood/White House persona Kal Penn was back at work again today at Harding Middle School as an ambassador for the President’s Council on the Arts & Humanities. Penn is one of the artists who lend themselves to Turnaround Arts, a public/private partnership designed to infuse arts programming throughout school curricula and boost learning across the academic board in at-risk schools. Research shows that approach works and experience here in the Northside feeder pattern where five schools (Findley, Oak Park, Madison and Cattell elementary schools in addition to Harding) receive TA grant funding backs up the research.

The focus of this visit was math, integers in particular, which 6th graders are studying. Integers are whole numbers and can have either positive or negative value. If Penn’s visits were integers, it’s clear which side of zero they’d fall on.

In keeping with the TA theme of arts incorporation Penn and Harding Arts Integration Specialist Cassie Kendzora joined Joann Jensen’s 6th grade math students in a movement exercise called a human number line. The daily learning target on the board read: “Today I can use theater skills and math knowledge to determine and communicate integer locations on a number line.”

Depending on which integer value they were assigned the students positioned themselves along a line taped to the classroom floor. It is a decidedly different approach than sticking noses into books and working in strict, solitary silence. One that students actually appear to enjoy, especially when class concludes with a Q&A session featuring a recognizable celebrity (his latest gig is a regular role on the ABC-TV hit series Designated Survivor).

“How big is the White House?” one student wondered.

“Not as big as Harding,” Penn answered cleverly, and he would know since he’s not only been there but actually worked there for a time.

“How much did you get paid?” someone wanted to know.

“$41,000,” Penn disclosed. “And that would be a good math problem – for you to figure out how much of that was left after I paid my taxes. Also, being a turnaround artist is a volunteer job. I don’t get paid anything for this.”

Speaking of White House visitors, Penn’s itinerary later in the day included a workshop with the Harding Breakerz, the school dance team he’s worked with on prior stops that’s also been to the WH where it performed last year for First Lady Michelle Obama.

Turnaround Arts was an initiative that became a priority to President and Mrs. Obama. Since they are about to leave office should the most direct beneficiaries of the program be concerned about its future?

“The results of arts integration are so positive (no integer pun intended) that plans were made before the election to transfer TA to the auspices of the Kennedy Center (for Performing Arts),” said Kendzora, thereby insulating the public/private partnership from shifting political winds. In fact, that announcement was made at the White House talent show last May that included the Breakerz.

No wonder Penn spoke to the Harding students in terms of when, not if, he would be back – again.

Video of Kal Penn at Harding Middle School

Photos of Kal Penn at Harding Middle School

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