'Arts Alive' -- or, one way to harness youthful energies

Sixth- to eighth-graders seem to have boundless energy. It's not hard to tell when they are not paying attention in class. At the very least, students' eyes gravitate to the window. When the teacher's back is turned, there might be crackling sounds of paper airplanes being folded or spitballs made, punctuated by giggles and the scrapping of chairs.

So how can that pencil-tapping, foot-scraping energy be transformed into learning? Well, the Next Move Theater and the Institute of Contemporary Art have a program called "Arts Alive" that makes class an event that involves more than watching the teacher's mouth open and close, more than looking at phantom shapes moving across a screen.

The two institutions have trained five "teachings fellows" to go into 12 Boston middle schools and, in four workshops, teach students to experience ideas by using their reflexes, muscles, and senses the way they might in a physical activity. The "teaching fellows" combine game-playing with art and drama.

"To urban kids, museums mean money, mausoleum," says Martha Mayo, project coordinator. "Kids don't know art is still happening. They think artists are all dead."

"They think art is for somebody else to know about," says Nancy Miller, curator of education at the art institute. "Museum- and theater-going are too passive. You're not supposed to touch anything in a museum." Nancy designed the program with Thalia McMillion, director of education at the Next Move Theater.

"Our object was not to teach middle-school children studio art, or how to produce a play, but to better appreciate the cultural institutions the city has to offer. We're trying to break the stereotypes," she explains.

Perhaps the most important stereotype the "Arts Alive" program may help to banish is the belief that the arts have nothing to do with everyday life. Learning to appreciate culture in the "Arts Alive" program develops four skills that have everything to do with life -- observation, interpretation, evaluation, communication.

No longer are pleasure and learning artificially separated into recess and class in the student's mind. After one of the sessions, thalia McMillion overheard one chils say, "I didn't think this would be fun." The project is designed so that it soon becomes obvious that full enjoyment of almost anything -- even recess -- is dependent upon learning, increased by the ability to observe, interpret, etc. The four skills, along with the pleasure they have been founs to provide, can then be transferred to other scholastic and practical fields, such as history, math, business.

"We also try to provide experiences that will help the schools desegregate. One of the four sessions includes a field trip to the ICA and the Next Move. We balance out the percentages of black and white children so that the institutions become neutral territory for them to play and solve problems together," Miss Miller says.

In a way, the workshops bring the fascination of the outdoors into the classroom or institution. Outdoors is a place to play. Whoever heard of playing a game using a picture hung in a museum? Yet that's what happens at the ICA.The outdoors is a never-ending stream of colors, sights, and sounds. So are pictures. At the institute, paintings are even able to evoke sounds.

Sometimes Mrs. Mayo asks the young people in the groups she takes around to make the noises that might accompany the event depicted in a Florina Stettheimer painting. "Arts Alive" is very apt here, for the children literally make the picture come to life -- a little differently every time -- by taking on the character of the people in the painting. "I have them act out what happened at one step in time before and after an incident was frozen on canvas. Costumes were even provided for the Stettheimer show," Mrs. Mayo says.

But how can some things in a picture be experienced physically? Take a line, for instance. How can anyone experience a line except by looking at it? How can anyone experience the fact that a line -- even when it hasn't been made into something recognizable like a face or pair of running feet -- can still express emotion or movement? In one activity conducted at the ICA, students from the Mackey School in Boston were asked to make a gesture corresponding to a line in a picture. Then, the others were to try to find that line in the painting. At this point kids who had been inspecting the ICa's rather unusual stairwell began to crowd around the picture, too.

Another activity has the students join hands to make a line wriggle like a snake. One of the "teaching fellows," Glenn Cohen, has planned to give each student a piece of colored string and have the students move it on a piece of paper in time to various popular tunes. He's ask them to make the string into shapes that correspond to the mood of the songs.

"It's participation that makes the difference," says Yvonne Winn. "The first session, when the teaching fellow explained what the program was all about, the kids didn't quite catch on to what was going on. When the games started, you could see the light flickering in their heads. The kids enjoyed the improvisations put on by the Next Move Theater on topics they suggested, as if they were watching a movie. But after it was over, when they could ask questions of the actors and actresses and could take part in the skits, that's when the light really came on," Ms. Winn says.

Jane Skelton's class asks, "Are you scared doing that?" "Do you really make all that up without a script?" To the last question one of the actors answers, "Sure. You can, too. You're improvising all the time. You don't go up to someone on the step, pull out a script and say 'hello.'"

"We try to make our sessions nonthreatening," Miss McMillion says. "Kids don't have to worry if they have what it takes to do something, so they can relax and have fun."

Later, the teaching fellows were asked to pick a lemon out of a bag, pair up, and spend a couple of minutes talking about their lemon with a partner. I could hear them murmuring things like: "It feels so nice and cold," "I squeezed it but it doesn't give at all." Then they were asked, "What have those lemons taught me about museums?" Alhie answered: "I notice a lot of little details; nothing much gets past me. But now I see tht in other ways I don't notice things. When I go to a museum, I just pass things off with 'Oh, isn't this nice?' or 'What's that doing here?,' without really looking at them. Next time I'll really look and maybe find I'll enjoy things I never thought I would."

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