Nine-year-old Luise’s painting is about more than the wooly white sheep and verdant fields that distinguish her family’s farm in Latvia. It’s about patience and diligence.
And if the students in Connecticut who see her painting understand this, then Creative Connections has succeeded, says Alan Steckler, founder and CEO of the Norwalk, Conn.-based nonprofit organization.
Through ArtLink, Creative Connection’s main program, American students are partnered with children from one of nearly 50 other countries. The children are asked to draw or paint a picture of what they most value in their daily life or culture. After exchanging the artworks, the classes participate in a videoconference, which allows students to share ideas face-to-face in real time.
“The art opens a window into other cultures and gets the children talking about other things,” Mr. Steckler says from his office beneath the Stepping Stones Museum for Children. “The students walk away thinking the children they ‘meet’ are real kids, and they are a lot like me. There are some special differences, but we are more alike than we thought.”
Recently, students from the Weston Middle School in Weston, Conn., participated in a videoconference with the Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman, Jordan. Students discussed the meaning of freedom of choice during the hour-long session.
“It was a real mind opener. They were looking at a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and that led to a discussion about the choice to wear a head covering, or not, if you are Muslim in Jordan,” Steckler says. “The art allowed the students to get into the values, and the issues, of a different culture.”
That’s an invaluable lesson for teachers like Amanda Quaintance, who teaches social studies at Weston Middle School.
“I’m always keeping my eyes open to connect my students with the lands they are studying in a modern way,” Ms. Quaintance says. “I thought this was an ingenious idea. And when the students in Jordan got to see us holding their artwork, and we saw they were holding our artwork – across the world – it was just a magical moment.”
Steckler founded Creative Connections in 1992. More than 220 classrooms take part in ArtLink each year. This includes the classes participating in Rainforest ArtLink, which pairs US students with students in the rainforest regions of Latin America.
Steckler, an American, graduated from college in the United States, but got a job teaching in England, where he stayed for 11 years. Upon returning to the US, he says, he was surprised how insular his students seemed. After teaching at public and private US schools he studied for a master’s degree at Bank Street College in New York City.
But instead of teaching again, Steckler says, he wanted to develop a program where children around the world could meet as equals and have a real exchange.
For him, art proved to be the great equalizer. This is important for US children, who may have more material wealth than a student in Guatemala or somewhere in Africa, he says.
The American students learn about a different kind of "richness of their lives that’s pretty neat,” he says.
Creative Connections now has more than 3,000 pieces of student art in its collection. Each piece is protected under plastic. A short biography, an explanation of the piece, and photo of the artist is taped to the back of each one.
“There is a great joy for all of us when the art comes in. It’s always so charming to read about [the children's] likes and dislikes, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Polly Loughran, Creative Connection’s program director.
While the international schools don’t pay a fee to participate in ArtLink, American schools pay between $600 and $700. Grants and donations help fund the program in underprivileged US schools. About 40 percent of the exchanges are fully or partially funded, Steckler says.
Creative Connections also sponsors the International Young Performers’ Tour, which introduces American youths to dancers and musicians from other countries. In the past artists from Russia, China, India, Colombia, Ireland, and Cambodia have performed on area stages.
But it’s more than just a performance. The tour provides a look behind the curtain of what life is like for the visiting performers in their home country.
Abantu Mu Buntu, a Ugandan Children’s Music Troupe, will visit Connecticut and Westchester, N.Y., this April. After the performance students will watch videos about what school and home life is like for the dancers.
“We’re not an arts program,” Steckler says. “We’re about changing attitudes and minds.”