March 2, 2022
Spotlight: Our Arts Learning Program
For nearly two years, the Fry Foundation’s Arts Learning grantees have exhibited resiliency, creativity, and deep commitment to their students. When schools—with little warning—closed to in-person learning in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, grantees pivoted to remote instruction and, where possible, in-person instruction with socially distanced public health mitigations. In the first half of the 2021-22 school year, most grantees happily returned to in-person instruction but remain prepared to return to remote instruction if necessary. And we are keenly aware that our grantees, and the schools they work in, continue to operate under enormous stress. In late 2021, the Omicron variant caused spikes in infections, leading to high absentee rates for students, teachers, teaching artists, and school administrative staff.
Despite all of these challenges, Fry Foundation grantees continue to provide high quality arts instruction and always put the needs of young people first. Over the last two years we saw grantees go the extra mile; maintaining excellence while always being there for teachers, children and young people during a stressful time. We could point to all our grantees but today we are highlighting how two Arts Learning grantees learned, adapted, and kept students at the center of the work.
New ways to stay connected to students:
The Chicago Children’s Choir is one of the best youth choral programs in the country. When the pandemic hit, it transitioned to video lessons with audio practice tracks. Despite the fact that students weren’t in the same physical room, the Choir used technology to keep students moving and learning dance choreography together. As pandemic restrictions eased and the Choir transitioned back to in-person rehearsals, instructors continue to keep the mental and physical health of students in mind. If for any reason a student needs to stay home, they can always participate in virtual rehearsals.
Over the last ten years, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (PRAA) has become an important member of Chicago’s music education community. The Latin Music Project is a community-centric, heritage-based music program that provides students with a strong foundation in instrumental music. During the pandemic, PRAA created an online platform with instructional video content, weekly practice guides, and online discussion boards to make sure students could continue to participate in music instruction. Students were also able to upload performance samples that allowed teachers to provide feedback and coaching. The program has transitioned back to in-person learning, but the online platform is a helpful supplement to weekly instruction and to ensuring consistent participation if a student or teacher requires a break from in-person instruction.
Integrating new approaches into arts instruction:
The Foundation’s Arts Learning program centers the quality of the arts learning experience. At the same time, we recognize that there are new approaches to teaching and learning that can create a more meaningful experience for students. Grantees have accelerated the integration of approaches that improve student engagement in learning; make learning relevant to a student’s cultural experience; build a student’s capacity for self and social awareness and self-management; and ensure that students feel safe and supported in the arts learning environment. We are seeing an increase in requests from grantees to help build their capacity in these areas.
Forward Momentum is an example of an arts learning organization that believes effective arts learning happens best when it integrates social-emotional learning. As the pandemic has placed additional stresses on already vulnerable students, Forward Momentum wanted to build its own understanding of how to support students who may be experiencing trauma. With the help of the Fry Foundation, the program provided its teaching artists with professional learning in trauma-informed practices. Instructors who are trained in trauma-informed practices can identify signs of trauma, have systems and supports in place to help respond to trauma, and incorporate practices that avoid re-traumatizing students. This may look like facilitating mindfulness, movement, or breathing activities that connect with the art and relieve stressors so students can re-engage with dance instruction.
Intonation Music Workshop provides students with culturally responsive instrumental music education. Its instructional model is student-driven and grounded in best practices in music education, social-emotional learning, and Creative Youth Development. The program gives students the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning and make key decisions, such as selecting the repertoire and composing original music. When the program transitioned to virtual instruction during the pandemic, students created original pieces through an online composition software. Students were able to collaborate with one another in composing original songs and make musical decisions throughout the process. Over the course of the year, Intonation saw the social-emotional benefits as students used songwriting activities to express their feelings and emotions, which helped reduce feelings of isolation.
The Challenges Ahead: Reestablishing School Partnerships
Arts Education in Chicago is provided through a rich collaboration among CPS art teachers and arts and cultural partners. Over the last two years, Chicago Public Schools provided the infrastructure for remote learning and arts organizations built their capacity to provide online instruction. But the uncertain conditions made it difficult for schools to prioritize partnerships with outside organizations, including arts partners. Fry Foundation grantee, Ingenuity, reported that prior to the pandemic, there were 551 non-profit arts organizations partnering with CPS schools. The overnight shift to remote learning resulted in the cancellation of many arts residency programs. Ingenuity reported an almost 21% decrease in school partnerships during the first year of the pandemic. Fry Foundation grantees reported about an average of 11% decrease in school partners. While not optimal, we think this reflects the ability of Fry Foundation grantees to build and maintain strong relationships with school partners and the value that school partners place on the work of grantees. While the pandemic still looms large for all of us, Fry Foundation Arts Learning grantees have demonstrated a commitment to learning and to ensuring that they continue to provide students with creative learning opportunities during a time of unprecedented challenge. The Fry Foundation will continue to support arts organizations with the capacity to partner with CPS schools, provide high-quality and engaging arts education, and test new approaches that improve the arts learning experience.