February 22, 2023
Spotlight: Our Arts Learning Program
For over twenty-five years, the Fry Foundation has supported efforts to improve access to high quality arts learning experiences for Chicago students. This is driven by a deep interest from Fry Foundation board members who want to ensure that young people have opportunities to engage deeply in the arts through art making and art experiences. The Foundation prioritizes funding for Chicago arts and cultural organizations with the capacity to do both these things: provide high quality arts instruction and expose students to artists and art performances and exhibitions.
The last three-years have seen many challenges for Chicago’s arts and cultural community and our grantee partners. Through the hardest days of the pandemic, arts venues were closed and students and educators were teaching and learning remotely. Artists and educators immediately recognized that arts learning had a supportive role to play during a time of isolation and stress. It was no surprise that the National Endowment of Arts found that art classes during the pandemic provided needed relief for students through creativity and self-expression.
As the risks of the pandemic abated and students returned to classrooms, principals and teachers looked for programs to help students reengage with school and with learning. These educators prioritized programs that balanced strong curricula with research-based practices that addressed students’ social and emotional needs, offered students highly engaging learning experiences, and had the potential to support students who experienced trauma. Fry Foundation grantee partners were well positioned to step up and fill this need.
The Arts Can Engage Students and Engagement Improves Arts Learning
There is often an assumption that all by themselves the arts are engaging – even life changing. But our grantee partners understand that like all academic subject matter, arts learning requires effective instructional approaches that cultivate high levels of student engagement. This is because students who are highly engaged have richer learning experiences. They are more likely to excel, form a connection with the art form and practice, and develop a positive sense of well-being. And instructional approaches that emphasize engagement have become more important as students and schools continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
Even before the Pandemic, many of our grantee partners were adding instructional tools to their toolboxes. This included integrating approaches such as Creative Youth Development (CYD), culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning (SEL), and trauma-informed instruction - all in an effort to provide supportive, meaningful and rigorous arts learning experiences. There can be overlap among these different approaches, but each has an important role to play.
- Creative Youth Development in the Arts integrates rigorous arts instruction with life skills such as leadership, collaboration, agency, and authenticity. CYD arts programs help students practice the skills of an artist and encourage them to think critically about what they want to communicate through their artistic work.
- Culturally Responsive Teaching recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references and identities in all aspects of learning. When properly integrated into classroom instruction, culturally responsive instruction can strengthen students' sense of identity, promote equity and inclusivity in the classroom, reinforce personal connections to the art form, and support critical thinking and artistic decision-making.
- Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a critical part of education and human development. It helps students develop healthy identities, manage emotions, feel and show empathy, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. These skills impact a student's capacity to learn across all subject areas. The arts are often thought of as an area where arts learning and SEL can be mutually-reinforcing. The most effective arts instruction can bolster SEL, and SEL can bolster arts learning.
- Trauma-informed instruction integrates with SEL approaches, but also considers the pervasive nature of trauma and creates environments of healing and recovery. Instructors who are trained in trauma-informed practices can identify signs of trauma, access systems and supports to help respond to trauma, and incorporate practices that avoid re-traumatizing students. Strategies may include the use of mindfulness, movement, or breathing activities to connect with the art and relieve stressors so students can re-engage with instruction
While these instructional approaches are important in more stable and typical learning environments, they are particularly applicable as students continue to recover from three years of stress, isolation, and inconsistent schooling. Prior to the pandemic, most grantee partners had already begun to offer training for teaching artists on integrating SEL into arts instruction, on understanding and identifying trauma, and in culturally responsive practices. And most programs working with teens already incorporated CYD into their program models. So, Fry Foundation grantees were ready to respond to the needs of schools and students as the impacts of the pandemic lessened and students returned to in-person learning.
Here are three examples of grantee partners and how they incorporate these approaches into arts learning:
Forward Momentum is the largest dance education program in Chicago. It offers both in-school and after-school dance instruction that includes a diverse range of dance styles including classical ballet, creative movement, hip-hop, Latin, and African dance styles. Forward Momentum leadership has long understood that in-order to effectively learn dance, students need the social emotional skills to engage in learning. These skills include self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills. To ensure the quality of dance learning is consistent across all its classrooms, Forward Momentum invests heavily in professional development that includes SEL and trauma informed practices for all teaching artists.
Intonation Music Workshop provides innovative music education for students in the Bronzeville community. It offers weekly instruction through modern (rock) band instrumental ensembles. Ensembles include twelve students who work with two Intonation teaching artists to select songs from the contemporary music canon to learn and perform as a group. Each student learns how to play multiple instruments including the guitar, bass, drums, piano, as well as vocals and to compose original music through digital music production software. The rigor of instruction and the complexity of the repertoire increases as students progress through the program. High school students can advance to its All-Star bands, where teens write and perform original songs, organize their own rehearsal schedules, and identify their own performance opportunities. Well before the pandemic, Intonation was integrating SEL into instruction and CYD into program design. Helping students work together as an ensemble is an example of how SEL supports collaboration and how Creative Youth Development gives students the autonomy to make artistic choices and work like an artist.
South Chicago Dance Theatre is a dance and theatre organization located in the South Shore community. It performs and provides education programs focused on the fusion of classical and contemporary dance styles. South Chicago Dance Theatre works in thirteen Chicago public schools offering both in-school and after school residencies. These residencies provide instruction in jazz, ballet, West African, hip hop, and modern dance styles. Teaching artists help students create original pieces that reflect their own lived experiences and may challenge stereotypes based on race, socioeconomic status, or community. The purpose is to create original dance that allows students to create and own their personal narrative. This is an example of how culturally responsive teaching can help students incorporate their own life experience into a meaningful art-making and learning experiences.
Each year, we see our grantee partners continue to refine their programs with emerging best practices in arts education and provide training to prepare teaching artists for the ever-changing needs of a CPS classroom. As always, we look forward to learning with and from our grantee partners to continue to give students excellent arts learning opportunities.
To learn more about how these approaches to learning contribute to arts education please explore these resources: