This post is a follow-up to the previous one about Literacy Unbound, an arts education program. Adele Bruni, Brian Veprek, and Nathan Blom designed and planned this program at The Center for the Professional Education of Teachers (CPET), a not for profit organization operated at Teachers College. Literacy Unbound is a two-week program designed to help students and teachers interact with literature and informational text using the arts as a method to further analysis and understanding. I designed the picture to the left after exploring the themes in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the novel chosen for this year’s program. (In the picture, Edna is walking into the water, casting off restraints and hoping to set sail and fly without restraints that seek to encumber her life). During the program, there were five teaching artists who helped us explore the motifs in the novel. The overall goal of the program was to create our own “play” for the culminating performance. During the performance, visual art was displayed, music was played, songs were sung, scenes were acted, monologues were performed, and both choreographers and dancers danced.
Firstly, we explored dance and movement from various character viewpoints. We moved according to the ideas of some of the characters and we designed dances based on our interpretations of the characters thoughts and actions. For example, we knew that Edna Pontillier, the protagonist in the story, was seeking to break barriers. As a result, we designed group movement that illustrated her breaking free from a cube, while others tried to hold her back.
Secondly, we explored remixing poetry, music, and sound. We explored a section of the text and found music and poetry that related to it. We were exposed to soundscaping, a technique that is great for remixing sounds and music to further interpretation. We then combined a few lines from the text, with the found music and poetry, and remixed it with our own. Some of the participants shared their work and remixed other work that was shared in subsequent days.
Thirdly, we worked in groups and individually to create many pieces of visual art. We were told to work individually in our group. We could not discuss our work with the group members while we were creating. After each group was done, we were allowed to talk to each group member and the other members of the other groups. Subsequently, we put all the pieces of group work together to visually tell the story of The Awakening.
Lastly, one of the artists helped us understand the music in the novel. Music is an essential part of the novel. We listened to music and created movement based on our understanding of it. The following invitation to create bests illustrates some of the work we were asked to create concerning music.
Invitation to Create
“Can you think of a particular piece of music that you love? hate? Can you recall your earliest memory of that piece of music? What specific event may have shaped your relationship with that piece of music? What may have caused your relationship with this piece of music to change? What other senses might that piece of music arouse? Visual images? Smells? Are there people or places associated with it? Does it elicit a physical response of some type?”
During the last week of the Institute, we made decisions on the work to be included in our play and the order of each piece to be performed. We each had to give up “ownership” of the work. Just because we created the work did not mean that we would perform it. We adjusted quickly and easily to that decision because we wanted our performance to go smoothly. We spent two full days practicing in addition to other times as the performance day neared. It was somewhat stressful because most of us were in multiple scenes and we had to memorize and perform our scenes. Many people were invited to our performance.
Roberta Kang, one of the workers at CPET, wrote a two-page letter to us commending our performance and its outcome. She states, “Your work has been artful. Each year has been a different experience for the Literacy Unbound Company, but I knew approximately what to expect…” Roberta further opined on the performance when she said, “Let me be clear about this: I had pretty high expectations. When I first talked with Adele about this year’s program, I squealed with delight about The Awakening. I read the book in my High School AP English class and it was one of those texts that I hated, until I understood more about the historical implications of a woman’s life at that time. It was one of the first books that I hated, and then loved. And now, I love this text. And I believe in the vision of Literacy Unbound, and the expertise of the facilitators. I knew it was going to be a good show. And that it would be meaningful to you as (I hoped) you were inspired by the experience.” Furthermore, Roberta stated that “As players, you didn’t just remix or retell the story, you embodied the tension of a life without options, and I felt my own opinion of Edna transforming before my eyes.” Roberta’s emotional connection with the text was the outcome we were looking for from the audience, especially if one was familiar with the text. We aimed to prompt others to read or reread the text.
The day after the performance, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to participate in a make-believe art auction. We were given the titles and artists of various pieces of art. We then had to look for the art and make arguments why a particular character from the book (we were assigned a character) would purchase the art work. We then had to bid on the work with the fictitious money we were allotted.
Lastly, Literacy Unbound, a truly transformative education program, has changed my pedagogical approach. It has the ability to transform both the teacher and the student. Infusing art into a curriculum that otherwise would be lackluster is a way of thoroughly engaging a diverse student body.