Fluttering in the breeze, a display of student artwork hangs from a clothesline that stretches across the school yard. It’s a new twist on the term online learning.
Created by students from California’s Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, the exhibition is an example of literatura de cordel (string literature), a traditional form of Brazilian art that is being used in EDC’s art-centered SmART Schools program.
The use of literatura de cordel helps keep students engaged with each other and interested in learning. Conducted by SmART Schools and Habla: The Center for Culture and Language, the initiative taps the belief that cultural immersion can break down barriers and engage students and teachers alike.
“SmART Schools is not just an arts program,” says EDC’s Eileen Mackin, founder and director of the program. Instead, she explains, it uses arts to engage students and teachers in socializing and building a community. “Students achieve deeper understanding in core academic areas, such as literacy, math, science, and social studies, through arts integration, including dance, music, theater, and visual arts,” she says.
Inexpensive and easy to make, literatura de cordel combines literacy with the visual arts, making it an ideal vehicle for SmART Schools. Students constantly revise their work in response to feedback from their classmates and teachers, and use the cordel format to visually represent themes from a text to help them better interpret and comprehend what they have read. The open-ended format allows students to share their work at their own pace, view other works for inspiration, and have the flexibility to take down and edit their work.
Habla cofounder and SmART Schools partner Kurt Wootton explains the impact of literatura de cordel, as both Brazilian folk art and a classroom learning tool. He writes, “In the same way the cordel was an ideal medium for artists to publish their work in communities, the cordel serves the same purposes in the classroom—a democratic means of publication and a symbol of how writing is a social process.”
Culture in the classroom
As part of SmART Schools’ new initiative, leadership teams from three schools from across the United States will travel to Habla’s facility in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula to participate in an intensive five-day Crossing Borders institute. Each school will have a four-member leadership team that will include at least one arts teacher and/or teaching artist, a classroom teacher, and a school administrator (a principal or assistant principal).
Participants will learn about the various local art forms, as well as the political and cultural history of the Yucatán. Through hands-on workshops facilitated by Habla and SmART Schools staff, they will also develop skills to engage in culturally relevant arts-integration practices. When they return to their own schools in the United States, they will become trainers and coaches, sharing what they have learned.
During this past year, SmART Schools and Habla partnered in providing a series of professional development opportunities for the four participating Santa Monica Title I SmART Schools. Classroom teachers and artists engaged in workshops, facilitated by Wootton and other Habla staff, to build the capacity for culturally relevant classroom practices.
Recently, during the annual Santa Monica Festival, SmART Schools teachers and students showcased the student work inspired by this training. In addition, the SmART Schools local artists invited the community to create and hang their own works as part of an environmentally themed “green cordel.”
Over the past 11 years, the SmART Schools program has been effectively implemented in schools across the country. In Rhode Island, Oakland Beach Elementary moved from being categorized as “low performing/not improving” to “high performing/improving” (based on students’ standardized testing scores). It was also named a National Title I Distinguished School in just three years time. Additionally, Cathy Davis Hayes, an Oakland Beach visual arts teacher, was named Rhode Island Teacher of the Year in 2007 for her instrumental role in transforming her school into a SmART School.
SmART Schools’ current work with the Santa Monica district is largely funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The partnership with Habla is funded by the National Endowment of the Arts.
Originally published on October 27, 2009