All posts by Guest Blogger

A Participatory Understanding of Creativity

Attendees at the Sam Francis Foundation Creativity in Learning roundtable at the Isabella Stewart Gardner MuseumGuided by the  question of how can we foster creative capacity in our children?, the Sam Francis Foundation recently hosted a roundtable discussion at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to surface new perspectives on nurturing creativity in learning.

Although some familiar themes emerged in our conversation—the importance of material resources, access to mentorship, and the necessity of safe spaces in which to create—one aspect brought to light was especially compelling: participatory creativity.

The group wrestled with the ways in which popular notions of creativity (ie. the “lone genius”) create unintended barriers for participation for many young people. In response to this dilemma, Project Zero researcher and creativity scholar Edward Clapp argued that we should move away from an individually-based understanding of creativity toward a participatory understanding of creativity:

Maintaining an individual orientation towards creativity is harmful to young people in a few different ways. First, it suggests that some people are more or less creative than others, or that some people are creative whereas other people aren’t. This misconception puts students on false career tracks that don’t take advantage of their potential… in contemporary workplaces, we don’t bring lone geniuses together to solve complex problems, we bring teams of people together to solve problems. If we think of creativity in terms of ideas rather than individuals, we open up the possibility for multiple people with many abilities and perspectives to participate in the creative process.

Reframing our understanding of creativity as a social and distributed process, Clapp argues, is a necessary first step in ensuring that a greater number of students can access creative learning experiences and develop their creativity.

Given MCC’s commitment to ensuring that a greater number of our young people have access to creative youth development opportunities, we’re excited by this line of thinking and how participatory approaches to creativity may increase equity throughout the field of creative youth development.

Does this idea of a Participatory Understanding of Creativity resonate with you/your work?

Mass Creates 1st State Program to Support El Sistema Music Education

Last week, a crowd of nearly three hundred joined us at Artist for Humanity’s EpiCenter as we announced the launch of SerHacer, MCC’s newest grant program supporting creative youth development. SerHacer (To Make, To Be) will provide pilot grants, instruments, and technical support to the following youth music programs across Massachusetts:

  •  Berkshire Children and Families, a social service agency based in Pittsfield. Its Kids 4 Harmony program meets after school each day at Morningside Community School.
  • El Sistema at Conservatory Lab, a Dorchester charter school that provides extended day learning that includes 15 hours of music each week.
  • Bridge Boston Charter School, founded just three years ago and growing one grade per year at which every student makes music every day.
  • Worcester Chamber Music Society, operates an afterschool program known as Neighborhood Strings in Worcester.
  • Josiah Quincy School Orchestra Program, a Boston Public School, which offers an hour and a half of music, before and during the school day.
  • MusiConnects in Mattapan, home of the Boston Public Quartet, which works afterschool with students who would not otherwise have access to music education.
  • El Sistema Somerville, an afterschool program at the East Somerville Community School that is also supported by city government.
  • Also three organizations will receive planning grants to explore new programming: Cape Conservatory in Hyannis; Boston Conservatory, which is working to develop a choral program for young people on the autistic spectrum; and Berkshire Children and Families, which will expand its work to North Adams next year.

State Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg congratulated our grantees, and called SerHacer “another innovation for Massachusetts that will help our young people lead more active civic lives and discover their own potential.” Picking up on this thread, Robert Lynch, CEO at Americans for the Arts underscored the value of the arts, saying that, “kids today need the arts. They need the arts for better living, better academics and test scores, and for better coping with all of life’s challenges.”

To better understand the connections between musical studies and essential learning skills, SerHacer will also fund new research led by Ellen Winner and Sara Cordes at Boston College. Building upon a base of similar studies that have enhanced our understanding of the role of arts in youth development, this study will examine the strengthening of skills such as focus, planning, and problem-solving—skills that are crucial to success in and out of school.

See the Full Press Release.

Access to Opportunities

Donna Folan Artistic Director, Until Tomorrow Productions and artistic creator of Access to TheatreAs the YouthReach Initiative winds up its 20th anniversary, Seen & Heard asked Donna Folan, cofounder of Access to Theatre, a program of Partners for Youth with Disabilities, to reflect on the impact of the state’s investment and her aspirations for the initiative going forward.

For 20 years, Access to Theater (ATT) has provided young people with fully accessible afterschool workshops, summer institutes, one-to-one mentor pairings, peer leadership opportunities, and countless performances for the Boston area community. ATT has also provided opportunities to work with artists with and without disabilities as mentors and collaborators. YouthReach was ATT’s first and only consistent annual funder for those 20 years. It is hard to image the program’s long success without this consistent support.

YouthReach serves as the strongest model of how to create and support youth-driven programming. The initiative has supported innumerable opportunities for young people to discover personal expression, and has challenged its grantees to maintain the highest standards of excellence in programming. At the same time, the program has been responsive to adapting to the needs of its grantees. YouthReach funding has helped to build a community of practice among a diverse set of programs across the state. As a result, organizations have been able to develop programs that are safe and nurturing environments for the people they serve. In many cases I believe YouthReach has saved lives with their support of these safe-havens for vulnerable young people.

In the 20 years to come, it is my hope that arts and cultural programs receive the true respect they deserve. I encourage the MCC to help YouthReach-funded organizations continue to develop a deeper understanding of physical and programmatic accessibility and how it can be integrated into each individual program.

YouthReach programs have produced many talented and knowledgeable emerging artists. It is important now to have places for these young artists to rehearse and collaborate as they take the lessons learned to the next level. Our communities and society will ultimately benefit from the advancement of these experienced artists, thanks to YouthReach and their partners past, present, and future.

Donna Folan is the Artistic Director of Until Tomorrow Productions. She was cofounder and Artistic Director of Access to Theatre, a program of Partners for Youth with Disabilities, which provides young people with disabilities and those without disabilities the opportunity to come together to create original theater and other forms of art that reflect their individual and collective viewpoints.

Full Circle

Representative Sarah Peake, Lynn Stanley, and Arts Foundation of Cape Cod Executive Director Kevin HowardRecently, Lynn Stanley, Curator of Education at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, was named Arts Educator of the Year by the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod. Following are her remarks upon receiving the award.

Picture it: I am five and drawing a picture in my kindergarten class. Lacking the color pink, I put a layer of red crayon down, then find a piece of white chalk and apply that on top. As it turns out, I’ve taken Miss Roger’s chalk. Worse, the red crayon has stained the chalk. I’m afraid that if she finds out, I’ll be in big trouble. Instead, when she sees what I’ve done, she is delighted that I know how to mix colors. Thus I become aware that I know something that not everyone else knows—and instead of punishment I’ve been seen and understood.

When considering the roles that art and education have played in my own life, what comes to mind is this 50-year-old memory—one of the first I can associate with being valued in the world as a creative being. I could say that it is because I work with children, teens, and young adults as an administrator and teacher at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum that the connection to that 5-year-old me continues to be alive and present in me today. But really, I think it’s the other way around—that feeling of being valued as a creative young person is at the foundation of my life as an educator. I doubt that Miss Rogers knew the importance of her actions that day.

Fast forward ten years. I’m 15 and as a teenager I’ve experienced things I can’t yet put language to. Instead, I engage in all kinds of risky behavior—I skip school, take drugs, hitchhike, and run away from home. As my grades take a nosedive and my parents struggle to understand what has become of their once comprehensible daughter, art remains a place where I can make meaning, find meaning, and be valued. Art has become a way of being and a lifeline for me.

I don’t know what the fifteen year old I was would think if she could see your recognition of my efforts today. But I can guess that there would be a few school officials—the administrators who hauled me into the office for any number of offences or sentenced me to what we called the “rubber room” during school suspensions, and the teachers who tried to reach me and failed—yes, I’m guessing there would be a few who would be shocked that I survived my youth and have actually joined their ranks.

So I stand here before you today as a reminder to every hard-working educator and arts administrator that you can not possibly know all the good you do or the changes you enact in the lives of the young people you work with. Some of your work will not bear fruit for many years. But I’m living proof that your efforts—along with the love and compassion that fuels them—bring about change that is real and infinitely good.

Twelve years ago I joined the staff of PAAM. Some of you have heard me say that when I started working on out-of-school youth programs I had no idea what I was doing. This is not false modesty. However, what I lacked in knowledge I made up for in the desire to provide a safe, accessible, creative environment for all kinds of kids. I was lucky–very lucky–to find myself in the right place at the right time, among colleagues and leaders who supported my efforts. I thank the very gifted artists who have made PAAM’s programs exemplary. My parents for their love, and for my mother’s example that one never stops learning. My partner Tracey Anderson—whose brilliance illuminates every aspect of my work as an artist, an educator, and a human being. Chris McCarthy for her courage and her far-reaching vision—thanks to you we have a beautiful museum and museum school that youth can grow and flourish in—may it continue for another 100 years. I thank the Massachusetts Cultural Council—I doubt that PAAM’s youth programs would have gotten off the ground without the support I received from the MCC—and I’m not just talking about financial support—every step of the way. I want to thank anyone and everyone who has ever given a cent to support arts education—your money is well spent and an investment in the best of all possible worlds. Representative Sarah Peake and Senator Dan Wolf for their commitment to the arts. Kevin Howard and the staff of the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod.

Finally I want to thank the young people in our lives who take the biggest risks, the most courageous risks, when they forge into the unknown and make something new.

Work from PAAM’s ArtReach program will be on view in Doric Hall at the Massachusetts State House May 12-16. Join Lynn, the young artists, and others for a reception May 14, 3:30-5:00 PM to help advance Collective Action for Youth: An Agenda for Progress Through Creative Youth Development – a dynamic new policy agenda created during the recent National Summit on Creative Youth Development.

Beautiful Moves

Performance by Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program

Maureen Finnerty relishes the moments in which the audience is shocked by what the performers can do. She cites many instances in which audiences gasped when the performers abandoned pairs of crutches or relinquished their wheelchairs during the performance, “You can sense that people wonder if they should get up and help [the performer]. It’s the fact that they can’t, we’re on stage and that shows people just how much anyone can do.”

Maureen remembers parents who could not have imagined their child as a dancer, students who ask her to call their teachers to explain that they can physically do much more, and students who understand that being stared it can be ok.

“People [are] looking at them, but now it’s for the right reasons.” Indeed, for Maureen the real reward is seeing how the attitudes of the performers change about themselves. The audience’s misinterpretation of the performance’s intent is negligible. “[The students] come away with a different idea about what the pathways for people with disabilities are,” she explains, “the audience will have their own perspective on the performance, and they will have their own perspective on my disability.”

According to performer and movement educator Maureen Finnerty, the audience often misunderstands the performers.

“I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, ‘Wow. I really loved what that piece said about disability.’ But the piece had nothing to do with disability.” When asked if the audience’s misinterpretation of her students’ performance bothers her, Maureen is quick to explain that, “… we’re giving a present to the audience. Everyone will unwrap it differently.”

For Maureen, the beauty and power the ensemble members bring to their performance stems from their personal investment in the roles they craft. She says the investment happens because the students at Access to Theater are never told their characters. “We choose [our character] and through rehearsals [we learn] the impact of our words and movement before we’ve even performed it.”

And the end result? “The parents always cry. I don’t get it,” she laughs.

Despite her self-assured way of talking about her experience as a performer and an educator, Maureen was not always comfortable in the realm of creative movement. Only after joining Access to Theater at a friend’s suggestion did Maureen begin to explore movement as a form of self-expression.

“My only idea about movement came from my physical therapy,” she explains, recalling her initial hesitation to learn movement techniques. “When I started [at Access to Theater] I realized [movement] was no longer a painful thing I did for physical therapy. It could be beautiful.”

Through many years as a student, an intern, and now a staff member at Access to Theater, Maureen has come to see movement as a tool for self-discovery. “It helps people accept who they are. [Access to Theater] gave them confidence.”

As the Movement Director for Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program, Maureen Finnerty teaches children and adults with and without disabilities that “everyone has a place in theater and that each person enriches the creative process when he/she keeps an opened mind.” She has been a resident artist for VSA Massachusetts for seven years and has assisted with workshops that focus on teaching the elements of improvisational theater to participants of all ages and abilities; included in these workshops has been the concept of access for all through universal design. She also performs in community movement productions.

Joy Counts, But How Do We Count It?

Kathe Swaback
Kathe Swaback

Käthe Swaback, Program Director at Raw Art Works in Lynn and Project Leader of the Boston Youth Arts Evaluation Project, is about as enthusiastic about logic models and quantitative assessment as anyone I know. (She’s even more enthusiastic about measurement than I am!) Recently, Käthe shared with me here renewed passion for finding ways to measure joy and engagement in young people who participate in arts, humanities, and science learning programs afterschool. She reminded me that “nearly half of high school dropouts in the nation report quitting school due to boredom. …. Seems like a lot of research has gone into assessing sadness and anger, but joy and passion?”

Here is Käthe’s ode to finding ways to measure joy and engagement:

We Know
They seem to find it easy to take a ruler to my sadness
Aren’t afraid to confine my mental madness
And yet my joy, my joy they say is not worth measuring?
They can quantify my syntax but cannot see my passion?

We become so willing to deny our native tongue,
We are told that a fork looks enough like a paintbrush, so paint with it.
Our songs are dissected into crumbs that tumble to the ground

Those numbers cannot seem to define us, bind us, or even find us at times,
But the metaphor knows more than the poet
And can address, access, and undress in an instant.

For the arts unlock the well-worn slammed-shut doors
And, like the smell of your mamma’s pancakes
Wafting through the cracks in the walls,
Your songs, paintings, and plays
Invite us to awaken, to engage, to connect
To the then and the tomorrow,
And shouts of the NOW of today

We know we know we know
With our whole being
We know

With the same skill that tunes a C sharp
And can see the difference between turquoise and teal
We need to be able to describe the excitement in the eye of Marcus
As he reaches for that note and holds it.

Shayla, with charcoal all over her face,
Renders her hand on paper, deeply seeing every line,
And falls in love
With that pulse that beats in the in-betweenness of things.

We know we know we know
With our whole being
We know

Let us ignite, unite, and fight
With resonant songs
That sing the stories with precision greater than numbers profess
A vibrant but often silent language
Holding the heart-thumping humanness
That recognizes that grin
From ear to ear

– Käthe Swaback 2013

Harvard Medical School professor George Vaillant points out that, “negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. Joy, unlike happiness, is not all about me—joy is connection.” Kathe eloquently cautions us about being seduced into measuring things that are easy to measure or bullied into measuring things that others say are important. We need to continue to struggle to find ways to measure what is truly important, to our programs and more importantly, to our young people, to our communities, and to their success.

Impact: A Two-Way Street

Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial
Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial

Pittsfield’s Juvenile Resource Center (JRC), a collaboration between the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and the Pittsfield Public Schools, provides education, casework, counseling, and employment services to young people at high risk of dropping out of school. With the help of YouthReach funding, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) launched a partnership in 2012 with the JRC, using theatre tools to build confidence and communication skills while placing the young people in jobs throughout Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. Kate McGuire, Artistic Director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, reflects on the partnership’s first year:

In the theatre, we learn to listen. For me, I was able to hear and understand the nature of these kids’ lives and learn about the challenges they face minute to minute.

At the beginning, there was so much noise.  They were loud, and so aggressive towards each other in their language and sometimes, physically. By the end of the semester, we all learned to attend to each other, to listen more carefully. Order and calm and a real sense of joy set in.

The first week of the program, we went to see a movie. It was a disaster.  I was amazed they didn’t get thrown out as they could not keep quiet, keep still, or keep their hands off each other.

Over the course of six months, we used actor-training exercises to encourage each young person to find new tools of expression and at the same time, sharpen our awareness of ourselves as part of an ensemble, a community.  Meanwhile, BTG staff worked with each participant’s interests and ambitions to build custom internship experiences for each.

In the final week of this first year, we all went out to dinner. The youth were polite, well spoken, and we might as well have been celebrating Christmas. There was such a warmth and genuine care among us all.

We had accomplished something remarkable, and we were all aware that each one of us had changed, grown, and learned to care about each other and each others’ lives in profound ways.

The Colonial Theatre must be comfortable for everyone to walk through. We have succeeded with these young people.  By the end, the kids were not a part of the BTG. They were integrated into the entire organization. Three of them continued through the summer:  one in the box office, one onstage for Peter Pan, and one providing technical support. JRC staff noted the value in the relationship, and the region’s Sheriff lauded our work to one of our trustees.

Years ago I entered the theatre with the belief that we could transform lives profoundly. This work is serving that belief.   What I did not know was how deeply I could still be impacted by the power of the theatre to help and change lives.  I am grateful to the young people I have worked with through the JRC, and I can’t wait to meet a new class later this fall!

Kate McGuire
Artistic Director and CEO
Berkshire Theatre Group