Erica Halverson working across disciplines to bring arts experiences to youth

Leadership that Matters

Leadership is not just about the position one holds — it’s about bringing people together to accomplish something collectively. In this issue of Learning Connections, we are putting the spotlight on leadership that brings about change in the evolution of beliefs, values and behaviors.

Leadership that Matters is centered on the efforts of School of Education faculty and staff who are working locally, around the country and across the globe to make a positive difference in real and relevant ways.

Halverson working with innovators across disciplines
to bring experiences in the arts to underserved youth

When speaking with various groups about why the UW–Madison School of Education is widely regarded as being among the very best in the nation, Dean Diana Hess often highlights the School’s unusual range of 10 departments — with programs in the arts, health and education.

“The remarkable depth and breadth of talented people — located across our diverse collection of academic programs and research initiatives — consistently stands out as one of our key strengths,” says Hess, who holds the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education.

One new and unique project that’s bringing together faculty members from different corners of the School is called the UW Community Arts Collaboratory. Housed within the School’s office of Education Outreach and Partnerships, the initiative brings fine and performing arts experiences to underserved youth across Dane County.

Summer 2018 Learning Connections CoverThe Arts Collaboratory includes outreach efforts from: Faisal Abdu’Allah, a professor with the Art Department’s No. 1-ranked printmaking program and the faculty director of The Studio: Creative Arts and Design Community; Kate Corby, a professor and chair of the Dance Department; and Erica Halverson, a professor with the School’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

“I’m not sure if it’s happenstance or some sort of historical accident, but it’s certainly not typical for a school of education to house three major arts programs,” says Halverson, referencing the School’s Departments of Art, Dance, and Theatre and Drama. “But it exists here and it’s an amazing opportunity for me to work across these disciplines because we coexist in this same space.”

Prior to launching this project, those involved with the Arts Collaboratory say they’d often discuss the lack of arts-based learning opportunities for children — particularly for kids who don’t have many resources available to them outside of schools.

“I’ve known Erica since 2012, when we first began communicating cross-departmentally about creating accessible arts programming for marginalized youth in Madison,” says Corby. “Erica was the initiator and leader of the project, as she usually is in most everything.”

“Erica was the fixer,” adds Abdu’Allah. “She saw that we were working on similar projects and was the one who said, ‘Well, how about we consider doing some kind of collaboration?’”

The UW Community Arts Collaboratory ultimately came to life via the School of Education’s inaugural Grand Challenges Engage grant competition. Grand Challenges was launched in February 2017 in an effort to form and fund interdisciplinary teams to address critical problems that span the arts, health and education. In September 2017, the Arts Collaboratory was one of eight winning Engage grant teams selected to receive $25,000 each to carry out the Wisconsin Idea on behalf of the School of Education.

“The UW Community Arts Collaboratory is one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on,” says Corby. “It’s so energizing to be surrounded by brilliant and passionate colleagues from different corners of the School of Education.”

Halverson, in particular, has spent the past 15 years examining topics related to how people learn in and through the arts, across a range of art forms, with a focus on the performing arts. Through her work and this new collaboration, she is committed to demonstrating the valuable role arts-based approaches can play in the lives of children.

“I’d like to get people rethinking what it is we should value in formal schooling,” says Halverson. “Over the last 15 years, and despite the lack of success with No Child Left Behind policies, I haven’t heard many people say, ‘Gee, maybe a problem is the reductionist approach to schooling we’ve taken.’ Instead, many double down and say, ‘Oh, we weren’t doing the right reading interventions,’ or ‘We need to add more math to the curriculum.’”

Adds Halverson: “I think the role of the arts in education has been short-changed for too long. So who better to work on this important topic than three people who have dedicated their careers to studying why the arts matter?”

Arts CollaboratoryThe UW Community Arts Collaboratory is currently home to three programs:

• The FauHaus Project — Abdu’Allah brings area artists and UW– Madison students together in his studio each fall and spring semester to work with about a dozen court-involved and at-risk youth in Dane County. Over the course of 15 weeks, the group works together to develop a socially engaged art exhibition/showcase. Participants get involved in art-related activities like painting, printmaking, spoken word, performance and photography, while contributing to discussions pertaining to identity and representation in visual culture. The art produced stems from the participants’ stories and experiences, and is showcased during an end-of-the-semester exhibition.

• Performing Ourselves — Corby launched this dance program in 2011 with colleague Mariah LeFeber at one area community center. It initially brought dance education and dance/movement therapy principles to foster confidence and resilience in middle school girls. Performing Ourselves has grown significantly since then, and during the 2017-18 academic year it served about 300 girls and boys in seven area community centers and three Madison public schools. The 30-week program is taught by undergraduate UW–Madison dance students. About 90 percent of the first through 12th graders taking part in Performing Ourselves are students of color, and 95 percent live in poverty.

• Whoopensocker — In 1998, Halverson founded the Chicago-based nonprofit Barrel of Monkeys, a creative arts group that teaches creative writing to children in elementary school — and turns their work into performance pieces. In 2015, Halverson launched a Madison version of the innovative artistic outreach program with Beau Johnson and Amanda Farrar, calling it Whoopensocker.

This partnership between the School of Education and Theatre LILA sends teaching artists into elementary classrooms to engage students in writing, performing and other forms of active learning. These meetings are once per week, for 90 minutes, over six weeks. At the end of the six-week program, the teaching artists turn several of the students’ writings into vaudeville-style plays or musical numbers, which are then performed for the whole school.

This year, Whoopensocker went to Lincoln, Sandburg, Thoreau and Emerson elementary schools in Madison, with 300 students participating directly in classroom programming. Similarly, an after-school club program was piloted with Sandburg Elementary.

Erica Halverson
“Fifty percent of our school is English language learners,” says Lincoln Elementary Principal Deborah Hoffman. “Research tells us a way to cement language learning is to bring experiences and language together. So when the students are writing and acting and singing and performing their work, it’s a very different meaning than simply putting pencil to paper.”

Moving forward, Halverson says she is hopeful that the UW Community Arts Collaboratory can bring additional School of Education-related arts outreach efforts into the fold. She also is interested in seeing if there are ways to better link the School’s various arts programs and its teacher education programs to train a new generation of teaching artists.

In addition, each member of the Arts Collaboratory also speaks of the importance of developing and utilizing evaluation tools that can measure and demonstrate the impact of their arts-based education programs.

“We would never say, ‘This work is going to help your kid do better on a standardized test.’ That’s not true nor is it a useful metric,” says Halverson. “But I do care deeply about demonstrating what kids are getting out of these experiences.”
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