Lorita Purnell-James teaches graphic arts and technology at Park Manor Elementary School in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Here, she discusses her journey as an arts educator and how she uses arts integration to create a more inclusive classroom.

How did you get your start in teaching?
I started teaching back in 1985. I was working with the city department that was responsible for helping teenagers get employment during the summer, and my manager observed how I interacted with young people and suggested that I would be a natural in the classroom. I took him at his word and contacted CPS for employment, and the rest is history. I’ve been in the education field ever since.

What is your arts background?
Specifically, my background in arts is in media. I previously worked at Channel 11 in development, where I had a hand in some of the content that is used to elicit subscriptions from viewers. This gave me additional insight into the arts, and once I returned to school I took the requisite courses to be able to teach arts.

My perspective on arts right now in terms of my current classroom is that I’m a STEAM teacher, so arts is an essential component of me engaging and teaching students science, technology, engineering and math. I see it as an essential component to connect students in a very real and tangible way to sciences and engineering and arts.

How have you seen the arts help students better understand different subjects?
In our classroom, we use visual arts and media arts extensively to teach concepts that might otherwise be abstract to some of our students. We have used arts integration to teach coding, and to show coding sequences in a visual way, and to help students grasp the concept of putting instructions together or directions together in a pattern-like form. We have also used visual arts to really enhance the students’ perspective on what’s possible in the fields of technology and engineering and design. We’ve been very involved in promoting design-thinking here and having the students use that in wide array of contexts to solve problems and to think about things through a creative lens. 

How long has your school prioritized design-thinking in the classroom and how has this focus changed Park Manor?
We’ve been focused in that context for the last 4-5 years and it has reaped tremendous benefits because students who might not be otherwise engaged or attracted get it just because of the connection they can make either creatively or artistically or visually to some concepts that might otherwise be abstract. It has really helped some students blossom in these classes who might have languished before because we wouldn’t have connected to them and they wouldn’t have identified themselves as people who could do that kind of work. It’s been great for nurturing talent across disciplines.

How does arts integration promote accessibility in the classroom?
It levels the playing field. Arts integration really helps students to see, to touch, to interact with, to get it. It activates all of those brain functions that help students process concepts in their head. It’s a connector. It’s an essential connector.


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