When many of their partnerships were just starting to begin, 2019-20 Creative Schools Fund (CSF) recipients faced serious disruptions to their grant programs amid the shift to remote learning in spring 2020. We asked Julia Dusek-Devens, Band Director, General Music Teacher, and Arts Liaison at George Washington Elementary, to share how she and her arts partner were able to successfully adapt their 2019-20 CSF program to deliver an equally robust and engaging theater program to K-3 students. Here, she shares insights and tips for creating an impactful and flexible CSF program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe the arts culture at George Washington Elementary?
We’re a school of mostly Latinx students, and we’re in a very isolated part of the city where we don’t have a lot of arts around us. The entire arts department has for many years just been me, off and on. I’ve been there over 30 years, so I’ve had different visual arts teachers with me over the years. Right now we have a fabulous visual arts teacher, and together we make up the arts department. Our principal is very supportive of the arts. He really feels that the arts are important to life and that we as arts teachers are important for students to be flourishing people and fully aware and well rounded individuals. He knows the arts are crucial to having a colorful and wonderful life.
We have 700 students, and we teach every student in the building. We really try to make sure every student feels like what they do in our classes is important. Some of them really want to excel in the arts and a lot of them are appreciative of our classes because they truly enjoy our classes.
This is not your first time receiving a Creative Schools Fund grant. How has the CSF shaped the arts culture and landscape in your school?
Through the Creative Schools Fund and other grant opportunities, we’ve been able to sustain a partnership with Lifeline Theatre for many years. What I’ve found over most of my years of doing this with Lifeline is that the students are just so engaged in this theater program and learning the tools of the actors – the “actor’s toolbox” is what they call it. They have a whole program designed for them to learn to use their body and use their voice.
Homeroom teachers often bring these actors’ tools – voice, body, imagination – into their own lessons. They do improvisations, literary adaptations from books they’re reading, and they get students very very engaged. The girls especially tend to be very reserved and shy about speaking up, and this program has helped them blossom and speak up for themselves and to very much feel honored and respected for their voice. It’s been very good for the individual students, especially those whose teachers are supportive of the program.
What were your initial goals for this project and how did they change after the shift to remote learning?
They didn’t shift that much because my arts partner was able to make the shift to virtual presentations. It was very successful and we were able to fulfill most of the original plan. Lifeline was already offering virtual classes pre-pandemic, so they knew the program would work.
However, we did have to cancel the field trip to Lifeline Theatre, which is usually the kids’ favorite part. We also had to shorten the program because I thought we would be able to use our grant money this school year, but in June CPS told us we had to use our grant money before the end of the year. We had one week to put a program together, so instead of focusing on K-1 for 10 weeks, we shifted to a three-week, more intensive program. The students had two virtual classes per week, and we expanded the program to include 2nd and 3rd graders. It worked out amazingly well, and we were able to include more students. The students were very engaged and got to learn a lot of the actor’s techniques like they usually do. It went as well as could be expected – even better than I expected.
The students who participated in this project were very young (K-3). Did you experience challenges keeping them engaged over the virtual format?
The Lifeline teachers are very experienced with the youngest ages – that’s their whole focus. There was not a problem with engagement because the program is really active; it’s very activity based with a lot of music and a lot of movement.
What was the biggest challenge you experienced when adapting this program?
Other than the last minute effort to fit the program into the end of the year, our principal had to resolve an issue regarding CPS’ remote learning restrictions. Lifeline wanted to use Zoom, which is prohibited. Our principal got Lifeline a CPS email account so they could be involved with students directly over Google Meet.
What is your advice to other teachers who are applying to the Creative Schools Fund this year?
Since we don’t know what’s going to happen this year, find an arts partner that really provides what you want in your school, and make sure the partner can provide that virtually. Ask tough questions, and find a partner who provides what you want well and can provide it across multiple formats.