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This academic program makes teaching an art

(Published March 22, 1999)

By LARRY RODMAN

Arts Correspondent

The urban sophisticate takes written language comprehension for granted. This is, after all, the information age, and our metropolitan area has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of bookstores per capita. This equation, however, obscures the fact that our schools serve a constituency at a disadvantage in gaining entry to this elevated, well-informed world.

Our urban schools (and libraries) are in a chronic predicament. This is in part from a paucity of resources, but also, significantly, from an atrophying educational framework — the hierarchical model set up by an educational establishment generations ago — that has ceased to be meaningful to latter-day students and teachers. School reform must consider student, administrative, parental and community concerns.

The D.C. nonprofit group Center for Artistry in Teaching (CAT) is working within the D.C. school system at a grassroots, one-on-one level. CAT was founded by Aleta Margolis, its executive director, and a group of educators and community leaders in 1995 in response to a crying need to focus support on local schools.

"It’s our mission to make school a place where students are engaged, valued and challenged — to make change (possible). Teaching – or tutoring — is an art," says CAT program officer Cara Taxy.

CAT endeavors to supplement the efforts of educators in the District’s most at-risk learning institutions. "(When) you change the teacher, then you affect the whole culture of the students. We have a curriculum...based on research, and with the intent of helping kids to get as engaged as possible in what they’re doing, and using their creativity." If participants feel that they’re involved in an artistic process, Taxy says, "your perspective on how you teach, tutor, or learn is very different than if you just see yourself as an instructor."

CAT’s active partnership brings schools together with arts organizations, or entities that are not necessarily scholastic in nature, in order to break free of the mold. To cite one example, the Workshop in the Art of Teaching involves training in the methods and madness of interactive theater with The Living Stage Theatre Company. Teachers in the program are exposed to a range of arts techniques to provoke them to reassess their lesson approaches, with the objective of benefiting instruction in reading, writing, history, science and math. Trainees undertake the commitment of an intensive summer boot camp and monthly school-year follow-ups. This is one way that CAT assists in development of teacher activism, helping to create links throughout the community.

In Shakespeare Steps Out, a similar cross-organizational activity with the Folger Shakespeare Library theatre company, CAT offers elementary school teachers a way to integrate Shakespeare study and theater techniques into classes. Actors then come in to do presentations and build upon a new understanding of the humanities — concepts that may be applied to such disparate subjects as poetry and math.

Upcoming programs will include "Summer STEP: Student and Teacher Enrichment Project." Beginning this summer, CAT will initiate a combined summer school environment for teachers and at-risk schoolchildren.

"One of our biggest kid-centered programs is Reading Works. In that program, we have about 70 trained tutors who go down and work with 3rd graders at Anthony Bowen School, which is a targeted assistance school in Southwest," Taxy said. The neediest city schools are ranked on a yearly basis by test performance and designated "targeted assistance" by the city’s chief academic officer. CAT was asked to adopt one of these schools as part of an overall program to bolster its resources.

"We’ve got all the kids being tutored for an hour, at least once (in some cases, twice) a week. We manage and supervise the whole program, and do a lot of training for our tutors; we have some pretty high expectations, but we give them a lot of support. It’s really important for every kid to get (the undivided attention of) a consistent adult," Taxy said. They might share books on a student’s preferred topics, write and illustrate contributions for a literary magazine, discuss newspapers and comics, or play word games like Scrabble. Reading Works tutor Christopher Meneses said "the key is to equate reading with fun." He enjoys "having an influence. Sometimes you go in there and you think the kids aren’t paying attention, and then you find out they’re asking for you again."

To contact the Center for Artistry in Teaching for details on volunteering for Reading Works or to learn about other CAT programs, call (202) 822-8081 or check out the group’s Web site at www.artistryinteaching.org.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator