Knight Foundation grant puts arts
within reach of middle schoolers
It’s a Wednesday morning in Catherine Memmolo’s fifth-grade art classroom at the Dunbar Elementary School. The youngsters are sitting at tables, carefully examining their artwork as Jennifer Wankoff and Amber Johnston from the Clay Studio in Philadelphia hand back their recently kiln-fired pots and mugs.
Through a Knight Foundation grant to three local arts groups, local elementary school students in Temple's Partnership Schools are being exposed to playwriting, music and ceramics — many for the first time. The Clay Studio in Philadelphia is teaching Dunbar Elementary School fifth-graders about clay, from its practical uses in ceramic tiles and dishes to its personal and cultural significance in items such as the story mugs the children shaped and painted.
“This is my story mug,” Alicia Tittle said. “Every summer, my whole family gets together and we have a cookout in the park. I have a lot of fun because we don’t get to see each other often. That’s a blanket … or a table. And those are all the people in my family,” she said, pointing to the little balls of clay circling her mug.
“I think I’ll put my scary face mug in the basement so my dog won’t go there,” Azhane Butler mused.
“I might put mine at the door to my room so my brother won’t come in,” DeNeisha Wallace said.
For six weeks, middle grade students at Dunbar and Temple’s other Partnership Schools have been exploring new worlds of art — many for the first time — through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the support of three community-minded Philadelphia arts groups.
In addition to the Clay Studio, Strings for Schools and Philadelphia Young Playwrights are collaborating on Exploring Ourselves and Our Cultures, a multimedia introduction to the arts for fifth through eighth graders. The grants, totaling $435,000, will continue for three years at the four Partnership elementary schools: Dunbar, Duckrey, Ferguson and Meade.
“They’ve loved it and really look forward to this every week,” Memmolo said. “It’s given them an opportunity to express themselves creatively. It’s exposure to something new and makes them more developed as people.”
And it’s been a learning experience as well.
“We didn’t know much about it, but now we know more about clay,” DeNeisha said.
“It’s my first time doing clay,” Tyree Henderson said. “We learned about the kiln where they fire the clay and about colors and underglaze.”
“Sinks are made out of clay. And the plates we use,” DeNeisha added.
Holding up her story pot, Arianna Compas explains, “It’s about my birthday, July 27. It’s going to be in my room forever.”
For the Clay Studio artist-teachers Wankoff and Johnston, it’s been an equally rewarding experience.
“It’s wonderful to see the stories the kids come up with, to see their creativity and imagination, and to see their faces light up when they hear that this is something they can do in their lives,” Johnston said.
After finishing their story pots, the students will write a story about them, learning that they can express themselves and make art in different ways.
At year’s end, they will exhibit their work at a collaborative showcase celebration for families and the community. Seventh-graders who have been working with Strings for Schools will perform the original music they have composed, and the eighth-graders learning about the magic of theater with the Philadelphia Young Playwrights will present their original dramas.
“All of these art forms — playwriting, music and ceramics — provide tools of communication and self-expression. People use the arts to say, ‘This is who I am,’ and to understand who someone else is,” said John DiPaolo, executive director of the Temple Partnership Schools. “So we see the arts as sources of learning and empowerment, as well as joy, for our kids. We want them to have more opportunities like this.”
The project grew out of the Knight Foundation’s desire to increase access to the arts in underserved communities across the country. For Partnership Schools students, it provides valuable exposure to the arts when school budgets are tight.
“Students who are challenged by reading or math may be good at art,” says Clay Studio executive director Amy Sarner Williams. “This gives them a successful learning experience and develops their love of learning and of trying new things.”
Carefully painting the glaze on his scary mug, Tyree Henderson summed up the sentiments of his classmates. “It’s been fun. And I learned a lot.”
Then he added, “I think I’ll save this until next Halloween.”
– By Harriet Goodheart