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New York City
June 2002

Arts and Technology: A Successful Merger in District 25, Queens

By Tom Kertes

Famous for having one of the very best art programs in the nation, Queens' Community School District 25 “has always tried to be a frontrunner of Arts in Education,” said Arlene Jordan, the District's Supervisor of Expressive Arts. “And that was so both in good times and bad. So naturally, when the programs were cut, we were on the forefront of the fight to put the art programs back into education as well.”

“So, when the programs were finally restored in 1992, the question that faced us was where to go next? How do we stay a step ahead?”

The answer was the marriage of art and technology. “Once again, we raised the bar,” said Jordan. “We felt that the next level was the integration of art, technology, and literacy.” The marriage that allowed this union to come to fruition “ to enable 10-12-year-old students to produce multi-media works of art digitally “ was the marriage between District 25 and Teaching Matters, a nonprofit organization that's committed to working on integrating technology into the public school classroom.

“I felt that there was an economic gap in public schools,” said Elizabeth Rohatyn, Teaching Matters' Chairman of the Board. “And, especially due to the extreme expenses involved in the new informational age push, I was very concerned that this gap would result in an intellectual gap. I felt that we could make a difference in this area.”

The result of this commitment was on proud display at “Dancing Across the Digital Divide”, the third annual multi-media show put on by the district's fifth and sixth-graders at Flushing Town Hall. It was, in a word, spectacular.

“First, we had to get the teachers hot to trot,” said Rohatyn. “This was a daring avenue, requiring a new way to think. What people needed was a curriculum, to make art and technology integrated into what the students were learning. Teachers needed to be re-trained. But, once we had the educators on our side, we knew the kids “they get naturally excited about new things would follow.”

And follow they did “in spite of the fact that the program got off the ground two years ago with Digital Opera. Why use such an alien (to fifth-graders, at least) art-form? The operas are art and literacy together,” said Jordan. “It allowed the kids to create a little musical theater, write a story, then digitalize the text and the images.”

Classrooms were transformed into studios, where academic subjects such as reading, writing, math, and social studies meshed with every aspect of music and theater. The students, routinely sacrificing sleep, lunch-hours, and week-ends, made the works about fables and myths an art-form relevant to their lives. And the program's momentum “spurred on by the kids' surprisingly high level of commitment” only increased the following year, with the presentation of the no-less challenging Digital Shakespeare.

Though educators were first doubtful, the students' natural curiosity about history and warfare once again won out. “It was great,” said Meri Ezrarty, an art teacher at JHS 189. “The kids had to make the words in the book come to life. The kids had to visualize the characters, they had to make them move, they had to make them appear and disappear.”

And give them voices, too. Students, who uniformly thought of Shakespeare as “boring” up to that point, now found the Bard “kind of cool”. “I finally understood how Macbeth was feeling,” one said. “And that people today often feel the same way as well.”

After the success of the first two shows, the District allowed each school to develop its own project for the year's gala. The result was Digital Storytelling, an eclectic marvel that kept the audience of 300 enthralled nearly all day. Two of the biggest hits were Through the Eyes of Children; 9/11 and Beyond, a fascinating multi-media presentation of young teenagers' shockingly different reactions to the tragedy, and Antigone, a freshly updated version of Sophocles' classic Greek tragedy in which “two brothers vie for the U.S. Presidency and one wins “ even though the other had more of the popular vote.”

Antigone's combination of drama, video, dance, and mime was nothing less than stunning.

“Arts education can inspire children to learn in a way that textbooks and standardized tests cannot,” Rohatyn said. “We know Digital Storytelling is working “ and it's working in a multitude of different ways. The spectacular productions these young people created speak for themselves.”#


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