Sarah Darwiche (’17), a Public Policy major who is also minoring in English, has always been interested in the intersection between arts, education, and identity.
Thus, for her LAPI summer, Sarah chose to partner with the DC Public Schools (DCPS), working with their Inner Core Department to help research best practices to create a new arts curriculum for K-12 students.
However, despite her passion for education issues, Sarah was initially apprehensive about finding fulfillment working within a public school system setting. A deeply creative person, she found joy in writing creative nonfiction and poetry, not emails and Excel spreadsheets. She describes of her first day in the DCPS office:
The art supervisors, a small, quiet team of four people, sit in the open work space…They haul the administrative weight of art education, not alone but almost always with a certain feeling of isolation, up what feels like a sprawling mass of organizational machinery; a distant collection of emails, data, and professional development sessions so seemingly at odds with the personal, deeply felt nature of both their personalities and their arts.
However, over the course of the summer, Sarah came to realize that staying true to your creative principles and making a difference in the education system do not have to be mutually exclusive. In one of her Letters Home, she tells the story of one of her coworkers, Nathan, and how he came to embody, for her, both artistic integrity and systemic change.
Nathan didn’t believe in office clothes when he was 23. He thought they represented the rank-and-file, the sort of corporate uniformity that he had [been] trained to rail against, when he trained to be a photographer. When he was 23 he was still young, a year out of art school at the Tisch School in New York, but he was known in his art circles for pushing existing printing techniques and materials to new ends, to mash layers of images together into single-layer prints.
Nathan, more than twenty years later, is now the director of arts for the central office of D.C. Public Schools. And I’ve seen him outside of office clothes maybe…once? When I pointed that out to him, he shook his head and agreed, pushing his palms across the table and stretching. He said he didn’t regret it: “I told my son, one of my greatest strengths is that I know the system in which I operate.”
Since I started my internship this summer, I’ve admired Nathan…To hear about his artistic background, and more heavily to hear about the lines that he draws from his background to his current system, [he] pushed through the monolith of creativity as somehow defined in opposition to a system, or defined by degrees of extraction from a system.
The new Arts Framework that DCPS has created, which will launch in the 2016-2017 school year, is, in Sarah’s words, “an arts curriculum almost completely different in structure from any other curriculum being used in a public school.” It relies on six core themes– Identity, Interaction, Language, Determination, Creation, and Transformation– though each one is subdivided into various stages based on grade level. But perhaps what is most remarkable about it is that it is truly artistically driven:
Students bring their own content into the classroom. Productive arts education must center [on] this content and allow students to focus on their own constructive process. By having units framed around “Identity” – rather than “Elementary Brush Techniques” – the curriculum encourages this shift by encouraging teachers to build units around concepts that students have already accessed, turning art from a new set of skills that must be learned to a language, one we use to map out and explore what already exists within us.
What Sarah learned through her LAPI summer experience was that there is more than one way to be an artist and to create things that you believe in. For someone like Nathan, though he may work in an administrative capacity, it was his steadfast dedication to his own artistic principles that allowed him and others like him to create the new DC Arts Framework– a truly innovative curriculum which will now inspire thousands of DC public school students to discover and embrace their own creativity. This in turn inspired Sarah to realize that, no matter what kind of career or profession she chooses to pursue in the future, she does not have to compromise who she is or what she believes in:
Nathan simultaneously pays credit to the firebrand of his experiences in his early 20’s, and refuses to discredit his current experience, or allow a change in the formal structure of those experiences to empty them of their intentional content or spirit of choice. He enters spaces so he can subvert them; he enters spaces to reform them; he makes small pockets where previously they did not exist. In doing so, he pays homage to some of the artistic ideals I hold most dearly – and continues to hold deep commitment and weariness, truth and manipulation, uncertainty, in a layer that exists seamlessly, singularly, when pressed.