Sharing the Impact of Arts Education with President Biden

Posted by Coco Allred, Mar 31, 2022 0 comments

On March 11, 2022, President Joseph R. Biden asked Maria, a second-grade student at Luis Muñoz Marín Elementary School in North Philadelphia, “What kind of art do you like?” Maria said, “Painting.” President Biden replied, “Do you think you’ll be a painter when you grow up?” Maria said with confidence, “I already am one.” 

As Maria’s teacher, I felt proud of how she identified herself as an artist and added, “That’s the great thing about being an artist—you don’t have to wait to grow up to become one.”

48 Hours Until the President Arrives

A student wearing glasses and a mask holds up two piece of paper. One has a marbled design and the other reads: Dream, Live, Achieve.
Maria holds up Suminagashi marbled paper she created during a Social Emotional Learning Arts Integration lesson with Ms. Allred, photo by Coco Allred.

On March 9, I learned that in 48 hours President Biden would be visiting Luis Muñoz Marín Elementary School. Our school was selected for the presidential visit because it received critical funding from the American Rescue Plan—funding that kept essential before- and after-school programming going, like the arts clubs that I co-lead. It is not uncommon at Marín for students to participate in two to three clubs each week. During this special visit, I would have the opportunity to share how the art and design clubs I run are making a difference in students’ return to school amidst the pandemic. 

I came to Marín to serve as a full-time teaching artist Fellow through ArtistYear, a National Service AmeriCorps program that places artists in Title I schools across the country to address inequities in arts education. In this role, I collaborate with classroom teachers on arts integration projects, run a design program for fourth through eighth grade students, and co-lead after school design and art clubs. 

Orienting For Connection

The library where the design classes meet was transformed for a press visit. My desk became the sound station barricaded with equipment, windows were covered with butcher paper and artwork for security, and the center alcove was set up with chairs with the children in a U-shape oriented to the press pool tucked behind a row of library chairs. Standing on a tape mark behind the students, I anticipated the president would either be seated in the chair to my left or on the tape mark to my right. The students—earlier buzzing, nervous in anticipation—and I circled to take some deep breaths before they were ushered off by a savvy teacher to get hoagies, lulling them into a calmer state. Dressed in early gifted Easter dresses, coordinated ties and pocket squares, and freshly ironed shirts, they were now poised and arranging letter blocks to welcome the president. When President Biden came in, he pulled a chair from the row separating the press from kids with his back towards the cameras and body leaning in towards the students, intent on hearing from each of them and building a genuine connection.

In preparation for the visit, I was tasked to come up with talking points about the work I was doing and how it connected to the students’ return to in-person schooling. A global pandemic and racial reckoning have shed light on how much must be rebuilt and how quickly things can change. A brighter future is found when we embolden young people, listen to their ideas, and provide them with tools for change. However, what unfolded during our visit was an organic conversation and autograph signing with personalized messages for each of the children. The president took time to share stories about the life lessons he learned in elementary school, ask each of us about the impact of art, and express appreciation and respect for each of us. In education, we talk a lot about the importance of building relationships with our students. This is the primary objective of the first week of school and seemed to be the primary objective of this visit for President Biden, a foundational step to any equitable and inclusive change. 

Making Positive Change Now

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, I wanted to pay forward my experience in sculpture and Human Computer Interaction. My role as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps Fellow has given me the opportunity and tools to center my service in the community's strengths and opportunities. It was a conversation I had at the start of the school year with sixth graders Tiany and Pedro—two of the students who found themselves now seated with President Biden—that helped set the direction of the design program. As a basketball player, Tiany shared that the best recesses were spent exchanging tips and coaching one another to elevate the level of play for all the students. Pedro said that he really liked to make things and wanted to share them with others. Together, we built towards the creation of designs and processes that would foster belonging and skill-sharing amongst peers.

In class, we start by looking at who we are, what we have, and what we value. The focus of our design program this year is “play.” Play has positive social, emotional, cognitive, and physical impact. The students already are experts at play, so we identified recess as something that should be student run and that we could realistically achieve. After creating a handmade book filled with a collection of games, our fifth grade design class invited the school climate manager who runs their recess for an interview and design review. It took a few attempts for everyone to understand their new games, but eventually the entire grade was playing. In response to the question, “What advice do you have for other students that want to become recess ambassadors?,” fifth grade student Lailonie shared: “Never give up and stay on top of your work. Try to find new ways to adjust your game if you are having a problem. Take other students’ suggestions to make your game more fun.”

Teaching 21st Century Skills

A student with curly hair wearing a red mask and shirt sits at a wood table with a sculpture made of pipe cleaners.
Raymond with his freestanding tower, photo by Coco Allred.

As I was recruiting students to join the first design class and taking questions, quiet fourth grader Jacob’s hand shot up. “Will design help me become an astronaut?” I thought about it for a second and replied, “Yes.” Moments like this one guide how I develop lesson plans. What common skills do all aspiring astronauts, directors, engineers, artists, authors, teachers, and fashion designers need? Creativity, curiosity, care for context and the people they are building for, and a growth mindset are the ones we talk about most frequently. While working on a game to practice math facts with his dad and younger brother, fourth grade designer Jonathan told me, “Ms. Allred, right now I kinda feel like I want to quit, but I know you won’t let me so could I take a little break instead?” Jorge, a seventh grade designer, said, “I like design because it has helped me become more creative. I want to be an engineer which requires you to build things and if I am more creative and thoughtful then I can make better stuff.” 

In preparation for the amazing journeys these young people are embarking on, one thing we do a lot in design class is fail. Working with a group of second graders to form freestanding bead and pipe cleaner towers, students excitedly shared what they thought led to their flopped towers and approached their builds with new ideas. It wasn’t the flops, but the discovery that came with them, that boosted their creative confidence. 

Social and Emotional Learning 

Teaching in person, most of the relationships I’ve built with students—and watched them build with one another—happen over side conversations while making together, eating lunch, or in hallway lines. The last two years have left all of us with a lot to process and make a strong case for the importance of empathy. As creatives, when we aren’t satisfied with the reality at hand, we can create stories and tools to make a brighter one. Oftentimes I don’t know where something will lead, but when a student shares what ideas or emotional support they need, I do my best to follow their lead.

Normally eager for design, my fourth grade student “Carmen” pulled me aside and said that she felt too sad to draw due to the recent loss of a family member but assured me she still wanted to be in our class. For most of the class she sat quietly curled up in a chair and listened. We were reviewing examples from different activity books and each student was working on a proposal for what they wanted to make for our activity book. “Carmen” didn’t think she was up for coming up with an activity but was ready to draw. By the end of class she drew a beautiful picture of a group of students, each expressing a different emotion, and decided she wanted to make an activity to go along with her drawing that gave kids permission to feel and action ideas for each feeling. Some days are harder than others for “Carmen” and she comes in feeling sad, but feels more comfortable expressing her emotions and knows she can have a positive impact just by sharing her feelings.

The spread has a drawing of abstracted students, each with a different emotion and emoji representation above their head. On the right page, the designer shares what she does to cope with each emotion depicted, and includes write-in boxes for others.
An activity book spread created for Marín students by a fourth grade designer to explore actions accompanying different emotions.

Presidential Take Away

In the final hours leading up to the president’s visit, my colleagues at school and I spent time reflecting on the impact this visit had and sharing how little we each slept in anticipation for this big day. Over the past two years, everyone across school communities has been asked to press on and adapt in uncertainty. It feels like we have a lot to make up for after so much time spent online, yet we’ve also grown a lot from this experience. This visit prompted us to take stock of how much we have done and how empathetic, engaged, and wise our students are, placing our experiences within a broader interconnected web. That Friday I felt reinvigorated by my commitment to listen to my students, provide them opportunities to lead, and create clear connections between the work they are doing and the impact they can have on our school community, their families, neighborhood, city, and world at large. 

My role as an ArtistYear Fellow and the training I received as part of this unique service through the arts program provided me with the opportunity to utilize my passion for the arts to support the exceptional community at Marín. Thank you to the students, staff, and families at Marín for allowing me to share their stories, work, and pictures. It is a blessing to be part of such a caring and inspiring community of changemakers. 

ArtistYear is grateful for support from the American Rescue Plan made possible through the National Endowment for the Arts and AmeriCorps, the Agency. ArtistYear is a proud program of AmeriCorps, the Agency, PennSERVE, NC Volunteer, and SERVE Colorado, and partner of The School District of Philadelphia.

Please login to post comments.