New School Preparatory

An Artful Approach

By Nicki Clausen-Grace, Central Florida Family Magazine

Close your eyes for a moment and picture a typical American history class. For many, this prompt brings to mind a classroom in which students sit and listen to the endless drone of a teacher talking in monotone about events that seem almost surreal in their lack of relation to students' lives. Most likely, students are expected to lug home massive and musty books to memorize dates and tag events to them. Let's face it, American history is not exactly elective material.

Now imagine a class in which students are actively engaged in meaningful learning. They are exploring American history through music, dance, painting, poetry writing, research and debate. The entire unit of study will culminate in the presentation of an exhibit at the Orange County Historical Society.

Led by an all-star lineup of Central Florida artisans, middle school students at New School Preparatory are using the arts to learn about the Harlem Renaissance. Robin Jensen of the Orlando Opera Company will be teaching students music from this period. Dances will be recreated with the help of Eliza Harwood of the Southern Ballet Theater. Graphic art will be produced under the tutelage of The New School's Etty Baru, with dramatic interpretations directed by Morris Sorin. Students also will study this period in their social studies and language arts classes.

Multiple Intelligence Theory, developed by Howard Gardner and others, indicates that tapping into students' innate strengths will enhance learning. Traditionally, students who are strong in verbal or mathematics skills excel in school, while students whose strengths lie in movement, visual arts of music have greater difficulty finding meaning or motivation to learn. Far from penalizing students with artistic tendencies, the History Through the Arts program capitalizes on students' strengths as a vehicle for learning.

Karen Sorin, language arts teacher, notes an even greater benefit that arises from students' immersion in a particular period of time. "Books often distance kids from what occurred. They don't allow history to be looked at in-depth. When learning history through the arts, students see that if not only involved dates and events, but also arts, politics, culture - everything that was going on at the time." This insightful perspective on history is one that Sorin hopes students will carry with them throughout their schooling.

The Harlem Renaissance lends itself particularly well to this type of approach because artists led the movement instead of simply reacting to it. From 1917 to 1935, the Harlem Renaissance helped establish a new African-American identity while contributing to the development of our modern American culture.

It is especially interesting, Sorin points out, that during a time of racial inequality and turbulence musicians, dancers, writers, and painters of various races worked together on equal ground united by the common purpose of creating great art.

To give purpose to their studies while performing community service, students will design and construct a display for the Orange County Historical Society. Led by social studies teacher Jillian Freedman and Michelle Alexander of the Orange County Historical Society, students will highlight life in Orange County during the Harlem Renaissance.

For anyone who slept through their American history classes, this display will be a must-see.

What is History Through the Arts?

  • Through attention to Multiple Intelligence Theory, diverse
    learning strengths are capitalized upon.
  • Students experience all aspects of historical period to gain
    a more well-rounded perspective.
  • Students provide a public service by producing an exhibit
    for the Orange County Historical Society.

For More Information

  • Contact: 
    New School Preparatory, 130 East Marks Street, Orlando, Florida 32803
    (407) 246-0556
  • Frames of Mind (Harper Collins, $16.50), by Howard Gardner

Quick Takes

Led by an all-star lineup of Central Florida artisans, middle school students at New School Preparatory are using the arts to learn about the Harlem Renaissance.

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