Walking into the second grade classroom of PS 279 Captain Manuel Rivera Jr. in the Bronx, Stacey Paul and I noticed that the room looks much like the classrooms our own children learn in: same calendar, same carpet, same chairs and tables. Stacey has a 1st grader and I have a kindergartener, both attending NYC public schools. The children were sitting on blue chairs around white tables, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Community-Word Project Teaching Artists. We would shortly learn just how different our own children’s experiences are compared to those of the children at PS 279.
I found out about Community-Word Project through founding director, Michele Kotler, whom I met at a Happier Hours evening (Aidan Donnelley Rowley, Happier Hours Founder and Curator, has also volunteered in CWP classrooms!). When Michele became a mom herself she started the SuperMoms Collective with other moms that she met through Bowery Babes. The SuperMoms Collective brings amazing moms together to socialize around the good cause of Community-Word Project. I have been helping Michele bring other SuperMoms into the classroom to experience firsthand the work of CWP.
The students at PS 279 are learning about “Heroes” in their class with CWP Teaching Artists Scott Lilly and Mary Cinadr, but they were soon to become the very subjects about which they studied in our eyes.
Mr. Scott started the session with a ring of the “Focus Bowl” and 30+ antsy 7 year olds were able to focus in silence for a longer period of time than many adults can. Then Mr. Scott began movement with the children, which it was clear they craved. He was able to reach those children who are kinesthetic learners and also to help those who need to move their bodies in between long sedentary periods at their desks. The children all moved together as a cohesive unit to “roll down, up, push, pull, lift, close, open, embrace”.
They then sang a beautiful song which is clearly a highlight of the program for the children. Ms. Mary told us that when Mr. Scott arrived with his guitar at the previous session, the children were in absolute awe.
The lyrics were meaningful and the children sang their hearts out:
One plus one is two
That means me and you
Each doing our part
That’s how it starts
Together pitching in
That’s how we begin
That makes us ordinary
Let your spirit sing
By this early point in the class, it was evident from the smiles on the children’s faces that CWP was succeeding in the organization’s goal of “making school a place where children want to be versus a place where they have to be”.
The class then moved on to learning about the “Rules of Being a Knight”, of which there are 20. In order to help the children remember the rules, Mr. Scott asked for “quiet hands” to be raised to offer gestures or poses that relate to each of the Rules. A beautiful moment occurred went a tiny girl with pigtails named Princess shared with the class her gesture for “Honesty” – opening her hands under her face and bowing down slightly. It was incredibly intentional and demonstrated wisdom beyond her years. Other rules that were discussed were Pride, Cooperation, Friendship and Forgiveness. One boy who had a difficult time sitting still and focusing was so sweet when it came to Friendship; he gestured a giant hug.
Ms. Mary continued with the class Community Poem, in which the students collaboratively compose a poem about their neighborhood. She praised the children for opening up and discussing not only things that make them happy, but also problems that make them feel sad or helpless, such as poverty, homelessness and illness.
To round out the class, Mr. Scott asked how many CWP sessions they had so far (five) and they clapped five times and shouted “Huzzah” together afterwards. Finally, their “treat” at the end of the sessions for being so actively engaged was to sing the “Ordinary Heroes” song one last time.
As always during after my classroom visits (I’ve had the opportunity to visit schools in Morningside Heights and Brooklyn), I felt equally uplifted and heartbroken. Heartbroken for the little girl who was reprimanded by her teacher and cried for the rest of the nearly hour-long session. Heartbroken for the many children in this class who, we later learned, live in a shelter. Heartbroken for the children who, just like our own children, want to learn, need the arts in their lives, and just don’t have the opportunities that our own children have. So the very least we can do is to volunteer some of our time and/or resources to help these children and support a program that is making a difference in their lives.
-Lindsay Bennun & Stacey Sarfatti Paul