NEA Arts Magazine

A Worldly Education

Folk Arts in the Classroom in Philadelphia


teacher in the classroom in a moving with three students behind

Liberian musician Fatu Gayflor teaching students at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. Photo by James Wasserman.

Just outside the lunch room of a Philadelphia public school you might find former Tibetan Buddhist monk Losang Samten -- a 2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow -- practicing the ancient art of making sand mandalas. Or you might notice that Fatu Gayflor, a Liberian singer, has commandeered the seventhgrade music class to teach traditional West African music and dance. All of this is business as usual at Philadelphia's Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), a unique public school in the city's Chinatown neighborhood where the folk and traditional arts are at the center of the curriculum.

When FACTS opened its doors in 2005, it was the culmination of a project ten years in the making, according to Principal Deborah Wei. Wei explained that the school's founding organizations -- Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project -- were long-time advocates for improving educational access for the city's immigrant communities. "We started thinking about it at the beginning when [the city] first announced charter schools, but we had such a commitment to the public schools [we worried] it would take away from our advocacy for overall education reform." Ultimately, it became clear that a charter school would have an ongoing, lasting impact on the community. As Wei added, "We came to the realization that we were losing generations of kids. We needed to put our money where our mouth is."

Debora Kodish, Philadelphia Folklore Project's executive director agreed. "We wanted to build a school that sees culture and community as an asset not liability. [Folk arts are] a great way to help kids think critically about where information comes from because you won't often find information about these disciplines in textbooks." While the school body is largely made up of various Asian nationalities -- including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian -- there is also a strong diversity of African Americans, Latinos, and whites as well. All of their various cultures are studied at the school.

In communities of new immigrants, there is often a disconnect between what young people experience in school and what they experience at home. FACTS is a place where this gap is bridged, and family traditions do not have to be left outside school walls. As Wei noted, traditional art disciplines are o!ten "othered," such as presentations at festivals without demonstrating the place o! these arts within their communities.

Losang Samten standing at the edge of a table where a complete sand mandala is displayed

Losang Samten completing a sand mandala at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School as part of his artist residency . . . Photo by Roko Kawai.

Sonia Arora, a West Philadelphia parent of Indian descent, has sent her seven-year-old son to FACTS since kindergarten because of its multicultural, hands-on focus. "In the society we live in, there is such pressure to conform to a certain way of being or looking. The folk and traditional arts emphasize different kinds of learning and using multiple intelligences. It also says to the kids, 'We respect where you come from -- the way your family prays, cooks, the way you come together and define community. We honor these traditions that have sustained your family for hundreds of years.'"

Wei and Kodish agree that a curriculum that includes the folk and traditional arts helps a wider range of kids to succeed academically. Kodish explained, "Kids have so many different gifts and skills. [Folk and traditional arts] studies give them so many more avenues in which to grow. Because of the range of arts experiences FACTS can offer, we help kids have confidence in themselves."

Moreover, proponents of the curriculum maintain that the folk arts offer an alternate set of values to the ones proffered, often to the saturation point, by popular media. For example, exposing the kids to sand mandalas, which are meant to be impermanent to symbolize the transitory nature of life, teaches the students to value process as well as product. As Wei said, "It's not just the form that we want kids to learn but we want them to learn the values underneath the forms, values of respect and patience and persistence."

Through interaction with these artists, students also gain a meaningful entry point into the international conversation. Wei explained, "Fatu Gayflor is a Liberian singer and her residency's really kind of cool because our seventh graders, as part of their geography unit, study West Africa. They focus on Liberia. She comes in and talks about the civil war in Liberia, what's been going on there, what her role was in Liberia." Or take Losang Samten's residency, which allows the students to explore questions around China-Tibet relations, an extremely significant subject given the school's large Asian population and Chinatown location.

Students work not just with master artists but also with community elders. For example, FACTS has just completed a grant partnership with the South East Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition that combated depression in the senior citizen community by bringing the seniors into the school to work on folk arts activities with the students, including folk dancing, cooking classes, and oral history projects. Over lunch, the youngsters and seniors conversed, with language-savvy students acting as translators for their peers.

Given the educational benefits, it would seem that more schools would eagerly embrace folk arts curricula. While the unique nature of the folk and traditional arts makes them an invaluable learning tool, it also presents a challenge to integrating the discipline into standard school curricula. According to Dr. Sarah Cunningham, the NEA's director of Arts Education, one barrier is that "some folk arts are really hard to distill into short bursts of lessons, so it is challenging to convert them to the classroom." Another challenge is that, in many areas, the master artists in the community are simply not visible to the school.

Young students surrounding a sand mandala, slowly destroying it with brushes

. . . and working with the students to destroy the sand mandala he created, demonstrating the impermanency of material objects. Photo by Roko Kawai

According to Cunningham, the real issue is the relationship between schools and the culture of the communities they serve. "Are schools places where people are alienated from their culture? Or are they places where culture is celebrated? I think we have school environments where, because of performance pressures, people can't necessarily bring their own culture to school. Some schools jump right into the conversation and bring in experts. [Other] schools have a generalized global culture lesson where they do a couple of exercises saying, 'This is what culture is,' and then move on. . . . The community is always a part of the school. If there is violence in the community, then there's violence in the school. If there's poverty in the community, then there's poverty in the school. But when you start to take the positive aspects of the community and weave them into the school, it changes the spirit of what could happen."

Wei has many hopes for the FACTS school going forward. She'd like the school to be a center for traditional arts and culture in the city. She'd like to see more traditional music ensembles at the school and more FACTS students join the local Chinese opera troupe. She'd like students to think of the school as a home, returning long after they've graduated. She'd like to see all of her graduates make it into college. But most important, Wei wants FACTS to testify to the value of supporting folk and traditional arts and artists in schools and in communities. "I think certainly for the past eight years the push for standardized testing as the marker of any kind of student success has really taken a toll on the importance of arts in schools. So arts are marginalized and within arts being marginalized, folks arts are hyper-marginalized. One of my hopes is that we can show that not only are these arts important for the communities in which they sit, they're important for the education of children overall. The way these arts have traditionally been passed on, that's been broken down. I think schools can play a vital role in creating those venues and making it possible for these arts to continue. I hope that more leadership can recognize the importance of that."