Wexner Center for the Arts’ Pages program elevates the writing of area high school students.
It seems that nearly every election cycle, at least one central Ohio school levy fails. And that guarantees one thing: Programs deemed unimportant will be cut. These days, those offerings often revolve around art.
Enter Dionne Custer Edwards ’97of the Wexner Center for the Arts and her 9-year-old program, Pages.
Through this program, Wexner educators and teachers in central Ohio public, private and charter schools craft educational programming around museum exhibits. The goal: Let students express their artistic side while embracing core high school curricula.
“One of the things I noticed in K-12, especially in high school, was that art exposure really drops off,” Custer Edwards said. “I thought, what if we worked with traditional schools and did arts integration?”
In 2005, Custer Edwards was the ideal person to pose that question. She had just joined the Wexner Center as an educator for school programs after working as a local artist, educator and arts advocate. She had seen the dearth of art exposure in high schools, and she also recognized that “dry and stale” writing prompts, continually recycled, were actually leading kids to hate writing.
Her solution: a multi-visit, writing-based arts program that uses students’ exposure to art throughout an academic year to stimulate writing projects. Pages also provides curriculum-based professional development to teachers, in-class support from artists and museum educators, and transportation for students to take part in Wexner exhibits and programming.
The program is free, but teachers must demonstrate what they want to achieve and how they expect their students to benefit. Teachers meet with Wexner educators over the summer and plan their curriculum around three programming opportunities at the arts center — performing arts, visual arts and film — to determine how their students will engage with the center’s exhibits. The program aims to serve about 200 students at a total of five to eight schools annually.
“Pages leverages school — the place where students and teachers already are all day, a formal learning environment — with the museum, a robust, more flexible, informal learning environment. (The goal is) to integrate new ideas, engage critical thinking, practice writing and access the arts,” Custer Edwards said. “We try to work within an established educational context and bring new pathways to learning.”
It was not a hard sell to teachers such as Andrea Patton, the advance placement writing and journalism teacher at Whetstone High School, part of Columbus City Schools.
“The AP curriculum is great, … but it does not have much on the side of creativity,” said Patton ’08 MA, who studied journalism and communication at Ohio State. “I thought Pages would be a really good way to allow students to have art experiences and more of the creative sides of English classes. As soon as I saw we could go on a field trip to an art gallery and have support for writing, I applied right away.”
Patton’s class first visited the Wexner in 2013 for “The World Made Itself.” In the performing arts piece, artist Miwa Matreyek’s shadow interacted with images on an animated movie screen.
“I was thinking, ‘How will my students respond?’” Patton acknowledged. “It was a little avant-garde. It seemed like, for high school, it would be hard for them to relate to. But they liked it a lot. Most had never experienced anything like that.”
The visual experience was followed by a visit from an Ohio State drama professor, who guided students in using layered collages of images and words. Patton was amazed by her students’ insights. She offered an example: In one collage of faces, the creator flipped over every 10th image to represent LGBTQ members of society who are not given a voice.
Patton also was amazed by the results. In her students’ first year of participation, their passage rate on standardized tests increased from 52 percent of the class to 63 percent, a jump she attributes to Pages’ reality-based learning approach.
In 2014, an evaluation and research firm’s external review of Pages found “the program has a direct and measureable effect on students’ creative problem solving and critical thinking, not an easy task for a museum-based program.”
The report by Randi Korn & Associates continued: “Students described their own confidence in interviews, noting their increased joy in writing, the ownership and pride they feel over their writing. Teachers described this confidence in terms of students’ desire to write more, their newfound understanding of the great variety of works of art and writing styles, and their abilities to express themselves creatively through writing.”
Patton offered this analogy: “I think high school can be a lot like a fishbowl. Students are in the same environment every day, running around, bumping into each other and the same things. Finding a way to have students interact in ways that helps kids out of the fishbowl and see more of the world, that’s what Pages is about. Learning is not something you do only in school.”