By John Holyoke
I have on my desktop an aerial photo and early draft plan, circa 1963, of Lincoln Center, the place where I work. In these images, the Amsterdam Houses rise up next to plowed lots that would become Lincoln Center. In the corner of the plan stands P.S. 191. These images rotate through the background of my screen, a reminder of how the organization I proudly work for and its surrounding neighborhood are deeply linked.
Education was a cornerstone of the Lincoln Center mission at its founding. Lincoln Center Education was established to pursue that goal in schools, colleges, and other communities. It seems right to me that Lincoln Center Education (LCE) and P.S. 191 should have a partnership stretching back 20 years. LCE employs top-tier teaching artists who work with school districts and cities around the country and the globe. It is particularly meaningful to know we have made the art created on our campus accessible to children who attend our neighboring school.
In light of the rezoning conversation surrounding P.S. 191, I wanted to share a little bit about our work there. I am in the school regularly as a cultural partner, where I’m able to watch the teachers and children interact through our program and observe how this learning is woven into the rest of the academic day.
Lincoln Center and P.S. 191 began working together in 1996, and since then about 1,000 children have benefited from our work together. Our partnership is in-depth and runs all year. Every student in the school takes part. LCE-trained teaching artists work closely with the teachers at P.S. 191 to craft coursework and plan how pupils develop from grade to grade. Students at P.S. 191 study various pieces of artwork and Lincoln Center performances throughout the year, examining them like one might a text. We strengthen their ability to think like artists so that they may be able to apply imaginative thinking in all subjects.
Each semester begins with specially crafted lessons around a particular performance or museum visit. Students explore key elements of the art form in the weeks prior to this culminating event, and when they subsequently visit the exhibition or attend the performance, they can appreciate the work in myriad ways. They don’t merely repeat that a Shakespeare play is important because they were told that in class. They instead engage with the work; they appreciate decisions made in the staging, in the dialogue, and in character development. By posing questions to their classmates—What do we notice? How would it be different if another choice had been made? How does it connect to my world and what meaning can I make of it?—students learn to bring the same inquisitiveness to the work of professional artists.
For instance, last year students as young as five years old prepared to visit the Oceana wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by designing their own fantastical animals. In Stacie Lorraine’s fourth-grade classroom, students used what they had learned from a recent field biology unit to devise new animals. They reworked their animal’s body based on the natural segmentation they had noted from close study. When they visited the museum, the students saw parallel ideas and techniques from their drawings in the galleries, and this experience enriched their time there. They not only saw the individual works of art but also the artistic process that created them.
When you visit Lincoln Center Education’s website, footage from Ms. Lorraine’s classroom is the first thing you see. Ms. Lorraine has been honored at Yale for her action research and has appeared at our annual Summer Forum and teacher training numerous times. Teachers from many of our partnering schools learn how to partner in part by observing her work at P.S. 191.
At P.S. 191, students become conditioned to this kind of thinking. They hear those same questions echoed by our partnering teachers throughout the day in English class, math, and social studies. They also come to know Lincoln Center as an extension of their school. This is never more evident than at the school’s annual installation of student work, where students serve as agile guides, asking parents to look closely at the student work covering the halls and the classrooms.
A year ago I helped put up a display in the hallway just outside the principal’s office. It included pictures of P.S. 191 students from over a 16-year span—children staging scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, children trying dance moves similar to those they would see performed by Alvin Ailey dancers later that same day, older kids helping younger students think about an installation on the Lincoln Center plaza. Students stopped to look at the pictures spread throughout the hall. A junior high–age girl called out to her friend, “Look, there you are in second grade!” To which the friend excitedly replied, “Oh yeah! I remember that.” Teachers clustered to marvel at pictures of first graders they now have as sixth graders, and students who had graduated. I left happy, knowing that the work I do at P.S. 191 is not just another program, but part of the fabric of the community.
John Holyoke is the assistant director for Pre-K through 12 and Higher Education at Lincoln Center Education.