Reaching Inner-City Youngsters through the Arts

By Fanelli, Leslie; Klippel, Nina Mermey | Art Education, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Reaching Inner-City Youngsters through the Arts


Fanelli, Leslie, Klippel, Nina Mermey, Art Education


In the winter and spring of 1998-99, a team of artists-in-residence created an interdisciplinary program combining performing and visual arts at an inner-city school in Newark, New Jersey. Drama specialist Leslie Fanelli and creative art therapist Nina Klippel were chosen by Arts Horizons, an organization that brings arts to public schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, to work with third-graders in a remedial after-school program. Participating as guest artists during the term were a dancer/choreographer and a musician who works with gourd instruments. The program was part of an Arts Horizons initiative known as "Creative Alternatives for Youth at Risk" (CAYR) and was funded by the Prudential Foundation and the Essex County (NJ) Youth Services Commission.

The Arts Horizons mandate and mission were to improve the students' social behaviors and increase their engagement in learning activities. But the arts collaboration had more far-reaching effects. This is the story, in part, as told by the authors:

We were concerned not only with the stated behavioral goals, but also with the inner life of the child. Through the arts, the children were able to access what Fanelli calls their "Intrapersonal Well": their sense of self, trust in self, and creativity. The children's visual art gave them a positive mirror of themselves and a chance to play with different aspects, from monster to magician. The art projects were planned as a series of experiences, each new and different, all aimed at fostering imagination, cognitive and artistic skills, and enhancement of the sense of self.

* Fanelli: The theoretical base for my work rests on Gardner's (1983) The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). The MI definition of intelligence is the ability to solve a problem or create a product that is useful in one or more cultures. Gardner believes human intelligence consists not only of Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical skills, but also includes Musical, Spatial, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Naturalistic, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Intelligences. Each person is born with a distinct combination of these eight faculties, which are not simply learning styles but capacities residing in distinct areas of the brain. Thus, the more varied the offerings to a given group of children, the more children can respond-and the greater the reinforcement of their learning.

In his recent book, The Disciplined Mind, Gardner (1999) advocates a vision of an ideal education for everyone. Such an education embraces Plato's quest for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Although there are no incontrovertible answers as to what constitutes Truth, Beauty and Goodness, the artful quest is the key. I believe such an art quest, deeply involving Intra- and Interpersonal Intelligences, can positively affect social behavior. Tapping the Personal Intelligences via arts activities is always of primacy in my work and was of particular importance in this residency.

Intrapersonal intelligence, says Gardner, is "a correlative ability, turned inward. It is a capacity to form an accurate, veridical model of oneself and to be able to use that model to operate effectively in life." Interpersonal intelligence is "the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work cooperatively with them." (Gardner, 1993, p.9.)

Klippel: As a registered art therapist, I am trained to look at children's art production-their manner of working as well as their finished products-for clues to issues in their lives. Artmaking is a process of symbol-making and meaning-making, whether conscious or not. A child's artwork can tell much about his or her fears, anger, repressed feelings, even about sexual abuse. This knowledge helped me to understand and work with the children, even though my role was not as a clinician. Instead, my focus was on helping these often-deprived children to develop self-esteem, which, of course, is fundamental to cognitive as well as psychological development. …

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