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March 6, 2000

New arts program answers needs of two communities

By Barbara McKenna

It's quite common these days for UCSC senior Jessica Fisher to take a walk downtown and be hailed enthusiastically by a group of excited preteens. It's not that she resembles Britney Spears or anything like that. Rather, Fisher teaches art in a local junior high every week, which has given her a small fan club of her own.

Photo of Jenna Escobar
Seventh-grader Jenna Escobar gets tips on a bookmaking project from Jessica Fisher. Fisher is one of dozens of UCSC students who teach art in community schools through the ArtsBridge program.
Photo: Barbara McKenna
Fisher teaches art to two classes of seventh graders each week through ArtsBridge, a program created to increase arts enrichment in California's secondary schools. The program began at UC Irvine during the 1998-97 school year and was so successful that it was adopted systemwide last year and now merits a $1.5 million line item in the state budget, of which UCSC receives $110,000.

UCSC launched its program this past fall, sending 21 students into area schools to teach classes in the arts. This winter quarter, 58 UCSC students are in classrooms in four counties--Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey, and San Benito--teaching art, music, drama, dance, and digital art and film. In all, they reach more than 1,700 secondary school students each week. The UCSC students are a part of cadre of some 600 UC students teaching through ArtsBridge across the state.

As its name indicates, the program was conceived as a bridge between two communities with common interests and symbiotic needs. "ArtsBridge is a wonderful way for UCSC students to cement what they have learned at the university by breaking it down and adapting it to the needs of individual classrooms," explains Porter College provost and professor of theater arts Kathy Foley, who is the director of UCSC's ArtsBridge program. "At the same time, the program aims to be of service to the larger community and to bring the joy of learning and creativity into every classroom."

During a recent Friday-morning class, Fisher walked among her seventh-grade students at Mission Hill Junior High School in Santa Cruz, advising them as they struggled with the concept of perspective. "Sometimes they get really frustrated," Fisher says, "Perspective was especially hard and a lot of kids were asking, 'Do we have to do this?' But, after about a half hour, it was really coming together and their pictures were looking like the object they were drawing. And then the kids, four of them at almost the same time, just let out these excited, 'Oh!'s. They got it!"

Fisher works closely with her classroom teacher, Diane Smith, whom she describes as "incredible." Smith has helped Fisher learn both classroom management and ways to structure lessons so that they are effective for the kids. In addition to mentorship from classroom teachers like Smith, UCSC students work with a faculty mentor. At UCSC, the mentors are Foley, art professor Norman Locks, music professor Linda Burman-Hall, film and digital media professor Eli Hollander, Sesnon Art Gallery curator Shelby Graham, and ArtsBridge program coordinator Stephanie Settle.

Mentors meet one-on-one with the students and observe them in the classroom. There is no academic credit given for participation and yet Settle says that students are eager to participate. Students do receive a $1,000 stipend for their work, which, Norman Locks points out, is extremely valuable. "They're working very hard, but they are getting paid to do work in their field as opposed to having to work downtown for minimum wage."

Locks says the hands-on experience is invaluable to arts students, many of whom consider careers in teaching as a viable way of continuing in their field. "In our academic environment, in many cases, we don't concentrate on the applied aspects of learning. Many students express interest in going into education after graduation, but if you don't give them the experience, how can they know?"

"I've been thinking about teaching since I was about ten ," Fisher says. "When I found out about ArtsBridge it seemed like a good way for me to find out if I wanted to invest more time and money into getting a degree and getting into the classroom. Without some experience, going for a teaching credential seemed like a big risk--what if I wound up not enjoying it or not being good at it?"

"As much as the program serves UC students, it is also considered as arts enrichment for the schools," Settle says. "We are looking to the future, with the hope that we can help make up the gap in arts education. We hope this program can help generate a thriving arts community of practitioners, teachers, and audiences."

In the year 2003, UC will require all entering freshmen to have completed one year of art during high school. But right now, Locks says, "The likelihood of students coming to our program from the California school system with sufficient training in the arts is not very good. Generally, we have to start from scratch. So, from that point of view, ArtsBridge is one more way that we can give students in the secondary school system some training so that they don't have to start at the beginning when they get here."

When the sixth-grade students of ArtsBridge teacher Ali El-Gasseir get to college, they will be way ahead of the game in many respects. El-Gasseir already has them reading the work of novelist Italo Calvino, and Shakespeare is next. El-Gasseir has a simple bottom line in his class: "I would like my students to know that there are other things out there aside from television and movies," he says.

El-Gasseir is a senior theater arts major, who has been teaching drama at Gambetta Junior High School in Castroville for the past two quarters. He says that his students really warm up to even the more challenging authors when they get to learn the works through dramatic play.

He marvels at the way in which engaging in dramatic play facilitates learning for his students, many of whom speak English as a second language. "Some kids have a hard time spelling and struggle with reading. But theater is a way that they can learn vocabulary extremely quickly. For instance, we had a class in which we talked about the idea of actors and audience and no one in class could spell 'audience.' But by the end of the day, not only could they spell it, they were comfortable using terms like 'dramatic irony.' "

El-Gasseir speaks about his experience with great enthusiasm--he has gained a lot personally and he has been gratified to see that his students have gained something too. "I really enjoy teaching. This experience will definitely help me on my resume and it's fun to come in on Wednesdays and know that they're looking forward to class. There were those days when no one raised their hands or paid attention, but now they actually want to get up and perform. It feels good to think they'll come away with something. If they like Calvino or Shakespeare and read them for the rest of their lives, that's great."

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