Doing it for the kids

Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest, in the summer of 2012. Photo by Tim Frandy

Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest. Photo by Tim Frandy 2012

I am really concerned that kids are not getting useful and appropriate educations based on what we know to be useful and appropriate ways to educate kids. Research shows all sorts of things, and yet schools systems do other things. There are so many examples I dare not go into it (and so many reasons why, the road-blocks to change sometimes feel insurmountable). Happily, I know there are independent and creative thinkers who are working their butts off to add opportunities for meaningful and transformative experiences to the lives of youth.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has seven grant rounds every year. I am so proud of the projects we fund and also proud that a good number of them are designed to enrich humanities education for the youth of Wisconsin.

For example, a project called “These Canoes Carry Culture” awarded to the Goodman Community Center. This collaborative effort makes it possible for an Ojibwe artist, culture bearer and language teacher named Wayne Valliere to work side-by-side with a small group of young people from Madison and Lac du Flambeau to build a birch bark canoe. They will build it from scratch, making trips to gather materials from the particular forests and fields where the particular materials grow at a particular time of year. The kids will have time to talk to each other about what it is like to live in the city, or live on a reservation, while they are learning a disciplined craft and dying art from a master. They will read and discuss history and language and tradition, but not in a formal classroom with tests and grades. Instead, they’ll be exchanging ideas as they create, ultimately, a boat that will be on display in the new Dejope student dorm on campus.  The project brings together educators from community centers and academics from many departments at UW. It will be documented in a film and hopefully serve as a model for future community-university-folk artist partnerships. All wonderful and admirable. What most excites me is remembering what it was like to be a teenager and projecting what I imagine will be a life-altering experience for the kids involved. I believe this project will influence how these kids see the world and themselves in it, for the better.

Another inspired effort comes from Arts @ Large, a non-profit that works from within the Milwaukee School District to create “arts-infused learning.” They are responding to serious issues and producing serious outcomes that are student-led and student-centric. They have recently partnered with a group called Serve2Unite and together are creating student chapters of the organization dedicated to spreading peace through understanding, tolerance and, education.  Serve2Unite was formed after the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012 where a gunman walked into a Sikh Temple opened fire, killing six members of the 400-person congregation.  They work to fight hate in the form of bullying and other violent crimes. Arts @ Large Serve2Unite chapters will research and develop service projects so that students learn, through doing, how to be agents of change, and social wellness, in their own families an communities. I heard some of the kids who have been involved in past Arts @ Large efforts speak recently and was impressed. Here, too, I see an example of how teenagers are treated as human beings with value, life experiences, and skills to bring to the table.

We know that kids, and more immediately teenagers, are the future leaders of the world. I’m excited about projects and places where they get to shine, speak up, hone skills, teach and learn from each other, and find meaning in their lives. I want that for my kids and all the kids, everywhere.

Read more about projects funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council here.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

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