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Detroit poets + Washington D.C. playwrights = An educational partnership that seeks to break down city stereotypes

3 - 524 art

What happens when you mix two personality-filled cities – Detroit and Washington D.C. – with two unique art forms, poetry and playwriting? Thanks to a unique educational partnership, we’re about to find out.

1 - SkypeDetroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project along with D.C.-based Young Playwrights’ Theater met here this week, bringing their award-winning arts education non-profits together to create a new high-school curriculum. The goal is to launch their classroom collaboration this spring. And from what I saw, it is going to be a magnificent undertaking.

The idea is to help these students learn more about themselves, their contemporaries and their cities and then allow them to express that through words. Part of the project is to help these young people get their minds around what it means to grow up in a city with a national reputation – especially one as largely negative as it is in Detroit.

But there is so much more to this project than that. It will establish a hybrid curriculum that blends poetry writing, play writing and media arts – one that could be used in any school. It is sharing stories, getting to know one another through technology and building a discussion around cities otherwise known for crime and poverty. Their language will rule the day, driven by emotion and the reality that only these kids understand.

The entire project’s moniker is “My Art is So Loud: The 524 Project.” Its name comes from the distance in miles between the two participating schools: Western International High School in Detroit and Ballou Senior High School in Washington D.C. It is an apt name because these students want to make some noise, want to get attention, want the world’s eyes on their work. Distance is no longer an issue between them because iPads and other online resources will make sure their messages get heard.

This week’s activities included meetings between reps from the two schools, getting to know one another and the teachers involved. There were seminars on the technology that will be used, including the omnipresent Apple devices and teleconferences. Participants, including YPT Executive Director Brigitte Pribnow Moore, also received lessons on new educational strategies, such as Visual Thinking, an awesome discussion technique employed by the facilitators at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

2 - cameraPribnow Moore said this kind of curriculum creation has never been done before, so it makes this week’s activities that much more exciting. Both cities will play significant roles in the art that is created, so defining the problems around them, seeking solutions and being OK with success as well as failure will be key parts of the 524 Project, she said.

“This is the kind of collaboration that could only happen in this time of new media and shrinking distances. … We hope this project is only the first of its kind and are thrilled to have Detroit as our first national partner,” Pribnow Moore said.

Some background: YPT is the only professional theater in Washington D.C. dedicated entirely to arts education. A while back, YPT heard about and met the people at InsideOut, and a fast friendship was born. Then, YPT got a Metlife/TCG A-ha! Do It grant to fund this cool arts party. Another partner is Meridian Hill Pictures, a documentary-film production company, which is helping the two learn to use iPads and teleconferencing technology to bring the 524 Project to life and to the world.

It was at the DIA where I caught up with the group, which had been together since Oct. 14. Both sides seemed blissfully happy with how the conversation had gone thus far. Although most agreed that the idea of blending poetry and play writing felt strange at first, it was now proving to have more in common than they first thought. It is about finding the right words, communicating a common human experience and engaging audiences. Plus, when you give high-school students tools like this, you’re always surprised by what comes out.

4 - Artwork discussionOne of Thursday’s activities was to use the DIA’s visual-thinking activity to get people in a group setting talking in a respectful, collaborative way. Our instructor, Anne, walked us through three exercises – she sat us in front of three paintings and each time asked us three simple questions: “What’s happening here?”, “What do you see that makes you say that?” and “What more can you find?” Three simple questions got all of us talking, sharing what we saw and basically agreeing that everyone’s ideas were interesting and worthy. It is a technique that works on preschoolers and senior citizens and everyone in between.

The two classrooms that will use this technique include a drama class here in Detroit and a public-speaking class in Washington D.C. These kids are primed ambassadors for what’s about to happen to them, and their online experiment should prove fascinating in every aspect. Not only will it be educational for them, I think we’ll all learn something along the way.

The best part is that these kids won’t accept the same old stories – that their cities are failures, that there is no life here, that our art isn’t valuable other than as collateral. If we listen closely, I think we’ll hear a new definition of Detroit, one that accepts the past, redefines the present and gives us fresh perspective on the future.

So keep an eye here and on the project’s tumblr site – there will be plays, poetry, real-time updates, video footage of the students in the classroom, student performances, photo sharing and behind-the-scenes interviews with the students and teachers. We will be sharing the results on this blog site as well – and I cannot wait to find out what they’ll discover during this experiment.

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