Writers In the Schools & the arts

Keeping their WITS at Houston Ballet: Summer program expands the definition of learning

Keeping their WITS at Houston Ballet: Summer program expands the definition of learning

It's no secret that many Texans have become dissatisfied with the way in which their children are "taught to the test."

With the rise in emphasis of standardized testing, many teachers find it difficult to create time in the classroom for more creative endeavors. Concepts that are not tested on the Texas-standardized-test-du-jour are nearly ignored all together.

Seeing a need for more coordination between what was being taught in Houston classrooms and the craft of writing, Phillip Lopate and Marv Hoffman founded Writers In the Schools, a program that grew out of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston in 1983. The founders saw a disconnect between what was being presented in classrooms — mostly teaching to the test — and what students should be doing —thinking out of the box and having their individual voices heard.

The program, which sends graduate students into classrooms across Houston one hour per week throughout the school year, gives students an opportunity to stretch their minds and express themselves. Most importantly, WITS shows young students that writing is more than just a necessary evil of a standardized test -- it can also be a fun and rewarding activity.

 Once in the shoe room, students learned about what allows ballerinas to defy gravity to dance on the tips of their toes, as well as how many pairs of pointe shoes former principal dancer Lauren Anderson wore out each season (60-70, FYI).

 

In the summer, WITS keeps up its goal of exposing kids to the thrills of writing by hosting summer camps in conjunction with the Rice University School Literacy and Culture Project. This year's camps boasted over 930 students on six campuses across Houston and is the largest in the organization's history. The summer program lasts three weeks and aims to engage kids not only with writing, but with a multitude of other arts-based opportunities.

A recent excursion featured a trip to the new Houston Ballet Center for Dance and an opportunity for the students, in grades K-6, to engage with the medium of dance. Students were treated to an introductory ballet class with Ben Stevenson Academy principal instructor Cheryne Busch and behind-the-scenes tours of both the wardrobe shop and shoe room, courtesy of Laura Lynch and Genie Lanfear.

In the wardrobe room, students saw the endless racks of tutus and dance skirts, as well as up close looks at such iconic costumes as The Nutcracker's Rat King and Nutcracker masks and the ever-recognizable Sugar Plum Fairy tutu. Once in the shoe room, students learned about what allows ballerinas to defy gravity to dance on the tips of their toes, as well as how many pairs of pointe shoes former principal dancer Lauren Anderson wore out each season (60-70, FYI).

Anderson, who was named artistic education outreach associate after her 2007 retirement, was on hand throughout the day to offer her own perspective on the WITS partnership. Anderson emphasized the importance of paying attention to the differences in kids' learning styles.

"We want to reach kids of all learning styles. Our goal is to teach and reach into a child and see how they can grow," she told CultureMap. 

Anderson was excited about the new partnership between WITS and Houston Ballet, adding that she hopes the ballet can continue to be a vehicle for WITS to accomplish its goal of connecting Houston-area children with the arts community.

 "Dancing and moving are like forming lines in a poem," WITS associate director Long Chu said when asked why dance caught his attention as a complement to writing.

 After their dance class and excursion in the wardrobe department, the kids were asked to reflect and write about their experiences throughout the morning. WITS associate director Long Chu could barely contain his excitement about the morning's activities and the goals for the excursion.

"Dancing and moving are like forming lines in a poem," he said when asked why dance caught his attention as a complement to writing.

Chu's passion for the WITS program is clear. He views it  as a way to show kids that "writing isfor everyone, like food." Throughout the summer, WITS will take the kids to the Menil Collection, the Heritage Society, and Dance Houston, as well as introduce them to various visiual artists in the community. Through these experiences, Chu hopes that students will be stimulated by something other than video games and television and will begin to engage in the arts community that thrives throughout Houston. 

Chu hopes to encourage young students to use their voices and teach them to write better —  something that he does not necessarily see emphasized in today's classrooms. At the end of the camp, the students' works will be published in an anthology, with a celebratory reading for parents and other loved ones as a closing ceremony. Through this celebration, WITS hopes to promote the beauty of writing and show kids that it is something everyone can be a part of.

WITS Houston Ballet
WITS Writer Evan Cleveland and his students write about their experiences at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Photo by Jennifer Watson
WITS_Houston Ballet
WITS students reflect on their experiences at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Photo by Jennifer Watson
Cheryne Busch WITS
Cheryne Busch, Houston Ballet principal instrucor teaches a lesson on body movement to a captive audience. Photo by Jennifer Watson
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