Online residencies offering Chatham students a new art education experience

Posted 5/20/20

Pittsboro’s Diali Cissokho said it’s “weird” to him. “It’s totally different,” he said. “It’s so different to me because I’ve never done it. It’s what they call a ‘life change.’ If life is changing, you’ve got to follow life.” He’s talking about the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative, the yearly art education program moving for the first time to a digital platform in order to reach students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Online residencies offering Chatham students a new art education experience

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Pittsboro’s Diali Cissokho said it’s “weird” to him.

“It’s totally different,” he said. “It’s so different to me because I’ve never done it. It’s what they call a ‘life change.’ If life is changing, you’ve got to follow life.”

He’s talking about the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative, the yearly art education program moving for the first time to a digital platform in order to reach students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cissokho, who’s from Senegal and regularly works with Chatham students to teach them about African music and drums, is one of several artists participating. And while he admits he doesn’t really like the set-up, it’s a growth experience for him.

“It makes me think, ‘I need to grow up. I need to learn so many things,’” he said. “It’s opened so many good ideas for me. It’s helping me to do this doing performances online, teaching them what I do, telling them the story online.”

The CAC’s regular initiative brings professional artists like Cissokho into Chatham schools “to help (students) make deeper curriculum connections through art, theater and music,” according to an organization press release. Moving this program online is the logical step for the program, according to CAC Executive Director Cheryl Chamblee.

“When the stay-at-home order went into effect, we immediately began brainstorming ways to continue this valuable program by pivoting to an online version,” she said. “We have seen first-hand the powerful connection being made when the arts are leveraged to support core curriculum.”

The first stay-at-home order closed schools to in-person classes at first for two weeks, then a month-and-a-half, then the rest of the school year. The CAC’s videos, Chamblee said, will provide “something to help” teachers and parents by providing an educational experience through video.

Cissokho’s West African musicianship will be joined by, among others, Raleigh’s Black Box Dance Theatre and John Brown’s Little Big Band out of Chapel Hill.

Brown, the director of Duke University’s Jazz Program and the bassist in his band, said the group has been working on about 10 videos showing off their instruments — from providing historical context of the instrument to performing techniques. The band will intertwine video from past performances with content created just for this program.

“We’re happy to still be able to get content to the students and have them have experiences with the arts,” Brown said. “That’s the No. 1 goal. As long as their education continues and has some connection with the arts, that’s our goal.”

Brown and Cissokho both said they’re going to miss the personal interaction with the students, that it creates, in the former’s words, a “palpable difference.”

Michelle Pearson, the artistic director at the Black Box Dance Theatre, said she’s hoping to still try, even though her company won’t be dancing in front of the kids this time.

“We share some of the content and embody it and the kids get to see us figure it out,” Pearson said. “We invite them to move and dance and learn a little bit of science with us. The videos pose a question or a challenge to share their experience of science in their real life. We will collect their stories and then come back to them and make a dance out of it. They can witness how their voice is the inspiration or the driving force of the art-making.”

In person, the Black Box crew shares skills and methods of dance and connects them to what students are learning in school, from 3rd-grade science to high school math. While that’s normally done in real time, this education will be different.

“We have the will and the courage to try and make these things happen, and we’re surprised every day,” Pearson said. “We really look forward to seeing how the kids can not just sit and get but literally have an active role in their own learning.”

Pearson, Brown and Cissoko praised the efforts of the CAC and emphasized the importance of the arts during this time.

“They were really committed to making sure the students got as much content as they could get and continue to engage,” Brown said. “Those folks made some real effort to make that happen for these students. I’m really proud as a North Carolinian to see that. I’m happy to be a part.”

The CAC will be connecting with local teachers to share the material in the coming weeks. Sharon Allen, the lead arts teacher with Chatham County Schools, said she was “grateful” for the organization’s “flexibility” to make these Residencies happen online.

“The Artists-in-Schools Initiative offers students the opportunity to observe and participate in the creative process with professional artists,” Allen said. “These videos are great resources for students, teachers and parents during this time of at-home learning.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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