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New curriculum adds arts literacy to classrooms

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Dennis Creedon likes to say that arts education saved him. Dyslexic as a boy, he was able to realize his potential and focus his gifts through music.

Now one of the Philadelphia School District’s assistant superintendents, who oversees a learning network, Creedon has also been in charge of arts programming. And with art and music teachers a dwindling breed in District schools, one of his major projects was the creation of a curriculum that helps teach literacy through the arts.

More than seven years in the making, with a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the curriculum was delivered to all 1st- through 8th-grade classrooms at the start of the school year.

The eight books — one for each grade — introduce students to two of the city’s major arts institutions, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their guides on this journey, through vignettes that the students can read, are two figures of historical importance in the city’s arts history: Frances Anne Wister and Julian Francis Abele.

Wister, a Germantown native, was an arts patron and a member of the prominent Wister family, with roots going back to colonial times. Abele was an African American architect who helped design the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Free Library.

The books include reproductions of artwork and information on the artists. Students are also introduced to composers. Besides the books, there is a CD for each grade with the orchestra’s renditions of famous musical works that are discussed in the stories.

"This program offers our students a window into the cultural life of our city," said Creedon. "The two largest cultural organizations in our community are profiled in the series, and small excerpts of their long histories are offered."

Some of the lessons tie together the art and music, as in the 5th-grade text, in which Debussy’s work "The Sea" (La Mer), marks a break from the Romantic movement to one that is more impressionistic. The book ties it to the work of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet.

"The two works show that art and music created within a particular time-frame can often share both context and style," Creedon explained.

The books cover composers and artists from different countries, ethnicities, genders, and centuries, from Johann Strauss to Chubby Checker, from painter Charles Willson Peale to photographer Lorna Simpson. The books also suggest activities and field trip possibilities.

"We wanted to ensure that our students understand that the arts belong to all of our people, and that every student can grow up to be a musician or artist," Creedon explained.

Books for grades 1-3 are intended to be read aloud, while those for the upper grades are intended as supplemental lessons directed by English or reading teachers. The upper-grade books also list contact information for cultural institutions in the city if teachers are able to follow up or refer students for additional classes or music lessons.

"It is definitely an asset to our curriculum, not just in reading but in social studies," said Donna Smith, principal of Wister Elementary School in Germantown. The school was named after Frances Wister’s ancestor John Wister and sits blocks from the Wister family home, Grumblethorpe.

The students have done research on the Wister family and visited Grumblethorpe, as well as other historic sites in the neighborhood.

Wister Elementary has an art teacher, but no music teacher. It does, however, participate in a program call Find Your Instrument in which the students get to work with Commonwealth Youthchoirs, which is based in Germantown.