Eleven years ago, Dionne Custer Edwards was inspired to reimagine arts education. With a number of public schools in Columbus facing budget cuts, it was expected that many districts would cut their arts programs in an effort to save money. At the same time, standardized test preparation was becoming more prominent in the classroom, pushing out avenues for creativity.
Custer Edwards, a professional writer and arts educator working in education programming at The Wexner Center for the Arts, wanted to design a program that wouldn’t just have students write, but have them engage with their writing.
“I was a full-time writer, and I became really interested in arts education. But I met so many students who really struggled with writing, and, by the time they got to high school, they really loathed writing,” Custer Edwards said. “It was tough because writing had this formulaic kind of way to it. I wasn’t encountering a lot of students who were thinking, being really thoughtful of their process, and even understanding that writing is a process.”
Pages is a yearlong arts, literacy and writing program created by Custer Edwards designed to help high-school students develop writing skills through engaging with visual art, film and performing arts. The program partners with local high schools, where the Wexner Center for the Arts connect with both teachers and students to explore how writing and the arts are entwined.
Over the course of the year, Pages takes students through three different sessions, called “experiences,” focusing on a different discipline of the arts and how it relates to writing. Experiences can last up to six weeks, during which Pages educators meet with students in the classroom and at the Wexner Center. Custer Edwards said that the experiences encourage students to consider how they can improve their writing.
“Pages gives students a new perspective of looking at writing as a form of art,” Custer Edwards said. “We say, ‘What can we learn from this filmmaker about writing a persuasive essay? What can we learn from that technique?’ You have to place yourself in the moment, get yourself outside of the classroom, and have some encounters that get you applying the things you’re learning in the classroom.”
Students are given a journal at the beginning of the year to record any thoughts or ideas they have during Pages. Students also produce a number of creative-writing and art pieces inspired by each of the experiences.
In addition to the high-school teachers and educators at the Wexner Center, Pages also brings in artists-in-residence, three to four artists from the community that help with the program. These teaching artists, musicians and writers, Custer Edwards said, work with students to “stir the pot” and get them thinking about bigger ideas.
Pages has worked with more than 2,000 students, 60 high-school teachers and dozens of artists since it began in 2005. This year, Pages is meeting with 200 students from six Columbus high schools.
Kim Leddy, a high-school teacher at Mosaic, an educational agency, said that Pages gives her students the chance to break from typical writing practices.
“When students are given the chance to explore without boundaries, they’re a little scared at first. They’re so used to being told what is right and what is wrong,” Leddy said. “But in Pages, there’s a be-as-creative-as-you-want attitude. They really find that they have a voice, and that someone will listen to them.”
Leddy said Pages hasn’t just helped her students’ writing, but has also included them in a community of artists.
“I think my students are scared of places like the Wex. They think that everything is breakable or that they don’t welcome young people,” Leddy said. “Through Pages, they feel like (the Wexner Center) is part of a community that is theirs. They take ownership of the space.”
Custer Edwards said that Pages puts art at the forefront of students education.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how the arts can influence education,” Custer Edwards said. “Pages recognizes art not as some sort of side dish, but as a main course in their curriculum.”
Correction, Sept. 20: In a previous version of this article, the last name of Dionne Custer Edwards was written as “Edwards,” instead of “Custer Edwards.”
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