In this elementary school, there are things a visitor might notice, little touches that become obvious walking through the door. Children’s artwork is hung carefully, showing that it is valued.
And there is this: It often is not super quiet around here.
“We keep our instrumental and vocal music classrooms on the first floor,” Principal Akela Stanfield-Dogbe said. “So you’re always hearing sounds. So it sounds and feels like an art space.”
This is Moten Elementary, a public school in Southeast Washington. Moten is part of the national Turnaround Arts school program, which means it emphasizes the arts, integrating them throughout the school.
“Every child deserves to have good, solid arts programming,” said Stanfield-Dogbe, calling it a “driver for creating excellent schools.”
On Thursday, Moten did have a visitor: Amanda Lucidon, a former White House photographer. Lucidon, author of "Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer," was met that day by student ambassadors carrying bright greeting cards and by a line of kindergartners, all holding tiny French flags.
“Bonjour!” said the kids, who are enrolled in a French immersion class. It was pretty charming, and that was before they started to sing.
That morning Lucidon stopped by a classroom, where posters with questions hung low around the room. “Why?” read one poster. “What are the reasons?” said another. The teacher, Meredith Camille Titus, displayed an image on a projector, a picture of Obama, first lady at the time, discussing girls’ education in Liberia.
The students examined the photo and jotted down questions on sticky notes, which were then placed on the posters. The activity kept going, with another photo on the projector and more sticky notes filling the posters.
Through the work, students have the chance to ask a lot of different questions about the same image, Stanfield-Dogbe later said in an email. They also get to read the questions their peers come up with, which helps broaden their perspective.
“It also provides a safe space for students to question each other’s thinking without consequence or conflict,” she wrote. “We hope that it teaches students to use good questioning to peel back layers when they are studying an image, text, or even current event.”
In another classroom, Lucidon worked with a small group of budding photographers. The students were given white frames that they used like a viewfinder on an imaginary camera.
During the activity, one student sat sketching out a picture. His classmates held up their frames around him as they figured out the perfect shot. The miniature paparazzi worked diligently as they pretended to capture the action.
Lucidon, who had been in Turnaround schools previously, said that she enjoyed working with the kids and their frames — and that she gets a lot out of these visual training strategies, too.
“I like that it can draw out even the shiest person,” she said. “It teaches other students to know that there are other perspectives, and to have to listen and to look.”
Lucidon, in particular, remembered one boy who had positioned his frame up close. He was pretending to take a shot of his fellow student. It was the kind of picture that could be taken with a camera phone, and Lucidon had asked the student what he would do with a camera that was bigger, the kind a professional photographer might use.
“And he just moved around the other side of the table, and he went really low, and he did that,” she said. “You can see that it’s working in his mind. . . . I thought it was really good that he was so into it and was using creative thinking.”
Turnaround Arts works in more than 70 schools around the country, including a handful in the District. The national program, run by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, brings arts education and supplies into struggling schools, aiming to boost student engagement and achievement.
“Educators are looking to be reinvited to be creative in their work,” said Winston Cox, who coordinates a team that helps establish Turnaround Arts programs in schools. “We’ve done a number on educators that sort of made them think that that was not safe or accepted or welcome, and we’re trying to flip that and remind them that this is a powerful way of engaging students and transforming learning.”
Stanfield-Dogbe said Moten teachers use visual images to start lessons, with the displays serving as a hook to get students interested. Kids examine the images, discuss them and then connect what they see to a related text, she said.
“You’re going to see kids talking about art and about text in a different way than other schools. They are being critical about it,” she said. “They’re asking the obvious but also the unobvious questions.”
Corrin Harris, a Moten fourth-grader, said she's a big fan of musicals at the school. She played Sebastian the crab in a production of "The Little Mermaid," and she can recite a line from the show when asked.
“It was fun to be in something and you can engage with somebody else,” Corrin said. “They have something in common.”
Incorporating the arts in the school also has kept parents engaged, said Stanfield-Dogbe. Moms and dads come to arts nights and play with instruments. They work on projects with their children, and they sing songs with them.
After spending some time in Moten, Lucidon recalled a teacher from her own life, who told her she was pretty good at photography. Those words meant something. The teacher encouraged Lucidon to pursue photography classes in high school and go to college.
“Hearing that in the schools, seeing that arts is encouraged and that students are given these exercises to imagine and to dream and to see that anything is possible,” Lucidon said, “I think that’s so important.”