Discovering creativity atop South Mountain

A group of Lehigh students recently enrolled in “advanced kindergarten.”

For their Mountaintop project titled “Creative Learning Activity Portfolio for In-School and After-School Tutoring Support,” Helen Ard ’17, Kaylee Kilgore ’17, Do Hee Kim ’16, Samantha Mahabir ’16 and Brianna Ruggiero ’18 are tasked with developing a collection of arts-based resources for Lehigh tutors to use at after-school homework clubs for local elementary and middle-school students. The goal is to utilize the arts to enhance student-tutor relationships and engage student learning through creative activity at the clubs, which are organized by Lehigh's Community Service Office

But first, team members must explore their own creative potential.

‘Trying to pull curiosity out’

Mentor Silagh White, Lehigh’s director of arts engagement and community relations, describes the project as “trying to pull curiosity out” of both the children in the homework clubs and the project participants themselves.

Earlier this year, White created a brief online survey for tutors before visiting Lehigh’s homework clubs at Donegan Elementary, Broughal Middle School and Fritz Memorial Church, which serves students from Fountain Hill Elementary. 78 percent of the respondents wanted more training as tutors, she says.

“They want to know what else they can do with their students,” says White. 

Right now, says Ard, “there aren’t very many options [once the homework is complete] and [students] often don’t enjoy being forced to do something. So it would be nice for them to have something more enjoyable to do.”

White realized during her site visit that the tutors wouldn’t want to be handed pre-made lesson plans: effective, creative activities would have to be born from authentic experiences. She partnered with Jon Drescher, professor of practice in educational leadership and director of the Urban Principals Academy at Lehigh (UPAL), and George White, professor of educational leadership, to create a proposal for the Mountaintop project. Ard, Kim, Mahabir and Ruggiero have served as homework club tutors; Kilgore works with a local Girl Scout troop. All five were eager to participate.

“If I can do something that can improve what they learn, I wanted to be part of that,” says Ruggiero, who has tutored younger students since high school. “This was the perfect opportunity.”

“I’m really excited to push my own creative limits and learn about engaging the arts community on campus and why that’s important,” says Mahabir.

“[The project] is built on the tutors having an experience where they feel confident they can share that experience with someone else,” says White. “That’s what the summer research is all about.”

From circus arts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Earlier this week, students began their research. It involved improvisational dance, crossing a room as sharks and zebras might—and quite a bit of laughter.

During the first of their weekly workshops with two Muhlenberg College dance and theatre students who produce a circus workshop there, the Lehigh students pushed themselves out of their comfort zones, took some risks and discovered quite a bit about their own creative sides. “Advanced kindergarten,” as one of the group leaders called it, had begun. 

During the project’s first month, the team will research and explore the various arts opportunities that exist in the Lehigh Valley—in other words, they’ll “play.” Beyond learning circus arts and aerial silks with the Muhlenberg College students, the team will work with, among many others, the Zoellner Arts Center, a dancer, a puppeteer and Touchstone Theater’s summer program. They will also join UPAL as they partner with the Maxine Green Center for Aesthetic Education and Social Imagination in New York City, spending a day at Lincoln Center with its famed jazz ensemble to learn about leading and following, and another at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, discovering the art of observation.

Students will then translate those experiences into new and unique ways in which they can engage their homework club students. Following the group’s first “advanced kindergarten” session, Mahabir wrote on her blog: “I left the studio room dreaming of the sweet South Side kids engaging in the kinds of partner movement that would build trust and encourage team problem solving. The results of relational risk-taking would translate beautifully into their future peer interactions.”

Beginning in July, the team will test some of their ideas at Donegan during the school’s summer learning program. The final portfolio will be available to tutors this fall.

“I think the resources we’re going to be developing are going to expose kids to a lot of really awesome opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Mahabir. “It will be really exciting to see the real impact of the things we’re doing.”

If all goes well, says Silagh White, the project will have two end-products: a richer homework club experience for students and a group of Lehigh students who can “figure out how they can share what excited them about working with artists so that other people might be able to pull into that same enthusiasm.”

With that much enthusiasm, inspired homework club sessions shouldn’t be far behind.

Photos by Christa Neu