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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column Nations in Neighborhoods by Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan here.
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Voices SS2012


Volume 38

Nations in Neighborhoods by Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan

Downstate “Today, we learn a new word,” said teaching artist George Zavala as he addressed a group of fourth graders at PS 11 in Queens, New York. “The word is palette. Who knows what it means?”

“It’s where an artist puts his paints,” one child said.

“Yes,” said George, “and it is also the range of colors the artist uses.”

For the lesson today each child was given a Styrofoam plate with three splotches of primary colors along with a glass of water to hold their brushes. They were painting handmade clay “artifacts” representing their cultural backgrounds. “What do you get when you mix the red and yellow?” Zavala asked. “Orange!” several children shout in unison. Known to the children as Mr. George, Zavala goes on to teach a lesson in science and art as the children discover they can make every color of the rainbow from their three dabs of paint.

Teaching artist George Zavala leading a workshop at PS 11 in Queens. Photo courtesy of City Lore.
Teaching artist George Zavala leading a workshop at PS 11 in Queens. Photo courtesy of City Lore.

Looking at the faces of the children, we also see a rich and varied palette of colors. Every hue on the spectrum shines in their eager faces. Queens is New York City’s most diverse borough. Fifty-five languages are spoken at the school whose students come from all over Latin America, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, China, Japan, Nepal, Ireland—and many from mixed backgrounds as their parents from different cultural backgrounds intermarry in this country. In these classrooms, the stories and experiences of how and why they came to this country embody the American dream. It makes us feel that the future of this country is in good hands. Someday, we believe, one of these kids is going to be the President of the United States.

George Zavala is a teaching artist in Nations in Neighborhoods, a four- year federal Model Arts Development and Dissemination grant awarded to the NYC Department of Education District 28 and City Lore to test the efficacy of the arts in building student achievement in math or English language arts. The outside evaluator for the project, Dennie Palmer Wolf of Wolf Brown Associates, worked with City Lore’s education staff led by Anika Selhorst and participating teachers both to develop some new assessment measures for the arts as well track student progress on standardized tests.

Our evaluation measured both arts vocabulary and skills through classroom observations and multiple in-depth interviews with students, pre-and post-assessment tasks, as well as standardized English language test scores. We were pleased that the evidence demonstrated that students who participated in the project scored better on standardized tests that those in comparable classes in the same school who did not participate in the program. What was most surprising was the discovery that while most of the students did better, as Wolf suggests, our residencies resulted in “sizable gains with English Language Learners, children with special needs, and students with a history of underperforming.” We have often observed this key fact about the power of the arts to help special needs students, particularly new immigrant English language learners. We have shared this information anecdotally, but we are now we’re pleased to have the statistics to back it up.

Nonetheless, as folklorists and educators, we believe the qualitative experiences of individual students is at least as significant as the quantitative data. Working in classrooms with new immigrants, we often work with students who refuse to speak at school—they’re often called ’selective mutes.” The arts are a way to change those behaviors. In the arts, teaching artists like George use words and attach them to something the students are doing—when you say the word “red” you paint with red. We often see kids start to speak very quickly.

Some years ago, also at PS 11, City Lore teaching artist Lu Yu worked with a class of new immigrant English language learners. One Chinese girl, JinHyn Park, refused to speak at all. The residency was 8 weeks and students wrote and developed a play which used theater and dance to tell the story of how and why the Chinese had immigrated to America throughout our history. This young girl played the grandmother of a young man leaving China to go to America. The scene where she said goodbye to her grandson left even our photographer in tears. In this scene, the story was told through movement, but the girl was also part of a group of students who narrated the story. Her teacher, Maria Psyllos, noted that once she started to speak, she never stopped.


Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore in New York City. Amanda Dargan is the director of education at City Lore.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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