Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chicago Arts Partnership in Education - Bringing Integrated Arts to Schools - an Interview with Amy Rasmussen

Amy Rasmussen is the Executive Director of Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE) and is responsible for financial management, marketing, and organizational planning. Amy joined CAPE in October 2000 CAPE after working with The Chicago Chamber Musicians for six years. Amy holds an M. A. in Arts Entertainment and Media Management from Columbia College and a B. A. in Music from DePaul University. She currently serves on the advisory committee for the Chicago Arts Learning Initiative. I caught up with Amy to ask her about CAPE.

What is the mission of the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education and what does it do for schools?

CAPE’s mission is to improve student learning through the arts by improving students’ creative capacity and critical thinking skills through the arts. CAPE’s primary strategy is to partner closely with teachers and schools. CAPE works collaboratively with teaching artists in Chicago and beyond to bring more ideas into the schools. We recognize that if this initiative is to be sustainable it must impact adults in the building and the system within which we all work, not just the kids. We provide support for educators, working with them on development and curriculum design. We have seen substantial growth with teachers’ capacity to serve as leaders in school. For example, traditionally arts teachers serve as preps teachers. They get kids for 40 minutes once a week for half the year. We work with teachers to help them develop their leadership skills. They become curriculum designers and integrators, and become professional development providers in their own building. With our approach there is inter-faculty collaboration and collaboration with teaching artists and arts organizations. Chicago is a major cultural capital, and everyone wants to work in schools and support arts education. This works best when teachers and principals know how to negotiate partnerships that will best serve the needs of the students, school and community.

How does music help to develop physical, intellectual, and emotional development?

I am an oboe and guitar player and, in my experience, music study and performance is a different way to think. It facilitates the use of a different part of the brain. Kids in school need to develop different ways of thinking. I know when I create music, I feel energized and creative long after I put the instrument down. There are countless anecdotes of kids not doing well in other subjects and then they pick up an instrument and it changes them. Music allows you to express in different way. Music definitely impacts social and emotional development. When you feel better and you have ownership of your capacities it correlates to better school performance.

Young children can gain exposure to music with singing and listening to songs. How early can children learn instruments?

I am a big advocate of early music – music education starts at birth! As early as age three, children can be encouraged to try an instrument or can be encouraged to listen to music or see a concert. The goal is not necessarily to develop a child prodigy, but to develop literacy in the broadest sense, recognizing patterns, developing language – in order to develop those pathways of thinking. It should not just be about listening; rather it should be actively creative.

There are many authors and innovators (Daniel Pink, Sir Kenneth Robinson, Richard Florida, to name a few) that are talking about creativity and imagination being among the most important qualities in our economic success going forward. How will music instruction play a part in that vision?

It’s huge! I think that our economy is totally tied to creativity and innovation. In order to train people to be creative and innovative they have to develop the kinds of skills that are taught through the arts. I think that kids need exposure to all kinds of contemporary art making, focused on concepts and big ideas. Art making shifts between the literary and the aesthetic to the conceptual and the abstract. People who are working in innovation and developing new businesses, products, or disciplines need to be able to move between all of those ways of thinking. They need to move between frameworks and concrete actions. When learning a piece of music, like a sonata from the very beginning it doesn’t quite make sense. At the beginning you are just getting fingers to go to the right notes at the right time. Later you get to the bigger concepts, like “what was the composer trying to say with this piece?” Later still you interpret the piece through your own lens. Not enough learning takes place in that way! Kids studying the arts learn the creative process and then create their own thing.

How does music help with balance in life?

Schools are becoming more aware of this issue and are endeavoring to exercise different parts of the brain. You physically feel different after playing music. It refocuses energy in a completely different way allowing you to go on and accomplish other things well afterwards.

We’ve seen erosion in arts education, including music in our nation’s schools. What has been the consequence of this?

Look at the economy. I think the public greatly underestimates the connection between decreased quality in school and the decreasing economy. The challenge is that increased quality in education does not have an immediate payoff – there is no immediate economic benefit, this is why it is so difficult for our political leaders to choose to invest in high-quality education. Hopefully, President Obama will inspire more long-term thinking in this area.

What can a school with a limited budget do to offer some form of music education?

In Chicago there is quite a music scene. There are six or seven universities with music programs and many people to teach and provide music. It requires leadership at school to find these resources and put it together in a cohesive way. Parents need to think about 24/7 education rather than 30 hours in school. While we all would love for each school to offer a comprehensive music education, we know that it is not always going to happen in the deepest, richest way. A parent should question what his or her child is getting in school and where else can s/he go to get more. There are community music schools and programs and local arts organizations. Parents can form groups to decide what they want to advocate for in their school. There is a school here that had a part-time music program and they wanted a full-time program, so they raised money for it. Is it the best way to get this in place or even ethical? I think it is the state’s responsibility, but the parents were motivated and inspired. There are resources available but it takes the leadership of parents and heads of schools to pull them together.

How can the arts integrated into a curriculum provide a context for learning history, science, math and other subjects?

CAPE’s approach to arts integration is a multi-faceted strategy that addresses students’ academic and social challenges. The organizing principle of CAPE’s model is the engagement of professional teaching artists who collaborate with classroom and/or arts teachers, as well as school leadership and parents to plan, document and implement arts-integrated learning opportunities for students. CAPE’s model of instruction begins with teachers’, teaching artists’, parents’, and students’ questions about learning. This methodology is inspired by Dewey’s theory of education, which holds that optimal learning and human development and growth occur when people are confronted with substantive, real problems to solve, and that curriculum and instruction should be based on integrated, community-based tasks and activities that engage learners in forms of pragmatic action that have real value in the world. The instructional process includes Inquiry, Documentation, Assessment, Evidence, and Reflection.

This inquiry approach to curriculum development creates common themes and ideas across networks of classrooms and schools, and creates opportunities for collaboration and sharing of successful practices. This process does not put in place a set of pre-designed activities, rather it creates a common approach for addressing curriculum content and standards, with ample freedom for creativity, and room for developing a wide-range of effective teaching strategies based on the needs of individual learners.

CAPE’s instructional methodology is based on its 17 years of practice and research on effective teaching and learning in and through the arts. CAPE’s achievements are documented in the landmark publication Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts On Learning, released in 1999 as well as cataloged at

Some specific examples:
The Green Unit at Agassiz Elementary School focused on increasing students’ knowledge of renewable energy and empowering students toward social action through the visual arts. Students were given the opportunity to explore, investigate and develop strategies to improve environmental behaviors at school and at home. Students also investigated how we power our cities and developed ideas for changes. The curriculum included science experiments with plants, soil, energy, light, heat and electricity. Students toured Agassiz School with their school’s engineer for a hands-on experience of vocabulary words like “boiler,” “compressor,” “generator.” The students developed a collective visual project that incorporated many of the ideas of renewable energy and energy conservation; expressed through photography, collage, painting with watercolors. “SOLAR TOWN” was a miniature city installed on the front lawn of the school made of small solar-powered houses that stayed aglow through the nights. Students documented their own work throughout the unit with poetry wheels, journals and digital cameras. Students also created a questionnaire and mailbox as part of the installation and asked for feedback from neighbors and passersby.

In the “INVENTORS MEET THE MEDIA” unit, 4th grade students from Mark Sheridan Academy compared processes and character traits of both inventors and video artists through creating short films. The fine arts teacher worked with the fourth graders on camera technology, shots, angles and artistic expression with film. Students practiced with digital still cameras and eventually camcorders. Students then researched specific inventors and created biographies about the inventors’ lives and inventions. This research served as a springboard for the content of the student videos.

After initial shots, students watched the footage using a rubric they created to make decisions about what to change, what takes they wanted to cut and what effects were needed. The teachers and teaching artists also used this rubric to evaluate student performances, filming technique, and content/storyline, but also to determine how well the students were able to self-assess their work.

How can parents encourage a love and learning of music outside of school?

This is done by example. When parents get excited about it, the kids get it. Parents can provide the opportunities for learning and enrichment. My parents let me take any class or course I wanted. I experimented with all sorts of courses, like the arts, great books, and a computer class. Eventually something sticks. Be open to all of the possibilities and opportunities.


  1. Tracy, well done! I agree with your thoughts about education. We desperately need to tweak traditional education into something that really does educate young people. In the next day or so I will add your blog to my site under "blogs" at, which is a teacher tool web site for 21st century education. Thanks, Steu

  2. I will agree with Rebel Comments!! Your thoughts is inspirational!!


  3. Thanks for both of your comments. Steu's got a great website! Thanks for adding me to yours. I always love to find synergy with others who want so fervently to improve education.