a message from the director
The Castle was founded in 2011, the result of multiple inspirations and conversations and dreaming sessions with teachers, artists, and community members in Putnam County, Indiana. Those of us involved believe strongly that children are not data points, that learning is about spontaneity, exploration, creativity, risk-taking… all those things that can’t be easily quantified.
We are heartsick about the toll that high-stakes testing has taken on our kids and teachers, about the way it has hamstrung the public education system, about the diminished resources and value placed on the arts in the midst of an increased emphasis on compartmentalized knowledge. We wanted to find a way to ease the burden placed on teachers to address an ever-expanding set of standards, and to provide students with hands-on experiences that honor varied learning styles and foster connection-building. We wanted to inject a sense of play back into the school day for the teachers who work so hard to meet the mandates placed upon them as well as for the kids who intuitively greet learning as a joyful process. At the same time, we wanted to affirm the public school system as a crucial component of democracy, equal access and opportunity. We believe in the public school system. Rather than give up on this system, we wanted to find a way to breathe new life into it.
Generated largely by the findings of the May 2011 report from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,” our methods aim to substantiate the impact of integrated arts on student learning, and, perhaps more importantly, to lift morale and to enhance the learning environment for both teachers and students. The “way” we happened upon was initially motivated by a chance encounter I had with Jeff Gordinier’s 2010 interview of Dave Eggers in Creative Nonfiction. In the interview, Dave briefly mentions the TED Prize he won for the establishment of 826 National, a nonprofit writing workshop serving kids ages 6-18. At the end of the speech, he makes his TED wish, the “Once upon a school” challenge, where he asks people to use 826 as inspiration to get involved in their own local schools and to find creative avenues for community involvement. It was an “a-ha” moment for me. Immediately hooked by his playful energy, I contacted the folks at 826 National, began a conversation with them, and attended their 101 Workshop.
The moment I walked through the door of San Francisco’s “only independently-owned pirate supply shop,” the psychic space I knew we needed to cultivate in response to Dave’s challenge presented itself. 826 National manifests a bountiful, spilling-over-the-seams generosity. It is a welcoming, cheerful, loving space, a space of inclusion and endless possibility. More than anything, the wish to cultivate this same kind of wonderful space for Putnam County students is what informs our efforts. The Castle is our “street” name, but our official name—The Putnam County Coalition for Education and the Creative Arts—describes more precisely what we aim to do and who we aim to be.
Coalition is key.
Putnam County is a rich and lively hub of local talent, containing two colleges (Ivy Tech community college and DePauw University, a top-tier liberal arts college that boasts a thriving school of music and energetic programs in studio art, theater, media and creative writing). The coalition embraces the diverse resources our community has to offer our children, recognizes the enormous capacity for learning when everyone expresses his or her voice, and incorporates the multitude of voices into the workshops we provide. Our pilot program was launched in January 2012 in one elementary school. The following semester, we expanded the program to a middle school in a second district. Eight years, 700+ volunteers, and 450+ workshops later, The Castle has served over 2000 kids in 10 partner schools. Recently, in an effort to create a sustainable culture of arts-integrated project-based learning, we have shifted our focus to professional development, working with teacher cohorts across the county to access the vast network of resources and community partners we have built in ways that will make their classrooms come alive. Our goal is to create a ripple effect of energy and enthusiasm for this kind of learning that meets kids where they are, that helps each kid make connections between their lives and what they are learning. It is a grand experiment we are engaged in, which has begun to yield grand returns: administrators, teachers, community members, artists, writers, musicians, students (primary, secondary and college) collectively building a space marked by authenticity and fostering creativity.
The future looks bright!