Impacting academic performance through the arts

Raoul Deal works with students at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School.

Through a partnership of Milwaukee’s United Community Center, Latino Arts Inc. and UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, teachers are learning firsthand how the integration of the arts into other subject areas can impact students’ academic performance – and deepen cultural identity.

The “Cultural Identity” display. Click photo for larger view.

“The Big Idea,” a special exhibition of artworks created by third-, fourth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, was created as a part of their experiences in ALMA (Avanzando Lectura y Matematicas a través del Arte – Advancing Literacy and Math Through Art).

The exhibition is on display in the Latino Arts Gallery in the United Community Center, 1028 S. 9th St., through Aug. 30. The gallery is open to the public 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, for a suggested donation of $1. A selection of the artworks also will be on display in the UWM Libraries this fall.

ALMA is a research project funded through the U.S. Department of Education under the Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant Program. The UCC, Latino Arts Inc. and the Peck School joined in this project with the intention of increasing student achievement in literacy and math through the integration of culturally relevant, standards-based arts into reading, language arts and math.

Teachers at Bruce-Guadalupe have been working with UWM instructors and students from the Art Education program. They include Assistant Professor Christine Woywod (project director and principal investigator for2012-14) and Associate Professor Laura Trafi-Prats (project director/PI for 2010-12), both from the Peck School, and Associate Dean Cindy Walker from the School of Education. Several UWM students involved in the project have been Support for Undergraduate Research Fellows funded by UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

Students at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School create artworks in conjunction with the ALMA (Advancing Literacy and Math Through Art) project.

The team has developed project-based learning experiences for elementary- and middle-school students. These culturally relevant, arts-integrated units of study are organized around “big ideas” that motivate artists, including community, origins, empathy, journeys and cultural identity.

“We’re hearing from the students’ math and reading teachers that their comprehension is improved since the ALMA project was implemented,” said middle-school art teacher Jacobo Lovo. “These kids are learning to take a step back and see the connections between the arts and their academics, and we’re hoping that through this program they’re learning analytical skills that will benefit them – in school and beyond – for the rest of their lives.”

Several of “The Big Idea” displays include artwork created by students who worked directly with artists and learned firsthand how the artistic process could be fueled by an idea.

The “Cultural Identity” display includes prints, poems and narrative writings done in conjunction with visiting artist Raoul Deal, senior lecturer in the Peck School’s Art & Design Department. Deal worked with students for eight weeks, using as inspiration his recent exhibit at the Latino Arts Gallery. “Ni De Aquí Ni De Allá” (“From Neither Here Nor There”) is a collection of woodcut prints that explores the cultural identity of immigrants in Milwaukee.

Students created their own prints using photos of family members who had shared their immigration stories. Math was introduced as each student learned, for example, how to scale a 2-by-3-inch photo for a 9-by-12-inch linoleum block.

Students kept notes in their “visual journals” as they worked on a formula for the conversion and decided what angles they would be using to carve their blocks. Deal says, “It was astonishing to see the level of technical skill with linocut that these middle-school students achieved.” They also completed a poem and created a paper quilt incorporating the information they had learned from their family members.

Deal asked students to share something they had not previously known. “One spoke of how, at the age of 6, her godmother had walked for days to cross the border before being carried across the river by her uncle, who held onto a rope in order to avoid being carried away by the current. Many students shared similar anecdotes, and these stories were then reflected in the images they produced.”

Deal noticed that one 12-year-old was drawing sugarcane in the background of his image. “He said that his father’s first job had been working on a sugarcane plantation. I told him that I had been to a sugarcane plantation and could see that it was very hard work.” When Deal asked how old the father was at the time, the student said, “Twelve years old.”

For Deal, the “incredible support” provided by ALMA helped establish a safe place for exploring difficult, culturally relevant themes. “During the final critique, students shared their stories and their prints. I was amazed to see how they supported one another as they shared these personal accounts and tearful moments. In this critical, historic time, we cannot underestimate the need that immigrant children and children of immigrants have to know, understand and share their stories.”

About Latino Arts Inc.
With roots going back more than 25 years, Latino Arts Inc. was formally established in 1997. Since then, the organization has brought cultural awareness, artistic and educational experiences, and a diversity of Hispanic artists from throughout the Spanish-speaking world to share their talents with the greater Milwaukee community. More information is available at