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Special Program Brings Student Excellence to Life!


"The most important thing I learned was if you work hard and put all of your heart into something, the final product will be excellent," said Heather. "It made me see that I could be more creative than I thought I could be," added Jordan. Those are the comments of two of the students challenged by a special program that paired the imaginations of 13 fifth-graders and two artists-in-residence. To participate, students must submit portfolios containing original writing and an art form. Could such a program work in your school?

WEST HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT (August 04, 2000)--In the waning hours of a brilliant June afternoon, Principal Plato Karafelis proudly leads an expectant group of families across the playing fields of Wolcott Elementary School to the edge of the Wolcott Children's Forest. In this adopted parcel of land between the school grounds and a town park, a group of the school's students are poised with their mentors to present an original musical theater piece.

To Karafelis, however, the culminating performances of the program will play out far beyond the trees flanking the young actors today. "The program is an intimate experience with true excellence to transfer to other parts of life," he told Education World. "It gives young people the opportunity to work hard with artists of accomplishment and standards, focus intensely on a problem, and see it through to completion."


The Endowed Student Program began simply at Wolcott Elementary School in the early 1990s to recognize the extraordinary writing skills of one student. To nurture her talent, the fifth-grader spent a week outside the classroom as a writer under contract. She had her own office in the school.

Over the next few years, the program grew to include additional gifted writers. The student government eventually voted to expand "endowed" status to student musicians, artists, and dancers.

To participate in the Endowed Student Program, all fifth-graders are invited to submit portfolios containing original writing and an art form. The writing submissions range from classroom newspapers to journals and short novels. Art forms have included dance videos, cello recordings, pencil drawings, and Web page graphics.

Nine teachers evaluate the portfolios for content, organization, and presentation. Applicants receive additional ratings on classroom work, performance in discipline-based classes (art, music, physical education, and library), citizenship, and effort.

Last spring, 13 students submitted portfolios for consideration. All were selected to participate. For almost two weeks, the participants would leave their fifth-grade classmates behind for creative collaboration with master artists.


As one of Connecticut's 24 HOT (Higher Order Thinking) schools, Wolcott received five-year funding for arts-oriented services and workshops, including artists-in-residence. In fact, The Connecticut Commission on the Arts based its HOT (Higher Order Thinking) Schools Program on Karafelis's arts-integrated curriculum and democratic learning environment. Through the state grant, Wolcott was able to link the Endowed Student Program with professionals in the fine and performing arts.

"The artists love this experience," said Karafelis. "They can really experience their artistic side with kids."


Theater artist Jonathan Cross returned to Wolcott School this year for his second residency with students. "I love working with the kids. I love getting to know them as individuals. I learn from them as much, if not more, than they do from me," Cross told Education World.

Cross sees fifth grade as a crossroads where imagination often veers off for the sake of conformity. "At this age (average 11), they are at a special place where they are debating whether to retire some of their creative idiosyncrasies in order to 'fit in' to their peer group," he explained. "I hope that they will not sit on those differences but realize that the creative 'weird' things they love, that make them happy, are well worth exploring."

Cross is also known as Jonny "ClockWorks" after his experimental puppetry theater in New York's East Village. There he integrates puppetry, actors, masks, and music in original works for adults. His company has toured extensively in Europe, has received awards for excellence, and was featured twice in the Henson International Puppetry Festival in New York. Cross has also worked with schools and arts programs in the New York City area.

His puppetry experience, Cross surmises, is one of the reasons he was selected to be part of the Endowed Student Program. The collective nature of his work--which combines written, visual, musical, and theatrical elements--enables him to take a project in whatever direction the participants might choose, he told Education World.

Perhaps most interesting of all, Cross was also a student of Plato Karafelis in the fifth grade. He credits Karafelis as "a key factor in my arts education and a large reason why I continue to explore the arts professionally today."


Performing artist and songwriter Sally Rogers met Karafelis through a HOT Schools Summer Institute. An artist-in-residence at many schools throughout Connecticut and the country, she joined with Cross to explore Wolcott's model approach to arts integration. "I like any opportunity to work cooperatively, especially with young people," Rogers told Education World. "It is so fulfilling to watch them grow and be proud of their successes and learn from their mistakes."

Rogers has entertained audiences with traditional folk songs and stories for 20 years. She is a noted composer, skilled in accompaniments on guitar, banjo, and mountain dulcimer. In 1997, the Commission on the Arts appointed her Connecticut's State Troubadour.

"In residencies such as this one, both Jon and I agreed that our goal was to have the students work as hard as possible to come up with a performance piece that could be successful," explained Rogers. "I was asked to write ballads with the students, and Jon was asked to work magic similar to what he had done the previous year."


Cross defines his role as organizer and facilitator. He explains, "It's the kids' idea, and they choose what they wish to see happen. I ask them the questions they need to answer to get the product they want. If they decide to do anything, whatever it is, they have to know that it will not happen by itself. They will have to do it or find out how it is going to get done."

Cross's teaching style supports the students and stimulates the growth of their budding independence.

"I hope my non-patronizing, positive, playful, and inquisitive nature shows the kids that an adult can have the same 'serious' commitment to the project that I expect from them," Cross told Education World. "I also try to impart to them that they already possess the skills to research what they need to and to work toward a goal in a methodical and creative manner."


Two years ago, the school community transformed 5 acres of nearby woods into an outdoor classroom that they named the Wolcott Children's Forest. In three clean-up days, volunteers cleared 1,700 feet of trails, spread 300 cubic yards of mulch, planted 900 daffodils, and created a tree nursery. Their conservation efforts were so successful that the Connecticut State Department of Environmental Protection bestowed honors on the school.

Through their imaginations, last year's endowed students discovered that the Children's Forest was actually the site of an ancient medieval civilization. They created the original legend of the Wolcott's Children's Forest, performing the tale in several locations within the woods. Dr. Karafelis later wrote a musical prequel to the legend, presented this year as the annual school play.

To continue the fantasy, Karafelis spread a rumor throughout the Wolcott student body. The Chalice of Soultana, an "artifact" prop used in the performance of his play, had mysteriously disappeared. The endowed students took on the task of expanding the forest legend to explain what had happened. They had eleven days, the mentorship of two master artists, and their collaborative creativity to approach the task.


For the first three days, students put their cooperative writing skills to the test to bring the legend to life.

"The kids are always shocked at how much of the process takes place on paper," Cross reported. "The writing is always a very hard and lengthy process, particularly in a group of so many strong-minded individuals. Compromise and negotiation are always learning issues in this type of project."

There is no doubt that hard work was the order of each day. Rogers's log of activities reveals the breadth of the assignment.

Days 1 to 3: Brainstorm stories, expand the stories, and outline the parts for writing into verses. Also worked on script. Divided into three groups, one for each song or part of the script. Homework included bringing expanded pieces for us to share each day.

Days 4 to 6: Write lyrics to ballads, melodies, accompaniments on xylophones, dulcimers, percussion. Begin memorization.

Days 7 to 8: Costume lists, prop lists, where to find them, who can make them? Begin designing artwork for Wizard song tableaus. Block each scene. Visit to the woods.

Days 9 to 10: Practice, practice, practice, memorize! Finish up props.

Days 11 to 12: Performances

Along with meeting the demands of the project's whirlwind schedule, the endowed students gained valuable perspective in the pursuit of excellence.

"The kids are worked a lot harder than most people think but, take it from me, the knowledge that great art takes hard work and skill is worth learning--especially when the result is seeing their story realized in such an amazing way," Cross said.


Jonny "ClockWorks," in the role of archaeology Professor Ramirez, woefully recounts a terrible turn of events for the audience--the Wolcott Children's Forest is slated for demolition to make way for a shopping mall! He laments the impending destruction of the medieval site, while student picketers chant their protests and a surly construction worker blocks the forest path.

A ripple of chimes shifts focus to Sally Rogers, playing the role of the good witch Chamaeleon. She points to the magic spectacles of the Wizard Herkimer, dangling from a nearby tree. The spectacles allow the wearer, and anyone nearby, to see into the past. A student grabs the glasses and scurries away on a path deep into the forest behind Chamaeleon. Professor Ramirez persuades the assemblage to follow, beginning their immersion into a living legend.

The performers play out their scenes as the audience travels with them beneath the canopy of trees. The cast grows to include more witches, trolls, elves, and a wizard. They show tableaus, act, dance, and sing their ballads to tell the story of the Chalice of Soultana. The forest echoes as never before with the sounds of dulcimers, xylophones, tambourines, and cymbals.

In the end, the performers retrieve the chalice, save the forest, and defeat the evil force. Even more important, they awaken a spirit of imagination in their audience and a sense of great accomplishment in themselves.


Although they left their classrooms, reflections of the endowed students indicate they mastered the lessons most important to every teacher.

"The most important thing I learned was if you work hard and put all of your heart into something, the final product will be excellent," said Heather.

Dan thought, "It will make me feel like I can achieve anything if I apply myself and try hard."

Jordan said, "It made me see that I could be more creative than I thought I could."

According to Jessica, "The most important thing I learned was to be myself and express my feelings and ideas. But I also learned when a good time was to behave and when it was a good time to fool around."


All the program participants left with fond memories of the two artists-in-residence. Kelsey's comments echo the sentiments of the entire group.

"I will remember Sally because of her love . . . and Jonny, he's funny and great -- a real professional," Kelsey said. "They both helped us lots."

Each year, endowed students leave behind evidence of their creative endeavors. Visitors to Wolcott School can see an aboriginal mural at the front entrance. They can read eight essays on transitions in life (all 2,700 words) painted on the sidewalks circling the school. If they travel just beyond the schoolyard, they might hear chords on a dulcimer and glimpse an elf in a ribbon of sunlight weaving through the trees of the Wolcott Children's Forest.


  • Wolcott School The philosophy and practices of the first HOT school are described in this page from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Included: Strategies of the magical mailbox, the editorial board, and the weekly town meeting.
  • The Wolcott Children's Forest This original legend by endowed students laid the groundwork for later chapters. It tells an engaging tale of King Sunray, Queen Moonbeam, and their three daughters.
  • Sally Rogers A biography and sample sounds from her We'll Pass Them On and Generations sound tracks give listeners a taste of Rogers's creative magic.

Joan Luddy
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


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