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Mexican Arts,
Culture Frame Learning

Concerned that local schools were ignoring the culture of their mostly Mexican-American students, several Chicago, Illinois, educators decided to start a school in which that heritage is embraced. Mexican arts and culture are interwoven through the curriculum at Telpochcalli Elementary School to help students and their families appreciate their own heritage and to help them learning about content areas. Read the latest installment in Education World's series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Descriptions of an arts-integrated curriculum.

As they are at many schools, students drumming, singing, and painting are common sounds and sights at Telpochcalli Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. The difference at Telpochcalli is where students are performing and painting.

Instead of confining those activities to designated rooms and time slots, the arts -- specifically those representing

Arts Integration and Learning

Part of the mission of the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE), which arranges and funds partnerships between schools and arts organizations, is to show not only that arts integration helps children learn, but also how it helps them learn.

"CAPE believes the arts are critical to school improvement," executive director Arnold Aprill told Education World. "Now our research is starting to focus on why, when, and how arts integration affects achievement."

A 1999 study showed that students in CAPE schools improved faster than students in other schools, and a 2001 study showed that CAPE schools have higher attendance. Operating since 1994-95 CAPE now partners with 25 public schools, and serves as consultant to six additional schools.

"We believe passionately in the power of this work," Aprill said. "We see art as a lever for whole-school change; not just a content area vying for space in the curriculum."

Mexican culture -- are woven throughout the school's curriculum. Artists-in-residence work with faculty members to develop arts-integrated lessons; so students might be drumming in language arts, sculpting in science, or reciting poetry in social studies.

Telpochcalli's dual mission is to expose students to a spectrum of art forms, and to use studies of the art and culture of Mexico -- the first home of most of the students' families -- to teach students other content areas.

"For the kids, it's a real source of pride," said principal Tamara Witzl. "This gives them a way of looking at the world; here, their culture is celebrated. Often teachers who have a Mexican background learn about their culture and heritage as well."


Telpochcalli's program was shaped by educators concerned about the students and about the community they served. About 99 percent of the 283 students in the kindergarten through eighth grade school come from neighborhood working class families who emigrated from Mexico.

The evolution of Telpochcalli (the school's name comes from the Aztec language and means "house of youth" -- a place where the Aztecs taught their children about their culture) began in 1993, when the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum offered staff members at another elementary school the chance to work with the museum as part of a proposal by the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE). Witzl, then a teacher, and several other faculty members from the elementary school, their idea for a school-within-a school focusing on Mexican arts and culture.

The teachers' plan was written into the grant, and Telpochcalli operated as a school within a school for two years, before being granted autonomy from the Chicago Board of Education. The school does share a building with another school, however, putting space at a premium; it does not have a gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, art room, or playground.

"They [the school's founders] had a highly developed commitment to integrating Mexican culture and the arts into the curriculum," said Arnold Aprill, CAPE's executive director.

CAPE is the external partner to a group of Chicago Public schools. It facilitates long-term partnerships between arts organizations and schools, and provides schools with resources, funding, professional development, and research. CAPE funding pays for artists from the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum to work at Telpochcalli.

Students in a language arts class at Telpochcalli Elementary School learn about drumming as the voice of a culture.
(Education World photo)

"Telpochcalli is unusual in that it was a new school devoted to arts integration, had buy-in from whole faculty, focused on Mexican-American culture, and had the very active engagement of parents and the community," added Aprill.


Celebrating the families' culture through the curriculum, school events, and programs for parents has garnered widespread support from Telpochcalli families. Parents' active involvement in the school is a reflection of the effort staff members have put into building a community.

"It's a small school, a neighborhood school," Witzl told Education World. "People feel accepted. We try to be empathetic and respond to where they are [in their lives.]"

"It's very clear who owns the school," Aprill added. "We have students who walk in like they own the place. We see it as a compliment."

During the winter marking period last year, only one parent (out of 280 students' parents) did not pick up a report card, according to Jose Rico, the school's external partner from the Chicago Small Schools' Workshop. "About 50 people come through school every week for programs. One thing we would like to do is attract more fathers [to programs,]" he said.

The school invites families to celebrations of Mexican holidays and even publishes a magazine of parent writings, a product of the Community Writing Workshop.

"The cultural aspect [of the school] makes people feel welcome and understood," said Witzl. "People don't want kids to lose that culture."


Mexican culture welcomes visitors as they enter Telpochcalli, whose hallways resemble museum galleries. Huge, colorful murals of Aztec life, as well as scenes from Chicago's history and landscape, cover the walls.

Telpochcalli students prepare plaster of Paris sculptures for the school's garden.
(Education World photo)

As with most school programs, the arts infusion benefits not just the students, but their families as well. "Many of our families don't have access to the arts; to have them available to everyone is part of what we do," said Witzl.

The arts also are a means of meeting one of Telpochcalli's goals, which is to have all students graduate fluent and literate in English and Spanish. Some children enter after kindergarten with few literacy skills in either language, and staff members work to help them catch up, according to Witzl.

All staff members are bilingual; lessons in the primary grades are taught mostly in Spanish; English is used more frequently in third through fifth grades, and by middle-school level, most instruction is in English.

Two artists-in-residence co-teach about eight hours a week, and plan lessons with teachers. "The art works because it involves the cooperation of parents, teachers, and students," said Aprill. Teachers have two hours of planning time each week; they use that time to work with one another and with the artists-in-residence.

Every 13 weeks, students present a public performance on a unit. One year, third and fourth graders who were studying immigration read immigration stories from around the world, discussed issues related to immigration, and then interviewed their own families about their immigration experience.

Sixth through eighth graders were busy working on an immigration project this past April. In their language arts class, they drummed along with artist Renato Ceron.

Students also were studying movement, and talking about how music is the voice of a culture, said teacher Olivia Mulcahy. "They have been learning that in the slave culture, they could not use drums, because it was seen as related to religion," Mulcahy told Education World.

In a kindergarten-first grade class, art and science were coming together, as students made plaster of Paris sculptures for the school's garden. In preparation for the sculpting, the class had discussed topics such as plants, insects, and planting.

Seven-year-old Belen said she was making sculptures of rocks and flowers. "I like art the best," she said.

"With the arts integrated through the curriculum, it's just wonderful," said teacher Maria Reyes. "You get to see the students' creativity. They can express themselves across the curriculum. I can adapt [my teaching] to their learning styles; a lot of them express themselves through art."

Not everything lends itself to arts integration, Witzl admitted. Even in the case of mathematics, however, teachers write story problems using cultural terms.

"When you make intentionally overt ways to integrate art, when you keep art front and center, you can find ways to integrate it," she said. At the same time, the message of arts integration is not that art is not worthy of study on its own or for its own sake. "But now they get it both ways," Witzl said of Telpochcalli students. "They are exposed to lots of different kinds of art."


The mix of art and culture and the school's small size make Telpochcalli an enjoyable and rewarding place to work, two teachers told Education World.

"I love teaching here; I know anyone in this building shares my enthusiasm," said Mulcahy. "I think our philosophy is essential and pretty unique. I think kids benefit from a school that not only acknowledges their culture, but celebrates it and helps them explore it.

"We're [also] small enough to make decisions that make sense," she continued. "We have kids at every language ability level. Some just transferred in [in April.] We help them learn language basics, and how the languages are interconnected."

"I wouldn't want to leave," added Reyes. "I like the planning time and the time meeting with artists."


Despite Telpochcalli's successes, challenges remain. Lack of space is a critical problem, and negotiations are underway to renovate an abandoned building adjacent to the school as a school-community center, Witzl said.


More Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

Have you read other stories in Education World's Lessons from Our Nation's Schools' series? Click Lessons from Our Nation's Schools to read more!

Requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act also are causing some adjustments. Even though Telpochcalli's students outperform most of their peers in the area, the school has been labeled in need of improvement because some students did not meet the adequate yearly progress level. The school already is testing children in English after three years of learning the language. "But the number we test is so small -- 41 out of 283 -- that if one or two don't make adequate yearly progress, it can affect the whole school," according to Witzl.


So, students were offered the chance, as required by the federal law, to transfer to a school not labeled in need of improvement. No one accepted the offer. In fact, the school has a waiting list of about 15 students.

"Even if people move from the neighborhood, we encourage them to keep their children in the school," the principal said.

Telpochcalli's staff members are committed to sticking by their students and their families.

"It is rewarding because there is huge need among the population, so you know that what you are doing matters," Witzl said. "Families and kids face intense situations; you have to accept that there is no instant change; you may not see the results for several years."


By Ellen R. Delisio 
Education World®             
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