Creating Moments of Personal Motivation in Education

In 2013, Springboard for the Arts launched the Artist Organizers (AOs) pilot program as part of Irrigate’s artist-led community development. Supported by the Surdna Foundation, the pilot planted artists in community-invested organizations to contribute their creative skills to make change and strengthen vibrant places. This is a series of case studies of those AO partnerships. Get the Irrigate toolkit here.

When Kristen Murray became an Artist Organizer working with four Saint Paul high schools, she wasn’t totally breaking new ground. Schools in the district’s Alternative Learning Program already had experience integrating artistic disciplines with education, in some cases going beyond art and music classes to make filmmaking part of an English class or integrate personal writing into social studies.

Still, Murray’s task was challenging: to find ways to bring artists into the process of implementing a district-wide initiative called Personalized Learning in the four schools in the Alternative Learning Program – with the overall goal of helping kids stay in school until graduation. She worked with district staff members as well as with teachers, students, and artists to include lots of viewpoints and participant.

Murray came to her grass-roots perspective by way of a career that has fused community organizing, urbanism, design, and education. After earning a BS in electrical engineering from Rice University, she went to work at the Science Museum of Minnesota as the interim director of its Learning Technologies Center. In 2009 she enrolled in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, studying landscape architecture, urban design and public policy, striving to integrate design and art with neighborhood development and education.

During and after her stint in grad school, Murray has worked as a research assistant and program developer at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) and as a community-engagement-oriented program manager at Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis. And she was a cofounder of the Starling Project, a mainly volunteer organization of U of M design and urban-planning grad students who worked on University Avenue in Saint Paul during the construction of the Green Line light rail route, connecting vacant storefronts with potential short-term or long-term tenants.

Get to Know Who’s Who in the Organization

For the high school project, Murray began with an attitude of openness. “My first step was to try to understand what was going on in these four schools and build some relationships,” she says. “I certainly didn’t feel like I should come in with answers or an agenda, other than connecting artists to the work.

“Personalized learning,” Murray says, “involves students having a say in what they’re learning, and how they learn it. For example, being able to make some decisions in how they express what they know, what kind of product they create to show what they’ve learned. Or they might have an opportunity to explore something they want to know, something in their own world that they want to understand better.

“It was a little bit of a challenge, because when I began the school year was winding down, and there wasn’t much happening in the schools over the summer. So I spent that summer getting to know people at the district level, and then once the 2013-2014 school year started, spending time at the schools talking with staff and students.”

The enforced get-to-know period turned out to be a big advantage, Murray says. “It’s natural, when you have a limited time to accomplish something, to feel you should hit the ground running and make decisions really quickly, to use that whole year to be producing. But being comfortable with giving yourself enough time to get oriented is important. After all, it takes time even to learn a job that has a clear job description!”

Don’t Try and Do Everything – Focus In

Given that limited time frame – a school year – she realized that she needed to make contacts with people who were already enthusiastic about the role of art in education, without wasting time trying to “convert” those who might be more skeptical, or simply less interested.

Her major realization was that the wide scope of her mandate – help kids at four schools graduate by supporting some unconventional approaches to learning – required her to get specific and concrete as soon as she could.

“A challenge that we wrestled with,” she says, “was how to take this big issue of graduation rates, and these four very different schools and these two district offices – all these pieces of the puzzle – and figure out how to formulate a couple of tangible projects.”

Murray set up at least one partnership at each school between a classroom teacher and a teaching artist. “I wanted to see if, by partnering with classroom teachers, especially non-arts teachers covering core content, artists could co-create personalized learning experiences for the students,” she says.

“There were ways in which these collaborations resembled a traditional artist-in-residence setup, but I also really encouraged the artists to consider the teachers as partners and to help them with things they wanted to try, and to help the teachers learn how arts collaboration works.”

She worked with the Personalized Learning program’s emphasis on technology by bringing in photographers and videographers. For example, documentary filmmaker Kao Choua Vue, who was then Youth Projects Coordinator at Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, worked with students in Sandy Lucas’ computer class at LEAP, a school for kids new to the country, helping a group of English learners tell their stories, or those of friends or family, through video. “They all have amazing stories about how they got here,” says Murray. “Many of them are refugees.”

But Murray didn’t limit her artist pool to those who work with digital tech. She invited poets and performers as well. As for the artist part of herself, she feels that it expressed itself best in creative problem solving. “It was in seeing connection between disparate pieces of the work, and in finding ways to get ahold of resources,” she says. “I also think I was able to see many points of contact between personalized learning and the arts. With the arts, the core issue is finding a personal voice, and that’s what the teaching artists bring to the students, not just how to achieve a test score.”

As for how to reconcile the needs of those with more power in the system and those with less – an essential Artist Organizer program dilemma for Murray – one answer she found was to set up listening sessions in which students could voice their opinions of a new system for granting credits that the district was proposing.

Along with her Personalized Learning efforts, she initiated a smaller project: midwifing the creation of a notebook/journal of personal testimony, advice, and encouragement from Saint Paul Public Schools alumni, intended to help students both before and after graduation. Murray felt she could be more authentically an organizer through the smaller project.  “In that project,” she says, “I felt I could concentrate on the voice of the constituency instead of the plans of the district.”

Balancing Constituencies In Large Organizations Takes Work

Perhaps her biggest challenge, Murray says, was to balance the needs and demands of the different constituencies she was serving simultaneously. “I was there as an organizer as well as an artist,” she says, “and in my mind organizing usually begins with the needs of the constituency, those without power or less power, in this case the students, the teachers, or the artists. But I was contracting with the school district, and sometimes I was confused about whose interests I was serving: the district, or those other groups. It was a question of balance.”

Given that tension she felt between constituencies and that much of the work involved project management rather than traditional community organizing, she’s not certain that “Artist Organizer” is the best designation for what she did.

“If you’re working as an artist in a group whose mission is clearly centered on organizing, it’s a more appropriate term,” she says. “But for groups where the organizing element isn’t clear or emphatic, like the school district, I think it’s really important to have detailed discussions, not only about the ‘artist’ role, which can be very unclear, but also about what ‘organizing’ means and where you want the term to take you.”

At the same time, the district was pleased with her efforts. Greg Anderson, in charge of personalized learning at Creative Arts High School, hired Murray while he was on loan to the Alternative Learning Program office as an administrator.

“Having a program like the Artist Organizer, where the definition was so wide open, honestly made it difficult to grasp,” he says. “In education we’re used to having clear parameters, but the process of figuring out the best things for Kristen to do took quite a few conversations between us.”

At first, Anderson says, he thought that the fact that Murray was an outsider to the system might limit her effectiveness, but he soon found that this outsider status, plus her independence, had major advantages.

“Because she was a great self-starter and had that outside perspective,” he says, “she went right to the schools and asked them what they wanted and needed. She could then decide what to do, with a budget she was in control of. And in that way, she bypassed a lot of the bureaucracy that often slows things down.”

At the same time, says Anderson, Murray asked and listened.

“She was non-threatening, though that might be too strong a word. I was an administrator from the district, with a title and all that comes with that, but she was not imposing anything, certainly not her own artistic agenda. She was working with them, and I think that was a really liberating aspect of the program.

“To organizations that might be anticipating working with an artist, I’d say, be open to their suggestions, and stay open – because in our experience, many of the ideas that came up via Kristen that looked like the might go nowhere turned out to spark all kinds of conversations and results.”