Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bob Weir to Help Rex grantee Project Avary Celebrate its 10th Anniversary

If you are going to be in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 4th, please join Project Avary at the Great American Music Hall for an intimate evening that promises to be a literary and musical treat. Project Avary offers summer and family camps, field trips, and leadership programs for children with incarcerated parents. Founded by former Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin and supported from the beginning by the Rex Foundation, Avary is happy and proud to have seen so many of our children grow and thrive.

The festivities will include a conversation between KQED’s Michael Krasny and author Isabel Allende as well as a musical performance by Moonalice with special guests Bob Weir and Mark Karan. Your ticket also gets you dinner, entry to a silent auction, (which will include special signed collector’s items), and a chance to meet some of our children. Come and hear about their successes in college, the arts, the workplace, and the community! Just complete the online request for an invitation. Tickets are $100, with all net proceeds benefiting Project Avary's programs. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mickey Hart: Drumming As Peacemaking Tool

Mickey Hart says:

"Humans are rhythm machines. That’s what life is built on, rhythm, so when you share that with someone you make a connection at a very deep level. You get to understand their emotions, their hopes, dreams, fears, whatever.

"When you entrain you get in sync, you have common ground, you’re touching the essence of life. You’re sharing some kind of sacred space with these people. That makes peace.

"I don’t ever remember coming off of a stage where people were really passionate about playing music at that moment, and feeling bad towards them. It’s always a heightened experience; it’s always enlightening in some way, and it makes you feel good. And it’s fun."


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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Drums for Peace

We're really excited about the latest Food for Thought story on the Rex Foundation site. It's about a recent project in which Christine Stevens, renowned drum circle leader and friend of Mickey Hart, was invited to come to Iraq and teach drum circles to local people as a peacemaking tool. The results were very moving, and we're really proud to have been part of this project.

The story also includes a text and/or audio interview with Mickey on the healing power of drumming. Check it out!


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Monday, September 17, 2007

Watch Our Video!

Recently Rex joined forces with some of its grantees to actually engage youth in raising awareness of human rights issues, creating a stage production called "The World As It Could Be: A Declaration of Human Rights" — and producing a DVD of the event.

The main goal of this dramatization was to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also exemplified the importance of using the creative arts to educate people about social, economic and political issues; at the same time, it demonstrated the value of the programs that use the arts to nurture the development of the participating young people.

By creating a permanent document of this often soul-stirring performance (at Jerry Garcia's alma mater, Balboa High School in San Francisco), we hope to make it available far beyond the original audience. In particular, teachers may find it a valuable resource in presenting issues related to human rights.

Check it out, and let us know what you think!

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?

Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?

Little Kids Rock Takes a Radical Approach to Musical Education in the Schools

 by Mary Eisenhart

The sad state of music and arts education in most of America’s schools, especially the public ones, is an oft-told tale. In 1996, a Bay Area teacher decided to do something about it. What began with scrounged instruments and after-school lessons for his students is now Little Kids Rock.

When musician David Wish reported for his day job, teaching 1st and 2nd graders at a Redwood City, California elementary school, back in the mid-’90s, he quickly found that music, along with art and PE, had simply disappeared from the curriculum in an educational culture of tight budgets and obsession with test scores.

In contrast to untold numbers of frustrated teachers before him, Wish took matters into his own hands, scrounging instruments wherever he could find them and teaching his students music on his own time. After school.  Before school.  During lunch.

While the project’s immediate popularity owed a lot to Wish’s contagious enthusiasm, it was also due to the course materials Wish found himself developing, based on the radical notion of teaching the kids the music they liked. Rather than force young Ricky Martin fans to slog through “Down in the Valley” and “Swans on the Lake,” he taught them “La Vida Loca.” (As he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005: “Take Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s two chords: D and A. Do you realize how many songs are structured around only D and A? When you teach a kid how to play a Selena song that is D and A, you’re also teaching them to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’re teaching them to play. Period.”)

Pretty soon his music classes became a victim of their own success and he had to start turning students away because he had no more time. At that point he started recruiting his fellow teachers to teach a class or two.

One thing led to another, word got out, rock stars started taking notice, and the program started to expand. In July 2002 it formally incorporated as the not-for-profit Little Kids Rock, and a few months later the Rex Foundation became one of its earliest supporters.

Today, Little Kids Rock, now based in New Jersey, serves thousands of students in grassroots programs in nine states, and continues to expand rapidly. We checked in with Wish to find out why music education matters so much, and how LKR’s work extends far beyond its own classes.

Rex Foundation: Why is music and arts funding in the schools being cut — and why is that a bad idea?

David Wish, Little Kids Rock: I think it’s being cut because the constituents that it affects can’t vote. It’s always easiest to take away from people who don’t have the power to stick up for themselves, like the very young or the very old — that’s one of the places that you see people cutting because you don’t hear the screams from the victims till much later.

Why is that a bad idea? I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas — yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.

Rex: For example?

LKR: Try to solve a math word problem just by knowing how to multiply, divide, add and subtract. It can’t be done. You need to think creatively. You need to be able to take information that you’ve never been presented with before and synthesize it in new and exciting ways — even if it’s something as unexciting on the face of it as solving a word problem.

Or coming up with a scientific theory. Or trying to explain the motivations of a political ruler that lived in a century and a continent light years away from your own. All of these things require creativity. Problem-solving in your interpersonal life requires creativity.

I believe there is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.

It would fly in the face of what we expect from an educational system if an adult could grow up and in every other way be whole, but couldn’t add, subtract, multiply and divide. They can hold a job, they can write, they can read the paper; they just can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide.

Or maybe they can do everything except they can’t read. Or that they don’t know the most basic scientific principles — like gravity exists, the earth is round, there’s an atmosphere and different types of matter. It’s unacceptable, and it actually doesn’t happen — if you go through the school system, unless you have severe learning disabilities, you come out with something of an education in all those areas.

But one exception would be music.

Rex: So you’ve been doing this 10 years — how did you get started?

LKR: I was working in a school in Redwood City that had no music program. I was also a guitar player, so I took it on myself to start giving guitar lessons to the kids in my 1st and 2nd grade classes. That was the sum total of my aspiration: I felt it could be done, I felt it should be done, and it was something I could do. So I begged and borrowed a little fleet of instruments and started teaching them.

But there was a little interim step. I needed teaching materials. So like any dutiful teacher I went to the source. I went to music stores and music publishers, and I looked at what was available.

I found it basically so uniformly dry and unappealing and useless that I had to come up with something in its place. You’d pick up Volume 1: Guitar, and open it up to the first page, and there’s “Red River Valley.” You open up the next method book and it’s Beethoven’s Ninth.

I’m looking at a class that’s filled with first-generation immigrants from Central America who are obsessed with Selena and Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana. So I thought, why don’t we make that the canon then? Why don’t we take a student-centered approach? Why don’t I not take my own musical tastes and make that the starting point; why don’t I take the radical idea of “Well, kids have this cultural capital, let’s put that in the middle”?

At the time I would have defined it as “Why not teach the kids the music they like?” You like Ricky Martin? Sure, we can do “La Vida Loca.” It became a very natural thing.

It was a very successful class, for me and the students, so I added another one and another one. I was teaching so many students at my school, while being a regular classroom teacher — every single one of these classes was either before school, after school, or, towards the end, even during my lunch hour. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t take on any more students, which put me in the ironic position of having to say no. Where I was trying to extend the franchise, now I became the axeman, which sort of seemed karmically unfair.

So I started reaching out to my colleagues, initially just to handle the overflow, and say, “Hey look, I’m running all these classes, why don’t you do one?”

I tried that, and I realized for that to be successful I had to articulate, concisely and in teacher-friendly language, what I was doing specifically with the children that was resonating so strongly with them. That led to me codifying and defining what was happening naturally into something that could be replicated by other people through a set of pedagogical beliefs and a set of curriculum. By using that and using teachers to teach, all of a sudden it started replicating. It wasn’t about me as a teacher, it was about a set of teaching ideas being more effective at eliciting success from children.

Why does this work? Well, Little Kids Rock leverages a number of things that make it successful. One of the things is that we leverage the cultural capital of kids everywhere by focusing on the music they like. But I also leverage the human capital of schools everywhere by identifying individuals who have committed themselves to teaching, namely teachers, and then arming them with our content and our training, so they can then dovetail that into what they’re already doing.

When I started doing that, that’s when it really started to replicate and grow — to the point where my first class was 20 kids and now we’re at more than 10,000, and we’ve basically doubled each year since 2000. We’re poised to do that again this year. By the end of the 2007-2008 school year we’re likely to be at 20,000.

Rex:: What determines which schools get the program?

LKR: We identify large urban districts where more than 50% of students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, which is a poverty index that all public schools are required by law to maintain. They have a very high concentration of low-income families.

The schools of the United States are outrageously segregated in terms of economics. Those who get to choose their ZIP code have the best schools in the country. The people who don’t get to choose have less, sometimes deplorably so.

We go into those districts, and recruit and train those schoolteachers. There’s nothing about our curriculum or our pedagogy that’s class-specific. I believe this program would be equally compelling to children of every economic class. But because we have finite resources, we direct them to where the need is greatest.

That’s beginning to change a little with Little Kids Rock TV (see sidebar), where we’re going to take the same pedagogical ideas and create video of them. Those are going to be given away as a free public resource to whomever. We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.

Going into a school is a little bit different. It costs us about $100 per student, and we generally don’t enter a district with fewer than 4-600 students.

Little Kids Rock gives out thousands of free instruments to music students every year.

Rex: Does the district invite you, or does somebody say, “Hey, you ought to be going into this district?”

LKR: At this point it’s both. We’re still a very young organization, and most of our growth is opportunistic, undergirded by some strategy. Some are no-brainers — the Los Angeles Unified School District, biggest school district in the country, totally meets our criteria, slam-dunk, so we’re there.  We chose that, we tried to get funding, and we were successful. We’ve been there going on four years.

But we’re also in Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re there because James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley and is one of the most recorded guitarists in history, is from Shreveport. He has the James Burton Guitar Festival, and he wanted to bring the program into his city, so he facilitated that.

So we go where there’s interest, and we go where we see an opportunity, where a community might support this kind of an effort. Or we just go in because we come up with the resources ourselves and just direct it that way.

We might not go to a single school because it’s just one school, but some of our programs have started with a single phone call from a single teacher. We’re in DC for that reason now. Philadelphia’s another example.

Rex: So you do want to hear from teachers.

LKR: Oh, we always like hearing from teachers. We serve children only because we serve teachers. If we didn’t serve teachers we couldn’t reach the children.

Our model isn’t to find volunteers to go in and pay them and have them teach; we’re having the teachers do it. And teachers can get free resources from us as well, even without being in the program.

There are two crises facing music education today. One is that it doesn’t happen; that’s a problem that no nonprofit will ever solve, because it’s too vast in its scope. We’re talking about 15-20 million U.S. school-age children not receiving music education; show me a not-for-profit that can generate a budget to address that. I don’t even think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could do that for more than 50 years, and then it’d go bankrupt.

It needs to be something that we as a culture place importance in. I do believe it’s cyclical, and I do believe it will come back.

That’s the first issue, and we do address it, because we’re giving away thousands of free instruments every year. But that’s just a drop in the bucket.

On the other hand, there’s the second problem, which is that oftentimes music education is outdated, oftentimes people have exposure to it, and oftentimes they vote with their feet and they leave, and they grow up with regret. They grow up without fully developing themselves and their education because they’re alienated from music at any other level than just being a consumer of it. That’s an issue that Little Kids Rock is really seeking to address, or at least I think it’s a place where we can affect millions and millions of people in this country, and it doesn’t take a giant budget. It takes vision, and that’s what we’re supplying.

If the expectation of music education is that you leave and you can be first, second or third chair in a symphony orchestra, or you can be a sight-reading session jazz musician — then yes, it’s true, only 5-10% of the population could and should bother wasting their time with music education. Unfortunately, in a de facto way, that’s kind of how it’s structured; the unspoken aim is that you’re going to get to the end and be either a concert violinist or a sight-reading session jazz musician. 

Now, if you look at the world of commerce, that is a miniscule slice of the music-making pie of how you could make a living; and if you look at the world of life, it’s an infinitesimally small slice of what playing music could mean in your life.

Public speaking is something we all have to do, for example. I may not be Martin Luther King, and I may not ever be able to speak as eloquently and with such an on-fire sense of mission as he was. So I have a decision to make: either I’m just not going to talk, or I’m going to do it the way I do it, for myself and for meaning in my life.

Likewise math. I wouldn’t say that I’m mathematically inclined or that I have some special facility, but I use math for meaning in my life, and it’s very important to me. I can balance the budget for this not-for-profit and make sure we’re fiscally solvent and that we can meet our mission. I can figure out the tip on a bill. I can figure out my household budget. So math is very meaningful to me.

Now what if music were similar? You might not be Jimi Hendrix, or Andres Segovia, but is that the standard you need? Is that the point of entry? Shouldn’t the point of entry be that you should be able to express yourself on an instrument? And then you, as a democratic citizen of this democratic nation, can define how much time and energy you want to put into that, and rise to your own ability, to the extent that you want to.

That’s the thing that really amazes me and I find really upsetting as an educator — meeting these people who spent their entire childhood studying and can’t play a song. It’s mind-boggling, and it wouldn’t be acceptable in any other arena. I think it’s indicative of a need to revitalize the way music education is taught, and that’s what I think LKR is really striving to do.

Rex: Are the same kids in the program for multiple years, or is it a fixed-length program?

LKR: The answer is really both, because we work in districts that have no music teachers, and when we do that it’s an after-school enrichment program. Those students may only be in the program for a year because perhaps the teacher elects not to do it the next year, because it doesn’t fit their schedule. Or they may be in it for multiple years, but it’s a little more tumultuous. There’s a lot of variables.

We also work with music teachers, and the music teacher’s there year after year and it’s their defined job, and therefore there’s no problem. They structure it so the students can continue.

Again, while LKR can provide guidance in the curriculum and the pedagogy, when it gets to scheduling, that’s up to the individual teacher at different schools. If we were to start dictating it we would lose our constituents, because some teachers can’t do it after school, and some can’t do it during the school day.

Our only requirement is that it be taught at least once a week, for at least one academic hour. And then we have some teachers who cram in 15 hours of LKR time a week; we have some that cram in as little as one hour. We have some teachers who reach as few as 10 students annually, as an after-school program, and we have some teachers who incorporate it into their school culture and reach literally every single child at their school.

Rex: To what extent do you chart what happens to the kids who go through the program?

LKR: We use a product called SalesForce, which is an online customer management system — they’re a great company, they give their service free to nonprofits, and their services are extremely valuable.

All of our teachers use it to track their students, to see how they’re doing against the LKR rubric. How is this student doing in terms of their psychosocial gains? How is this student doing in terms of composition, in terms of improvisation, in terms of the discrete didactic skills by grade level that we’ve identified as necessary?

Now, this is new for us, and it’s being implemented for the first time. Basically all our students will be being tracked and given a LKR report card, if you will — I know it’s not in vogue, but it’s a way for us to determine the efficacy of our efforts. We’ve developed a measurement system that’s different from a standard music evaluation, because it’s much more competency and performance-based assessment, as opposed to task or skills-based assessment.

Like, for example, “Has the child composed original music?” That would be one very important rubric. “To what extent does the child know how to improvise?” That would be another one. “To what extent can the child play music that’s appealing to them?” “To what extent has the child mastered a self-defined canon?” All these things are being measured. I’m just talking about an honest assessment and having metrics. I’m not talking about having mandatory testing, but determining a set of criteria by which you can measure your own success, and holding yourself accountable.

Up until we started using this system, all of our reporting has really been more anecdotal. We hear back from the teachers, we hear from the students. But I’m a schoolteacher, and I don’t really like anecdotal measurements. They’re really great for ego gratification, but they’re not really great for efficacy.

One of my great friends and counselors is a man named Bob Morrison, who’s the founding executive director of the Music for All Foundation, the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation — he’s a heavyweight in the world of music-based philanthropy. He says, “Without statistics, you’re just another guy with an opinion.” And I like that. I’m not a statistics wonk, but I want a healthy balance of both. Anecdotal is great, but it’s far from enough.

When I was teaching 1st  grade, you’d be judged on one criterion alone as a teacher: Did your students learn to read? It’s not like, “Gee, Juan’s such a sweet little boy and he really learned to get along with his peers and it was really wonderful having him in the class, and he loves me and I love him and we’re all just a big happy ed family.”  OK, can Juan read? “Well, he’s really applying himself, he’s really trying, he loves to read…” OK, but, can Juan read?

As a first grade teacher it was always a major point of pride for me that my students — and I only worked in troubled districts — read at or above grade level in the 1st grade, this in districts where this was not the status quo.

I believe that as the founder I have a few more years to put my cultural imprint on this and set the organizational tone for the years to come. I want to bring that same kind of transparency and accountability for ourselves internally, and of course for our funders externally, as we measure the impact of our work. Because when you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.

“I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas — yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.” – David Wish


"There is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.”

– David Wish

Rocking the World: Little Kids Rock TV

When David Wish first started recruiting his fellow teachers, he realized he had to codify the hands-on, “teach the kids the music they like” methods he’d come up with — not just because they were so successful, but because they were so radically different from conventional music education. As a result, when a new teacher comes on board with the program today, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel — a wealth of materials evolved from years of finding what works best is already available.

But even as Little Kids Rock reaches thousands of new students every year, Wish readily concedes that not even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can provide music education to every child who needs it. So Little Kids Rock got creative again with Little Kids Rock TV.

Whatever your age, location, or economic status, you can check out tutorial videos on the site, from guitar power chords to drum licks, all delivered with the trademark LKR style of, as Wish puts it, “the Suzuki Method meets the Rolling Stones.”  And it’s all free of charge, with more lessons added often.

Says Wish, “We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.”

Rex, Youth and the Arts 

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.  Over its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation has, like many other philanthropic organizations, helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

This is consistent with the Rex mission statement: The Rex Foundation aims to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, assist others less fortunate than ourselves, protect the rights of indigenous people and ensure their cultural survival, build a stronger community, and educate children and adults everywhere.

Says Executive Director Sandy Sohcot, “The Rex Foundation has supported youth-oriented educational and creative arts programs throughout its 24-year history, sharing a relatively common view that such programs help young people thrive and succeed – and that helping young people flourish is not only good for the individuals, but also for the greater community. The different art forms – dance, music, poetry, fine arts – provide a range of opportunities to engage young people in positive, constructive and healthful activities that tap their creative energies and encourage all kinds of learning.”

The benefits extend far beyond fun and creativity. Explains Sohcot, "Many of these programs provide safe and constructive vehicles for helping young people express their concerns about – and more positively grapple with – their own challenging social and economic situations: poverty, homelessness, violence, threats of family deportation, and unhealthy, even toxic environments.  And, because of their positive experiences in these programs, many of the participants are often able to gain greater academic success and leadership opportunities, which in turn lead to enhanced and transformed life situations that might otherwise have not been possible.”

These are some recent Rex grantees whose work enriches youthful lives with art and music:

Marsh Youth Theater (Jerry Garcia Award, 2005)

Kids on Broadway (2006)

Tule Elk Park Child Development Center (1994, 2006)

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (2006)

BAYCAT: Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts & Technology (2007)

Destiny Arts Center (2007)

Monroe Elementary Arts Enrichment Program (2007)

Youth Movement Records (2007)

Rex Board Perspective

Rex Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:  As David Wish explained his motivations for beginning the Little Kids Rock program — the simplicity, yet power of engaging kids with easy-to-learn guitar chords of the music they liked, and his Teach-the-Teacher approach for extending the reach of the program — the teacher in me was immediately interested.  I was even more intrigued by the video showing the broadly diverse young students performing their original songs with such spirit and enthusiasm, and by seeing that spirit reflected when I visited the sites. Clearly, Little Kids Rock was a very effective way to provide life-enriching musical involvements to young people in schools that, due to declining funding, could not otherwise provide this vital experience.

A few months after the Rex Foundation grant had been issued, I had the pleasure of attending a special program for Little Kids Rock at a San Francisco elementary school.  The program included Bonnie Raitt, Norton Buffalo and Tom Waits.  I saw David Wish in action. First he engaged the students to show off their knowledge of different key chords.  Then, within minutes he elicited a few words, two being treasure and measure, along with some chords, and then had everyone playing a new song created on the spot called “Measure the Treasure.”  The celebrity musicians joined in for quite a jam. 

Though several years have passed, I still recall the magic of watching these young kids being so engaged, and having such a wonderful opportunity to experience their creativity and talents.

The Rex Foundation includes in its mission statement promote individuality in the arts, recognizing the value of the arts to the human experience, whether to elicit each person’s creative potential, encourage learning of other disciplines, foster cultural development and community connections, or simply to engender positive feelings. Supporting Little Kids Rock is one great way to make it possible for young people who, through no fault of their own, might otherwise miss the opportunity to have this invaluable life experience.

“When you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.” – David Wish

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

Discovering their inner musician, New York girls

and young women find a whole new way to look at life.

By Mary Eisenhart

"We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. – Karla Schickele

For the last two summers in New York City, the Willie Mae Rock Camp has given girls and young woman — mostly local, some from around the U.S. and beyond — a week of total immersion in music. And, quite often, a life-changing experience.

"Rock camp," says the camp's Web site, "is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. The program is founded on the proposition that music can serve as a powerful tool of self-expression and self-esteem-building for girls and young women, and can help combat racism and stereotypes by building bridges of communication and shared experience among girls from diverse communities."

Also, it's a lot of fun.

All Photos by Kate Milford

The Willie Mae Rock Camp (named after blues legend Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton) got its start in 2004 after alt-rocker Karla Schickele spent a couple of summers as a volunteer bass teacher at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon.

"It absolutely changed my life," says Schickele, who, as a proud native of Brooklyn, quickly decided NYC needed its own version. "So I reached out to some other women musicians here, and we spent about a year getting together at coffee shops, planning and working. We did the first rock camp in summer of 2005.

Schickele, a founding director, also had the idea to name the New York camp after the blues legend. "We like to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. We thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton."

Determined from the beginning to draw a diverse cross-section of girls from one of the world's most diverse cities, the founders planned to offer full or partial scholarships to at least half the campers at each session. Then, they cast their net.

"We used the powerful tool of word of mouth," Schickele recalls. "Our volunteers who were teachers put the word out to their students. Then we also had volunteers on bikes going around to various New York City neighborhoods. Particularly we wanted to target low-income and under-serviced communities in New York, where there are a lot of kids who don't have access to summer programs the way kids do in affluent communities. So we had volunteers going out on bikes, bringing flyers and posters to community centers and schools and shops and just talking to people on the street.

"We were going up to girls on the street and saying, 'Hey, are you into music?'" she laughs.

At the beginning of the weeklong day camp, girls form bands, with whom they'll practice, write songs, and perform in a concert at the end of the week. They'll get lessons in their chosen instrument from a pro. Along the way, they'll get a crash course in other practical realities of band life, e.g. making custom T-shirts and posters. And working together.

The rest of the year, the founders and a host of others in this almost all-volunteer organization (the only employee is a part-time office staffer to keep things running smoothly) work ceaselessly to gather support from parents, the community, industry and beyond. An online list of Willie Mae's supporters reveals a multi-generational, multi-genre roster of artists: Fiona Apple. Neko Case. Ani DiFranco. The Donnas. Deborah Harry. Natalie Merchant.

Probably the most popular fundraiser of the year is the annual Ladies' Rock Camp, which raises money for the scholarship fund. Says Schickele, "Once a year we do a mini rock camp — it's a three-day program for about 50 women who pay tuition. We get volunteers to work at that event as well, so all the proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

"It's an incredibly powerful and moving experience. A lot of the women who sign up for it haven't played music before, and just always thought it would be fun to be in a band. And the transformation they go through in three days is really extraordinary."

The Willie Mae Rock Camp received a grant of $2,500 from the Rex Foundation in 2006. Says Schickele, "We're very grateful to the Rex Foundation for its support, which is really helping us out this year."

We were recently able to spends some time talking with Schickele about the Rock Camp's work, how it helps participants elsewhere in their lives, and where the founders would like to take it from here.

Rex Foundation: An undertaking the size of this camp, with all its space and equipment requirements, isn't cheap. Where does your funding come from?

Karla Schickele, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls: We do fundraising year round to make the one-week program happen. We solicit musical instrument manufacturers for gear donations; some of them have been quite generous, and given us guitars, drums and amps. We try to reach out to foundations and raise a lot of individual contributions. We hold fundraising events throughout the year to raise the cash we need to buy gear we can't get donated, and to help pay the rent and our other costs.

Rex: How do your teachers hear about you and get involved?

Willie Mae: As with the campers, it's a combination of word of mouth and concerted outreach efforts on our part. We strive to have our campers and our volunteers reflect the diversity of New York City, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, racially and ethnically. So we really wanted camp to be a place where people from different backgrounds and different communities can come together and make music together.

From the get-go we found it fairly easy to attract a diverse camper group, but our volunteer group in the first year was overwhelmingly white. So we've been working to reach out to musicians, women of color who are musicians, and also groups that provide leadership, like the Black Rock Coalition, to try and diversify our volunteer group. It's going great.

Rex: At least half your campers are on scholarship, and some of them come from all over the world. How do you do outreach outside of New York, and how do you ensure that all this diversity doesn't simply lead to conflict and bad vibes?

Willie Mae: We don't do outreach outside of New York. Our mission is to serve girls in New York City. We are open to girls from anywhere, but that's not part of our outreach program. Any girls who find us out there in the world have just come upon us — we get a fair amount of media coverage, and people find us on the Internet.

The question of bringing people together — what we've found, and this is no big news, is that music really brings out the best in people. We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. There's something magic that happens when people play music together. It creates lines of communication and builds bridges in ways that I think are unique to music.

It's not that there isn't conflict, because in any band there is conflict (laughs). One of the things we do is provide a band coach to every band. The band coach is an adult, an experienced woman musician who helps the girls find a working process. Like if someone has an idea for a lyric and one of the girls says, "Oh, that's so stupid," the band coach is there to say, "Hey, is there a different way we could talk about this?" So it becomes a weeklong exercise in communication, both through music and also through the working process of writing music.

Rex: You talk about how they form bands on the first day of camp — how does that work, and how do you avoid having it turn into nasty clique behavior?

Willie Mae: Good question.

At the Portland camp originally, they just had the names of different kinds of genres on the wall, and the girls would go to the kind of music they wanted to play, and then just sort themselves into groups, in a way that, as a volunteer, I found very traumatic to watch. It was a little like picking sports teams in school, and didn't seem to really serve the process. So one of the changes we made in New York was to overhaul that system.

Our system is based on speed dating (laughs). All the girls are given packets that have the name of every other girl in the camp, and a couple of questions. Like, if you could be any animal, what would you want to be? And maybe also some music-related questions. But in my experience, a lot of bands get formed not because of a shared musical sensibility — that can be part of it, but a shared broader sensibility can often be a really good foundation.

And also I have a personal aversion to the use of musical genres as a limitation. I don't think anyone should have to choose whether they want to play this kind of music or that kind of music. I'm much more interested in girls inventing entirely new genres of music.

So for these reasons, we do this exercise that involves each girl interviewing every other girl at camp for a few minutes. It's a big, joyous, loud exercise, all the girls talking to each other at the same time — and then after a few minutes they switch. So at the end of the exercise every girl has talked to everyone else. And then they sit down and they write down the names of a bunch of girls they would like to be in a band with.

They hand them to us and go off and do a workshop, and we go into a back room and form bands, based on their requests, but also making sure that no girl is left out, and no girl knows what the other girl had asked for.

We then announce the bands, and they immediately go off and start working. We don't really allow any time for "Oh, I really wanted to be with her…," that kind of thing. Life is too short.

Rex: Why did you decide to name the camp after Big Mama Thornton?

Willie Mae: I like the idea that we really try to pay respect to the early women of rock. We're not limited to rock music at our camp, but we do like to try to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. So we thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton.

We also name the rooms: the bass room is named the Carol Kaye room after the bass player, and the piano room is the Nina room after Nina Simone. We also have little bios of those artists up in the rooms so the girls can learn more about different women. We also have a workshop on the history of women in music. We try to get that information in a couple of different ways.

Rex: You've only been doing this for a couple of years, so you don't have a really long-term perspective, but do you see the same girls coming back more than once?

Willie Mae: Oh yeah!

Rex: What benefits do you see from kids going to the camp?

Willie Mae: We've heard from parents about the incredible increase in self-confidence that they've seen in their daughters. There have been girls who were having trouble in school and were incredibly shy, and who only played music alone in their rooms. Or talked about music but said, "I don't know how to write a song." And then we hear about how they say, "I wrote a song!"

A lot of them find ways to play music. Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp and they carry that with them when they go back to school.

Rex: What would you do if you had more resources? What's your wish list, and how do people like Rex help with all of that?

Willie Mae: Support from foundations like Rex is absolutely key to the success of our program and our ability to keep doing it. It's really through foundation support that we've been able to have our part-time staff member, which has allowed us to streamline operations and do a better job.

Our goals are to start an after-school program. There are schools that have expressed an interest in having us come in, and the girls themselves are just dying for the opportunity to do this program year round. So that's high on our wish list.

"A lot of them find ways to play music (after camp). Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp, and they carry that with them when they go back to school." – Karla Schickele

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tule Elk Park

Tule Elk Park
Child Development Center

By Mary Eisenhart

“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,
that will be the sort of gauze through which
he or she will see all the world afterwards.”
—Wallace Stegner,
(quote at entrance to Tule Elk Park)

“Rita, who’s she?” an inquiring 5-year-old, pointing in my general direction, asks teacher Rita Hurault, who’s gathering her kindergarteners and 1st graders as they arrive for their after-school program. “Who are you?” says another, looking up at me.

This is my friend Mary, says Hurault. She’s here to write a story about the school.

Nobody tells them they shouldn’t ask questions like that. Nobody tells them they shouldn’t call their teacher by her first name. And, once their curiosity about the stranger is addressed, the kids are off to more interesting pursuits. Playing among the trees. Digging in the garden. Observing the worms and other fauna near the compost bin. They’re especially happy today, because it’s Friday and they don’t have homework (yes, in San Francisco, kindergarteners have homework...), so they’re free to play and explore longer than usual.

Discovering bugs in the compost.

It’s a typical afternoon at Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a two-time grant recipient from the Rex Foundation.

Originally founded in 1943, as the Yerba Buena Children’s Center, Tule Elk Park is part of the San Francisco public school system, with a full-day program for toddlers and preschoolers and an after-school program for kindergarteners through 4th graders (who also attend all day during school vacations). Says site manager Alan Broussard, “When the program was conceived in 1943, we were in the midst of World War II, and the purpose of the program was to support low-income families, primarily women who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time, the Rosie the Riveter moms. It was a child-care situation, but because it was connected to the school district, it always had an educational focus, preparing kids for kindergarten. I don’t think we’ve changed that dramatically — our primary audience is still low-income children. We’re really a gateway to the K-12 system; we’re a foundation for lifelong learning.”

Site director Alan Broussard, with tile art documenting
an earlier class's study of alternative energy.

Like most urban schools, the center was, for most of its existence, a barren expanse of concrete and asphalt, in a neighborhood where even a street tree is a rarity. But in 1990, it began a remarkable process of self-transformation that’s still ongoing.

Before the transformation: 20,000 square feet of asphalt.
Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

It all started when Broussard, then a teacher at the school, approached Lynn Juarez, then the site manager, about the possibility of cutting a hole in the surrounding fence to allow his students access to a small adjacent patch of dirt in which to garden.

He explains, “Our kids were mostly inner-city children whose opportunity to experience and be associated with nature was pretty limited. When we took them just to the park down the street, where there was dew on the grass in the morning, and bugs, they didn’t want to sit on the grass, because it was either too wet, or there were too many bugs — it was just completely foreign to them.

'Angels dropping from the sky': a volunteer crew of concrete specialists lays the foundation for the future Tule Elk Park. Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

“We began to wonder why we weren’t supporting kids to really connect with nature. There’s such a deprivation around this issue, particularly with urban low-income kids. And that was the impetus to creating something much more than a hole in the fence — to really think how to use 20,000 square feet of asphalt to create a green space that kids could learn in and from.”

Says Hurault, who came to the center in the mid-’90s, “What these children needed deeply was a connection to the natural world. They were scared to death of grass, dirt and bugs. And that’s the stuff of life.”

With the public school district, like many others, perennially strapped for funds, any such project was going to require serious creativity and community involvement. Broussard recalls, “It was an effort that involved seeking out people initially who were willing to suspend reality and dream with us, and we went about developing this design by seeking out people whose imagination could envision that.

The garden at Tule Elk Park.

“We found a landscape architect who was willing to think this through with us; we engaged our parents by bringing them together on Saturdays to talk about what we had envisioned and ask for their input. We did the same thing in the classrooms, where the children drew and had discussions about what this new playground might look like. Then we reached beyond the school community and began to find people in the broader community, particularly in the neighborhood, who we thought would be receptive and interested in supporting such an idea. And we began to have community meetings.”

The transformation began in 1992 when the San Francisco Conservation Corps began ripping out the playground’s asphalt, but the process was fraught with unexpected obstacles and equally unexpected miracles from the beginning.

“We envisioned this happening in an orderly way in phases as we got some funding,” Broussard laughs, “but after we ripped up out quite a big chunk of the asphalt, what we were left with was mud. And it was winter, and everybody was miserable, and there was no playground, and there were some very challenging points in this whole process.

Entering Tule Elk Park. In the background: a parking garage.

“But then a family who’d had a child here who had special needs discovered that we were in the process of trying to do this; they contacted a relative who happened to be connected to a construction crew whose specialty was concrete work. Over a couple of weekends, it was kind of like angels dropping from the sky: they realized this terrible situation we were in with all this dirt and mud; we found the funding for the materials, and they came and provided all the labor for this concrete work to lay out the structure of the park. They did it for free, and it was connected to this feeling that we had done this very special thing for this very special child, and they had never forgotten that.”

Over the next few years, piece by piece, the garden took shape: trees, an edible plant garden, a butterfly habitat, totem pole sculptures of native animals. Private funds paid the salary of a garden educator, an art instructor, and more. And in 1996, the Yerba Buena Children’s Center got a new name: the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, taking its name from an animal indigenous to the area.

"Peace Pole" in the garden.

Soon Tule Elk was generating its own ripple effects, inspiring the creation of the San Francisco Green Schoolyards Alliance, which successfully campaigned for the passage of a bond initiative in 2003 to "green" other schoolyards in the city. That launched similar projects at 16 schools; a bond initiative on the 2006 ballot seeks funds to expand the program.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school,” Broussard says. “And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.

"That’s why I keep pushing the envelope, even though I sometimes feel, Oh my gosh, where is this going?” he laughs.

The Rex Foundation first gave Tule Elk a grant in 1994, through the Trust for Public Land, to help with the transformation from asphalt to garden. In 2006, Tule Elk received another Rex grant to help fund the ExploStation, an upcoming project demonstrating alternative energy — solar and water power — in a way that’s engaging to the kids. "Thank God for people like Rex, and for people who contribute to things like Rex, who make this possible," says Hurault.

On my Friday-afternoon visit, I learned more about Tule Elk from Broussard, Hurault and garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn.

Rex Foundation: Why is early childhood development so important?

Rita Hurault: It’s critical to all learning that comes afterwards. It’s the foundation. The child is developing at a very rapid clip in the early years; they’re getting their sense of self, they’re getting their sense of community, they’re getting their first real understanding of the broader world around them. So this is when it’s critical that they are given the tools for developing their feelings about the world, about learning and accessing knowledge, that will carry them through their whole lives.

If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.

Rex: What sets the Tule Elk Park program apart from its more typical counterparts?

Alan Broussard: At the core of the program is the importance of relationship. We truly believe philosophically that in order to help a child learn and succeed, and help a child love to learn, we need to have a very strong relationship with each and every individual child, as well as his or her family. That’s critical. That’s one foundation piece.

Garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn working in the garden.

Another foundation piece is that we strongly believe that relevance is important in their education, and that as the Reggio Emilia philosophy (see sidebar: One Mile Deep, One Inch Wide) says, we have to pay attention to what children are paying attention to. And that if we do that, if we’re good observers of children’s behavior and their interests, then we can capitalize on what’s relevant to them. So we use a project approach; it’s an inquiry-based method based on a framework where we support children to learn about the things that they’re interested in, and to go in depth.

That is a very big contrast to the old-school rote learning method, and a very large contrast to what exists in public education today, because we’re in quite a conservative environment that’s very skills-based. There’s not a lot of thought being given to supporting children’s critical thinking skills, or analytical skills, or social-emotional skills, the kind of things I think the Fortune 500 companies are actually looking for.

The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.

The third piece would be rigor: because it’s inquiry-based, there’s rigor both on the teacher and the student end, because the teacher has to be a reciprocal learner. The teacher can’t sit back and have a canned curriculum and say "Today we’re going to learn about the color red." It’s all got to be in context, and it’s got to be related to what the study is at the moment. It may require the teacher to go online; it may require the teacher to call a professional or an expert or to go to the library. Sometimes the kids want to explore something that we don’t always know a lot about."

Totem pole sculptures depicting native animals, including the Tule Elk (center).

Rex: How do you decide what to study?

Hurault: Everything comes from observing the children and seeing what it is they’re interested in. We’ve all gotten very good at having our ears to the ground and seeing "Well, what is it they’re following now? Could this be a study?"

For example, at the beginning of the summer we started to notice lots of ladybugs in the alder trees, and the kids kept coming up to Ayesha and me saying "Ladybugs, ladybugs! Look, look!" and we knew right away that OK, we’re going to study ladybugs this summer. It was right there in the children’s hands.

Rex: How long do you stick with a particular subject?

Hurault: As long as it takes. A typical project will have sustained interest over a longer period of time, but sometimes there are projects that just happen and last a couple of days. The ladybug project ended when the ladybug cycle turned and there were fewer ladybugs in the trees.

I had one incident several years ago where we were coming in for group time, and much to everybody’s surprise there was a worker trying to fix the windows. And instead of sitting facing me, they sat down facing the guy working on the windows and started peppering him with questions — because they are self-assured enough to ask questions. They are used to feeling that they have a right to ask questions and to have them answered seriously.

The man was wonderful; he stopped in his work and turned around, and I said, “Well, we have some interest here in what you’re doing; do you have time to talk to us?” He answered our questions and showed us his tools, and for the next two or three days it was essentially a mini-project on tools and window-fixing. The children would go into the block area and build things. It was great, just a spontaneous little tiny project. The kids just see themselves as investigators, and worthy of saying, “I want to know something about those windows. Will you tell me, please?”

Waiting for play time.

Rex: And you encourage this, instead of saying, That’s not on the lesson plan.

Broussard: Exactly. “We’re not on Chapter 3 today...”

Ayesha Ercelawn: Our day is like that. It’s questions. Nonstop, constantly, because they know they can ask.

Rex: So much of conventional education is about squelching you and keeping you in line and making you conform.

Broussard: And asking you a question and demanding that you know the answer. It’s very didactic, and not at all about group consciousness, higher-level thinking. We see kids creating an environment where they can learn by asking questions, versus kids who are still about waiting for the question and making sure they have the answer.

Hurault: I see it a lot with my kindergarteners and 1st graders. They seem to have it compartmentalized: “This homework page is where I want to be sure to get it right, but here, questions are good.”

Ercelawn: The time we were surveying bugs, we left it open to them, how they decided to record what they found, as opposed to saying, This is the structure in which you’re going to record and do it. You get these amazing interpretations — this kid is doing charts, and this kid is doing tally marks, and some kids are doing drawings and some kids are doing labels. It is so much more interesting, even for us to see, and they’ve got the chance to do it the way they want, the way it works for them.

Hurault: Which gives us the information about how that particular child’s brain works, how they access knowledge. It gives us more knowledge to reach them in places where maybe they’re struggling; you can go back and see, where this child chose to make circles and dashes instead of writing a number, that maybe they need more work over here, or perhaps that child is a visual learner. The more you let them express themselves in the way that’s comfortable for them, the more you understand about that child. This teaching is just a big circle.

Cape gooseberry bush in the Tule Elk Park garden.

Ercelawn And since it’s documentation and we often put it up, the kids get to see how each other chose to do it, and learn from each other. And they say, Oh, I could have circled each one. I could have done a key for it. And it’s all about roly-polies and worms, so it’s interesting! (laughs)

The new 3-year-olds are learning from the 4-year-olds and the 5-year-olds. Everybody’s teaching each other about what’s OK to do in the garden and what’s not. There’s a whole mentality here of taking care of nature; all the staff signs onto it. It would not be doable if it was just me saying it, but it’s coming from everybody.

You hear the kids now, telling each other “Hey, that’s nature. Don’t step on that ant; don’t pull all those leaves off that plant, you’re breaking that plant.” So they’re watching each other almost more than we’re watching them, which is really nice.

The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them. I spend a lot of time just standing around watching and listening to what they’re talking about, so I know what they’re excited about. For a year they were coming and eating spearmint — which I’m growing to make tea with, but a few of them have discovered they like chewing on the leaves.

Broussard: That whole reverence for living things — the kids come to me very, very carefully with something they’ve found, a caterpillar, a snail, and they’re very protective. They always know, because they learn from Ayesha and the staff, that it has to go back to its home. It has to return to where it was.

Another perspective on the life cycle of the ladybug,
and the bird hoping for a ladybug feast.

Ercelawn Occasionally we’ll get a new kid who’ll start here in the middle of the year, a 1st or 2nd grader, and this is their first experience of something like this. That’s when we can all tell ourselves that we’re doing something really good here, because that kid’s knowledge and empathy levels are completely different.

Our kids aren’t scared of bugs and are careful around them, and then we get a new kid in whose immediate reaction is stomp or scream. So we spend a bit of extra time with them, getting them up to speed, and they pretty much get it from the other kids really fast.

Broussard: It’s a good kind of assessment tool, understanding the depth of the appreciation, the awareness, that our kids develop, versus someone who comes in cold and starts from scratch. The beauty now, after 10 years, is to see kids who sometimes have the ability to be here from 3 all the way up until they’re 9 or 10; the body of knowledge that they just sort of naturally walk around with is quite amazing.

Ercelawn I know it’s coming up in the kids’ academic studies, but it’s not a piece of information Tule Elk park kids have just memorized. They have internalized how nature works, and they know it because they’ve watched it happen so many times — for example, that if they plant that seed it’ll probably grow. They complete that life cycle in front of me. They’ll collect a seed and say, ’Can we plant it now? And even if it’s not the season I’ll say ’YES!’ — because they made that connection right there.

Rex: According to your Web site, you have a diverse student body that speaks dozens of languages at home. What impact does that have on the learning process?

Hurault: It’s a very lively environment! The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

I think it’s one of the strengths of this arts-based, Reggio-based curriculum, because you get this bunch of children in the yard, and everybody is excited about the ladybugs, and everybody’s talking about the ladybugs, and the children are showing each other the ladybugs, and the word “Ladybug” is written on the wall. The children learn from the teacher, they learn from each other; and they generally pick up language very quickly.

Rex: Let’s face it, mainstream education is not very much like this. How do these kids adjust once they’re in “regular” school?

Hurault: I get down about what’s happening overall in American society. I get down very specifically about what’s happening to education for our children and how they’re being pressured; the focus seems to be about beating each other out from the get-go. You’ve got to compete to get into the right nursery school, because if you don’t get into the right nursery school you’re not going to get into Stanford, and if you don’t get into Stanford your life is over because you won’t be able to have five cars. The whole thing gets so crazy.

There is a quote of Gandhi’s: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.

By giving them the foundation we’re giving them, by having this program, by children having a year or two of this experience — I can’t help but believe it changes them forever. That there’s some critical positive little kernel that’s placed in there. No matter what else happens in the rest of their lives, they’ve had this little bright shining moment where things really mattered.

We have children here whose parents work at the various embassies. We have a Russian child in our class right now, and the family’s going back in November. I asked his dad what school is like there, and he said they do not have the attention to the individual the way we do here. I could see he was feeling really torn about having to leave, because his child has been here for two or three years now, and he’s going to go from this environment to a very, very different one.

I worry for him. But I am also hopeful that this experience that he’s had here is something he will always have to draw on, and always remember that there are adults in the world who will listen to you, and hear you in your particular concerns, and help you follow your particular interests — and that those things are worthy.

Oak tree in the Tule Elk Park garden

So you know, every tiny spark you put out there in the world, every tiny seed you plant — you just keep planting those seeds and hoping they come out the right way. We nurture them all we can, but at some point, off they go. You do what you can do.

The kids in my class going to school are transforming their worlds. Right now one of our feeder schools is digging up part of their asphalt to create a garden. It happened because the parents are aware of this environment and what is happening here, and the teachers there became interested in what is possible. There’s a growing movement to have this kind of environment for urban children. The sidewalk is sort of cracking, and the grass is coming through here and there.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school. And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.” – Alan Broussard

One Mile Deep
One Inch Wide

“The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.”
Alan Broussard

Impromptu study of gravity.

Tule Elk Park’s educational philosophy is derived from the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, which emphasize community involvement, continuous learning by teachers and students, and, above all, a course of study driven by what interests the children at the time.

Whatever the chosen subject — which, at Tule Elk, has included interests as varied as alternative energy, paper, tea, and ladybugs — it becomes the context in which kids acquire knowledge and develop skills.

Rita Hurault with her class's
self-portraits and ladybug art.

So, for example, for Rita Hurault’s kindergarteners and 1st graders, ladybugs became the gateway to learning about words and language (from the word "ladybug" on), numbers (counting ladybugs and recording the results), and science (observing the life cycle and day-to-day behavior of ladybugs, and how they fit into the surrounding natural environment).

Observational drawing of ladybugs,
their life cycle, and predators.

Art is integral to the entire process, as the kids observe the ladybugs going about their lives and record what they’ve seen. The art they create not only shows what they’ve learned, but allows them to share knowledge with each other, to appreciate different styles of perception and expression. And, working with the art instructor, the children helped create ceramic tile murals recording what they’ve learned about a particular subject, leaving a permanent legacy of their learning for those who come after them at Tule Elk.

Rita Hurault greets her students as
they arrive for their after-school
program at Tule Elk.

“The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them.” – Tule Elk garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn

Digging in the dirt.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

When I visited Tule Elk, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the outdoor area, with all the different spaces for the children to play, engage in learning and demonstrate their creativity.

Then I talked with Alan and Rita about the program. Having taught 3rd– 4th and 5th– 6th grades back in 1970 and 1971, I knew that Tule Elk was providing a special gift to not only to the students and their families, but also to the teachers and other staff connected with the school.

I have a deep personal conviction that nourishing the minds and spirit of our children is one of the most important responsibilities we all have to ensure the well-being and richness of our communities.

To encourage children to observe the world around them, to appreciate and think about the interconnections of all things, and be enthusiastic about questioning and learning as much as possible, is a tremendous boost to promoting their healthy development, and, ultimately the health and vibrancy of our culture as a whole.

Teacher Rita Hurault: “If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.”

Rita Hurault: “The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

Preparing to gather dirt, leaves and rocks.

Rita Hurault: “There is a quote of Gandhi’s: 'Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.' I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.“

Suggestions for Further Reading by Tule Elk

Reggio Emilia
Official Web site

"The Best Kept Secret This Side of Italy," by Gary Stager
District Administration Magazine

Reggio Emilia Book List

Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, Lilian G. Katz, Sylvia C. Chard

All Kinds of Minds, Melvin D. Levine

A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine

Photos by Mary Eisenhart

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Rock The Earth

Rock the Earth: Defending the Planet 'One Beat at a Time'

By Mary Eisenhart

“For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.”
– Marc Ross, Rock the Earth

In 2001, under the stars at an outdoor concert at Mount Shasta, Marc Ross had an epiphany.

Having worked as an environmental litigator in both the public and private sector, he’d become acutely familiar with the fact that when it came to environmental issues, the legal deck tended to be stacked in favor of industry. By virtue of large consortia and industry associations, even the most egregious polluters and violators of the law were often able to avoid legal consequences by sheer firepower, overwhelming the resources of concerned citizens and grassroots groups trying to hold them accountable and make them change their ways.

Ross suddenly realized that combining his lifelong loves of music and the environment might be the key to evening the odds a bit. Many artists were already vocal about various issues; what if they and their fans joined forces to advocate for them? What if the resulting organization were able to offer legal and technical assistance, pro bono, to those under-resourced concerned citizens and grassroots organizations?

Inspired by this thought, Ross began recruiting music fans with expertise in environmental law and sciences, as well as the fundraising, marketing, media relations and Internet technology skills needed to sustain such an organization, and in 2001 Rock the Earth was born.

A 2005 Rex grantee, Rock the Earth uses tours and concerts of like-minded artists — dozens of shows a year — to reach the fans and spread the word, setting up information booths at shows to explain the issues and recruit new members. A relatively young organization — and, with the exception of a part-time office manager, all-volunteer — it’s successfully fostered a remarkable synergy between artists and their fans that’s become a powerful tool.

RtE’s Marc Ross (l) with Ozomatli at Bonnaroo 2005.

Says longtime Rex supporter David Gans, one of the artists scheduled to play at the Rock the Earth benefit September 17 at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco’s McLaren Park: “I think Rock the Earth has taken a lot of inspiration from Rex and SEVA: modest but meaningful projects as opposed to large-scale endeavors, and a strong belief in the power of community. I’m really impressed with these people and how they’re going about their work.”

We recently spoke with Ross, who told us about Rock the Earth’s current activities and achievements, as well as the obstacles it faces.

Rex: There are lots of environmental groups out there — what’s distinctive about Rock the Earth, and what inspired the founders to launch this group rather than work within others?

Marc Ross, Rock the Earth: What makes Rock the Earth unique is that we are an environmental advocacy organization born from and serving the music community.

Our volunteer staff and volunteers are, for the most part, recruited from the music community. The projects upon which our legal and technical staff work are suggested by artists and their fans. Our outreach, education, canvassing and membership solicitation are done in conjunction with the music community — at concerts and festivals throughout North America.

RtE Intern Matthew Schmidt educates a fan about RtE.

Not only do we provide a service to the individual artists who wish to see action taken on the issues about which they care, but given our expertise in music industry publicity, we are able to mobilize the artist’s fanbase as well. For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.

What caused us to create a whole new organization to work in this manner rather than working within the umbrella of another organization was twofold. First, there really is no other environmental advocacy group out there whose specific mission is to work with the music community on the issues that matter most to the artists and the fans.

Second, we had a general concern and dissatisfaction with the business model employed by most environmental organizations, who rely in large degree on foundation funding while their members are really rather passive. By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion-dollar industry (i.e. the music industry), it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.

Rex: Did any particular issue or crisis lead you to start Rock the Earth?

RtE: Our founders all had experience either as environmental professionals or activists, and all of us were concerned about the effectiveness of some environmental advocacy organizations. Particularly the smaller, less-funded ones, who really did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue what may be valid claims, due to a lack of qualified legal or technical counsel, lack of experienced media relations assistance, and a lack of ability to raise funds to really present a challenge to either a purported polluter or the government.

Rex: According to your Web site, the grant RtE received from Rex last year went to further your defense of the Colorado River wilderness in the Grand Canyon. Can you explain the issue, to those who might not be aware of it? And what were you able to do as a result of the Rex grant?

RtE: The stretch of the Colorado River that flows through Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) is one of the most sought-after river trips in the world. People from around the world raft this river, seeking to view the natural beauty of the canyon from the river and experience a trip like none other. Many of those river enthusiasts are do-it-yourself river runners with plenty of experience and gear.

Most who come to take these trips — whether done on private, commercial trips or on public permits — seek out a true wilderness experience, free from the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life. In fact, the Grand Canyon is known internationally for having some of the best natural soundscapes in the world.

Since 1980, the National Park Service has recommended that the stretch of the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon be protected as National Wilderness and that all motorized use cease. Sadly, even under the latest plan, the Park Service has ignored its own recommendation (and therefore the laws, regulations and policies which bind the Service) by continuing to allow motors through an area that is eligible for wilderness.

This is our primary objection – the continued use of motors on the river in GCNP. The outcome of our litigation could have wide-ranging impact as to how all wilderness areas in the U.S. are treated and whether motorized use in them is necessary and/or appropriate.

A second issue is regarding access. Prior to the new Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP), the waiting list for non-commercial, public trips down the river stretched up to 20 years. This meant folks really only had two options: pay a commercial concessionaire hundreds or thousands of dollars to take you on a trip (practically whenever you wanted), or get on the waiting list.

Now, for non-commercial public trips, the Park Service has eliminated the waiting list and implemented a lottery. Therefore, folks who have been on the waiting list for years now get into a gamble as to whether they will ever get a permit or face paying concessionaires big money to ride the river.

In addition, the private concessionaires, even under the latest plan, still are awarded the vast majority of the permits in the most popular seasons, only adding to the inequitable access that the general public is given to one of our National Parks.

Our final issue is that the current plan for the Colorado River ignores the impact of the Glen Canyon Dam — a structure that, by all accounts, is having the greatest impact to the environmental life dependent on the river corridor. The operation of the dam not only impacts the entire ecosystem, but likewise impacts recreational use and should have been fully evaluated as part of the recent Management Plan.

With funding from the Rex Foundation, Rock the Earth was able to help form a coalition of wilderness advocate groups (including River Runners for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch, and Living Rivers) to challenge the Park Service’s mismanagement of the Colorado River by suing the NPS in federal court. It is our intent that our suit will not only draw a line in the sand as to how our precious wilderness areas will be managed, but ensure that equitable access to the Colorado River will result and that the Park Service will finally review the deleterious impact that Glen Canyon Dam is having on the entire ecosystem.

RtE: You’re at quite a few shows this summer. How do you choose the shows, or decide which audiences are likely to be a good fit?

RtE: Rock the Earth tries to work with a variety of artists each summer, and diversification is the key.

In some cases, there are artists known worldwide for their environmental activism, with whom we make it a priority to work (like Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt). Other artists are supporters of RtE (like String Cheese Incident and Jack Johnson) and we want to work with them as well. Sometimes, as with Bon Jovi, the band is seeking to educate their fans on environmental issues and seeks us out. Sometimes it is merely a matter of tour routing.

Bonnie Raitt with RtE’s Marc Ross at Bonnaroo 2005.

It really varies from tour to tour, festival to festival. But every summer, we try to have a presence on three to four major tours, as well as working over a dozen festivals throughout the country. While we have worked with over 30 artists in our organization’s history, we have yet to find a band that was a “bad fit.”

Have we had bad nights on tour? Sure. But usually the next night turns out successful, making it more a function of the venue, location, crowd, etc., than the artists themselves.

Rex: How closely do you work with artists, and how does that process work?

RtE: How we work with artists really varies from artist to artist. Some artists suggest environmental issues upon which we should work. Other artists feel strongly that while they don’t have a particular issue about which they care, they are passionate about the environment and want us to have a presence on their tour. Still other artists, instead of working with us at their shows, donate memorabilia, tickets or merchandise to us. It really depends on the artist.

When on an extended tour by a particular artist, we try to cultivate a relationship with artists themselves so that they can feel comfortable suggesting an issue to us. This often takes time (and access), but then again, sometimes when asked, the artist already has an issue that they can relay to us.

Unfortunately, sometimes even though we’re on a tour for a period of weeks or months, we never gain access to the artist to tell them about us and pick their brain.

Rex: Since road trips are obviously a lot of work, what’s the benefit? What can you do at a show that you can’t do elsewhere?

RtE: While it is true that putting a team on tour for 17 weeks a year is a lot of work and can be expensive, Rock the Earth has enjoyed tremendous success with our annual Outreach and Education Summer Tour. We try to mix the tour up with having traveling teams and local volunteers help out as well.

Having a presence at the shows really demonstrates to the public that there’s a partnership between the bands and us. We also take online and mail-in memberships, but those numbers are far below the numbers that we can achieve by having a physical presence on a band’s tour.

In some cases, RtE may be some young people’s first opportunity to meet folks associated with an environmental group, and the ability to turn them on with our message, attract them with our membership premium gifts, and for them to see us being “sponsored” by the bands, cannot be duplicated by simply engaging in a cyberspace campaign.

Further, there’s no way that we, as an organization, could cultivate relationships with the artists themselves without being out on the road with them. By our being on the road, the artists (and their management, friends and families) can witness our work ethic and the interest that we generate with their fanbase.

RtE interns Chandra Ruff and Kathryn Blau with
RtE advisory board member Michael Franti (Smilefest 2006).

Rex: Any stories to relate of interesting connections on the road, cosmic coincidences, new friends in new cities, etc.? Do the performers show up for unscheduled meet-and-greets, etc.?

RtE: We always meet interesting folks on the road. From would-be up-and-coming musical artists, to the band’s management or family, to folks in the “green business” community looking to collaborate with us. No night is ever a dull moment.

Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an “extreme” environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be “foes” will even end up becoming members.

RtE president and executive director Marc Ross (l) with Al Schnier of moe.

Yes, sometimes the performers unexpectedly drop in. In April, we were working the Green Apple Music Festival in NYC, when who should come to our table but Bela Fleck, looking to join RtE and get a long-sleeve T-shirt. Earlier this summer, at Summer Camp (a festival in Chillicothe, Illinois) Al Schnier of moe. was helping out HeadCount at the booth next to ours, when he came over and started pitching RtE to would-be members. I think he even signed up a few. Of course, Al was one of our "celebrity” drop-bys back at High Sierra Music Festival in 2004, when he approached us rather anonymously, inquiring about the group and signing up for our newsletter.

Rex: Who works the booth at shows? What do they do during a typical day at the venue?

RtE: RtE booths are either staffed by our touring team of volunteers/interns or a local team of volunteers. At a typical show, the team engages the audience throughout the show, educating interested patrons about the organization and the important issues upon which we’re working. We also inform visitors about the importance and benefits of membership in the organization and ask folks to become members, or, at the very least, to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter.

When feasible (meaning during slow parts of shows or when we have more than two volunteers working), the volunteers take turns enjoying the show. We will typically stay open until the crowd thins out after a show, as post-show can sometimes be one of our most productive times to gain memberships.

RtE volunteers, including Marc and Barbara Ross,
with Spearhead’s Dave Shul at All Good Festival (2005).

Rex: With no shortage of environmental issues and crises out there, how do you decide where to put your resources? Any successes you’re especially proud of? Failures that are still really hard to take?

RtE: Ideally, the issues are all derived from the music community (though some of the issues upon which we’re working, like the Colorado River Management Plan, pre-date our tax exempt status and public launch of March 2004).

We have a flowchart and matrix through which our Legal & Technical Committee passes all potential project suggestions. The issue needs to be ripe for involvement. In other words, RtE needs to be able to take action on the issue. If, for example, an artist suggests an issue to us because they read about a governmental enforcement action against a polluter, the issue isn’t really one in which we can have an impact.

We also try to work on issues that don’t have the entire environmental community’s involvement (like global warming). There also has to be a reasonable likelihood of success.

Lastly, we will not act as private attorneys for rock stars who want to play the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) game… there actually needs to be some important environmental issue at stake.

In terms of successes, the ability to bring our first lawsuit in only our second year – well ahead of our business plan – is really remarkable. I am especially proud that our challenge to the Colorado River Management Plan could have such a monumental impact throughout the country.

Being such a young organization, our victories (and defeats) are rather few, but I’m also proud of the Bush Administration’s decision to use the Antiquities Act to protect the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as a National Monument. For the past year, we’ve been promoting the issue with funding from Jack Johnson and alongside of our Hawaiian partners, KAHEA, announcing our intention to challenge what we believed was going to be a substandard management plan. Now it will be our job to ensure that the regulations implementing the Monument are as stringent as the Bush proclamation.

As far as hard failures, we thankfully have not really encountered any in terms of environmental issues, although the Park Service continues to ignore our arguments, the evidence and public will to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – an issue that we’ve been fighting for over four years now. Frankly, the hardest “failures” are when artists want to see us at the table on a particular environmental issue and the environmental groups already involved in the issue lock us out of the process.

Rex: Anything else Rex supporters should know about that we haven’t talked about?

RtE: Rock the Earth is approaching a critical point in our organization’s development. We’ve enjoyed success by just about every measure (especially grassroots support, with over 1,100 members strong), but still have yet to get over the funding hump so that we can pay folks to work on RtE full time. Currently, all of our staff (including myself as a full-time executive director) are voluntary, save for a part-time office manager.

While we are looking to expand our paid staff in the coming months to include a part-time development director and a part-time membership director, we are still lacking the funds to take RtE to the next level. Please consider joining RtE and help us to “Defend the Planet, One Beat at a Time.”

On the Road

For both Rock the Earth and the Rex Foundation, outreach at shows is both essential and fun. Rock the Earth’s summer-long tour schedule is a far more ambitious undertaking, involving dozens of volunteers, while Rex outings are fewer and, currently, involve only Peter Kliegman and executive director Sandy Sohcot. But when it comes to the unique opportunities a tour offers to get the word out and build relationships, both organizations tell the same story.

RtE Interns Chandra Ruff at Kathryn Blau at Dave Matthews Band in Pittsburgh (2006).

As RtE’s Marc Ross puts it, “Since the organization was created by and for the music community, what better place to conduct outreach than at concerts and festivals? Not only does it allow us to directly educate the fans and promote the issues about which the particular artist cares, but it’s also a pretty fun place to engage in outreach.”

Sohcot adds, “Being at festivals or similar types of events provides the opportunity to have personal connection time with people who are, by their being at the festival, likely to be interested in our work. Being able to talk a little, tell stories, answer questions, provide information, hand out newsletters and so on gives a more personal face to Rex than what will happen by visiting the Web site. This means people who visit will more likely better understand what we do, and may then want to get involved. It’s also more possible that word will be spread about our work, as the people we see then talk to others about their experience.

"The other advantage of being at a show or festival," she adds, "is the opportunity to establish more in-depth relationships with the event producers and the musicians who participate — again, something more challenging to do by phone or email. This may be the music world’s version of 'playing golf,’" she laughs, "though a lot more grassroots and people-connection oriented."

And you never know who you might meet. Sohcot says, “At the 10,000 Lakes Festival, Rex did not have a booth. However, I spent time wandering around checking out other booths. I stopped at Rock the Earth, having not yet met Marc. Marc looked up and asked if I was familiar with RtE, and I told him I was pleased to say the program was one of our grantees! It was fun to meet that way and see him and his wife in action.”

Rex Board Perspective

It was board member Andy Gadiel who first brought Rock the Earth to Rex’s attention. Says Andy: “I’ve known Rock the Earth for years through their presence at music festivals and live music events. What really drew me into them as a fit for Rex is that they bridge the concert with awareness of issues that are affecting everyone.

“It was a natural fit for the mission of Rex, and when I proposed a grant for them (my first since joining the Rex board), it was great to hear just how obvious a choice they were, and so in line with why Rex was started.

“What’s even more impressive is that the people behind Rock the Earth are educated and trained professionals in the area of legal issues and lobbying, to actually make a difference and see the cause through to action. It’s one thing to have a great idea, but a whole different level to actually be able to make it happen.”

RtE’s Marc Ross (l) with Bela Fleck.

“By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion dollar music industry, it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.”
– Marc Ross

“Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an ‘extreme’ environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be ‘foes’ will even end up becoming members.”
– Marc Ross

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