In Carl Sandburg’s poem Skyscraper, men and women pour in and out of an office building all day, endowing the skyscraper with “a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.” At first glance, the poem, set in urban, early 20th-century Chicago, may seem far removed from Caramoor’s bucolic setting and Renaissance-inspired architecture. Yet for a class of sixth-graders in a Yonkers elementary school, the poem—when paired with a field trip to the Rosen House—creates a connection that helps them see the world in a new way.
The students and their teacher, Ilene Dillon, participate in Caramoor’s Arts-in-Education programs, a popular initiative that provides enrichment opportunities for approximately 5,000 Westchester and New York City school children. The programs, begun in 1986 and funded through a combination of government and foundation grants and private donations, feature various interdisciplinary units that take advantage of Caramoor’s extraordinary facilities and resources to enhance the New York State curriculum.
Ms. Dillon, who has been teaching for 22 years, credits Caramoor with bolstering her curriculum and adding a new dimension to her students’ learning. “Without the Caramoor program I would never read a poem like Skyscraper to sixth-graders; it would be way over their heads,” Ms. Dillon explained. “But when we read the poem in connection with Caramoor, they understand it. The poem is about the people who make the building. When we visit the Rosen House, we ask, who are these people? How did they make this house? What did they do in this house?”
Caramoor’s What’s in a House? program, like the Sandburg poem, focuses on the people within the house, using Walter and Lucie Rosen’s extraordinary art collection as a springboard to explore key concepts in art, social studies, math, and language arts. When students enter the Music Room, for example, they immediately notice the massive coffered ceiling and recognize the pattern as an example of tessellation, which they are studying in their math class. During a horticulture workshop in the Diane C. Moss Education Center they learn about the use of herbs in colonial America. In yet another program, A Day in the Renaissance, they learn about commedia dell'arte. Caramoor’s Chinese Arts and Culture program exposes them to traditional Chinese music played on Chinese musical instruments, brush painting and calligraphy as well as a tea ceremony.
The programs incorporate all areas of Caramoor: the Diane C. Moss Education Center, the Rosen House and collection; the gardens, grounds, and greenhouse; and the staff, artists, and volunteers.
To prepare for the What’s in a House? visit, Caramoor’s Education Program Coordinator Scott Ellison sends teachers a package of background material and discusses curricular options with them. Two local architects, Bruce Levy and Leigh Overland, visit participating classrooms in advance to discuss architectural concepts with the students.
Once they arrive at Caramoor, the students are immersed in the arts; each of the three programs features music and includes participatory aspects, such as drawing, model building, dancing, or acting. “A lot of the kids learn something about themselves when they come here,” says Mr. Ellison, who in addition to managing Caramoor’s Artsin-Education programs, is a professional artist. “During the drawing workshop, I tell the kids not to worry if they think they can’t draw. It’s not about the drawing as much as it’s about having their own time to sit quietly, listen and observe.” During the drawing workshop, students spread out on the floor and in chairs in the Music Room, each with a blank piece of paper, and choose an art object to draw. At first, they fidget and chatter, filled with anticipatory excitement. One by one they quiet down and begin drawing as Marco Granados or another Caramoor musician plays. For 45 minutes they sit still, entranced by the atmosphere, absorbed in their work.
The music workshop—which involves a group of students improvising a short composition—is likewise transformative, Mr. Ellison says. “Many of the children have never played a musical instrument. I’ve seen a few shy kids really come out of their shell once they begin playing on stage. They may learn that they have amazing rhythm. They learn about percussion and melody; they learn how to observe and describe art.”
The programs’ emphasis on art and music is especially appealing to teachers given recent budget cuts in many of the participating public schools. At Kahlil Gibran Elementary School, where Ms. Dillon teaches, students have only one half-hour session in art and in music each week. The Caramoor drawing session is especially important, she says, because it reinforces students’ observational skills, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and more.
“With all the videos and movies they’re exposed to, my kids never get any down time within themselves. This gives it to them and they enjoy it. They never want to leave when it’s over,” she says. “And when we get back, they keep talking about it! They wanted Marco’s CDs, so now, when they’re copying or doing group work, we always have Marco’s music playing in the background, and I can build on what he taught us. We talk about what instrument he’s playing, what country he’s from. Sure, I can put on Yanni, but it won’t be the same. They’ve met Marco. They know Marco. They’ve made a connection with Marco.”
As Lourdes Ortiz, a sixth grader at Casimir Pulaski Middle School in Yonkers, NY, explained, “I’ve never heard music that was so nice and elegant. I think that the music and the art were the best I’ve ever seen and heard. There was really elegant, beautiful music that you wouldn’t hear on the radio. It was the music from the Renaissance.”
Her teacher, Shaji Thomas, makes a point of integrating music in his classroom, noting that for most students, exposure to music is limited to rap. The only students who take music class in his school are those who join the band, perhaps 10 to 12 out of Casimir Pulaski’s 60 sixth graders.
“I make music a big part of what I teach,” says Mr. Thomas. “I always play music from the time period or civilization I teach. I try to play many different genres of music, and I look for different artists from the time period that children can connect to. As we listen we can isolate the instrument, pull it up online, see what it looks like, talk about why they used the instrument based on the natural resources they had available during that time. Sometimes when other teachers come into my classroom, they say ‘wow, this does not feel like a classroom,’ and I say, ‘well it shouldn’t feel like a classroom. It should feel like the time period we’re studying.’ Classrooms are boring! I don’t want to be in the classroom. I want to be in the place I’m studying.”
At Caramoor, if only for a day or two, 5,000 lucky students get a chance to be in the place they’re studying.