Bruce Taylor began the first day of class by asking his nine students why they were given their first names. “I was named Joy,” responded one student, “because my daddy said I brought joy into his life.” After two beats of respectful silence, a single giggle escaped from someone’s mouth. The class erupted in laughter. Without pausing to join in, Taylor moved on to the next student.
“My grandma and my mom named me Ashley because they didn’t want stereotypes thrown upon the family,” answered another student. “Instead of being called a black name, they chose a common name so that unless I told someone my race no one would know.” This time no one laughed. Instead, a few hands crept toward the book lying on everyone’s desk–Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Taylor was unfazed, and moved on to the next student. Ashley’s response was exactly what he was looking for.
The students all came from King College Prep in Kenwood, one of Chicago Public Schools’ selective-enrollment high schools. They had come to Taylor’s class on the University of Chicago campus to participate in an enrichment program called Living Bookshelf. The program, created by Taylor, attempts to push student engagement with the arts beyond plot quizzes and book reports. In preparation for their first session, the class attended Court Theatre’s production of the “Invisible Man”–the novel’s first theatrical adaptation.
The students will attend a total of four two-hour sessions of discussion and collaboration in Taylor’s classroom. By the end of the program, they will have produced their own creative response to Ellison’s novel–a two-scene musical theatre piece exploring the identities of two secondary characters. Mary Ann Ivan, a veteran of Broadway musical pits, will be flown in to compose music to accompany the lyrics the students write. Taylor will then hire professional actors and singers to perform the scenes on stage at Court Theatre as part of the Hyde Park Bank High School Performance Festival on February 24. But before lyrics can be paired with notes, the students have to do some work.
While Ashley’s response quieted the room, Taylor was just beginning to warm up. At age 65, Taylor is a spry man. He has a mess of grey hair and a full mustache. He speaks with the intonation and cadence of someone used to an audience. As his students sat along narrow tables that formed a hollow rectangle, Taylor ran about in the middle. He never waited for his students to raise their hands. Instead, he would rush up to whoever hadn’t spoken in awhile. He would lean across the table, look them in eye, and ask, “What do you think?” If they took too long, he would reach across and poke the student gently in the head. Their stunned expressions and indignation didn’t change the fact that Taylor’s enthusiasm was infectious.
Taylor’s first question was intentionally pointed–the history of one’s family and culture are often expressed in one’s name. Taylor’s class contains nine African Americans from the South Side, and he was seeking an emotional avenue into Ellison’s text, a classic of American literature that explores the migration of blacks away from the south during the turbulent inter-war years.
After Ashley’s remark, everyone could make out the connection between their own lives and the novel. But how clearly did they see it? While Taylor allowed the power of Ashley’s words to linger in the classroom, he is still, like many great educators, a bit of a bully. Taylor began to drill his students on the basics.
“Our understanding must begin with context,” Taylor declared. “What is the context of this work?”
“Racism. Those were racist times,” said one student, half as an answer and half as a question.
“Correct, but tell me more,” Taylor pressed. “Tell me specifically. Jim Crow laws have a lot to do with the context of this work. Now, which Jim Crow laws offend you the most, and which offend you the least?”
Taylor marched around the room, passing from student to student. They all had the chance to demonstrate their opinions, with Taylor supplementing their knowledge of history along the way. In this manner, the students not only strengthened their understanding of the text, but also the connection between Ellison’s reality and the South Side today.
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Taylor has a long history with theatres. In the mid-1970s, Taylor was the production stage manager for the Seattle Opera. Under the Carter administration, federal money became available to arts organizations that were willing to bring their programming to public school students. This is where Taylor got his start as an arts educator. To prepare students to experience opera–never an easy task–Taylor was sent to prep classes on what to expect before arriving at the theatre. According to Taylor, “I had done almost everything anyone can do in a theatre, but I found I really enjoyed [teaching] and that I did it well.”
From this beginning, Taylor conceived of a post-viewing session to help students refine their understandings of the performances and to discuss their reactions. But Taylor believed arts education shouldn’t simply work to increase a student’s ability to appreciate something. He wanted his students to love art with the same intensity he possessed, but he also wanted them to get a job so that they could continue to appreciate the arts. As a result, Taylor decided that he wanted to “get kids to use in their own lives what we in the arts use in our profession.”
The seed of Living Bookshelf was planted, but Taylor still needed inspiration. During this time, Taylor came across the Foxfire Magazine. Created in 1966, Foxfire is one of the most prominent examples of 1960s experiential education.
Based out of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private high school in Georgia, Foxfire was a student-produced publication that documented the history of the declining Appalachian culture. A collection of the articles was published as a book in 1972, later becoming a national bestseller.
“After reading the Foxfire book,” says Taylor, “I asked myself, why couldn’t kids do that in the arts?” As a result, Taylor began a program entitled “Creating Original Opera.” As in Living Bookshelf, students were tasked with not only understanding a work–in this case, an opera–but also producing an artistic response to be performed. According to Taylor, “Creating Original Opera” was conducted in over 1,000 schools across twelve countries.
But “Creating Original Opera” was always seen as a supplement to his students’ education. While Taylor may wish otherwise, operas never play a central role in primary education. In today’s world, the reaching of national standards in the language arts and mathematics controls school funding. Taylor had to adapt.
“Common Core State Standards dominate primary education. They have been adopted by 46 states. And so I looked at the Common Core requirements, and I thought that I could slightly modify what I do to meet these new requirements,” says Taylor. Living Bookshelf is Taylor’s attempt to meet state education requirements through the arts.
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Taylor recently left the East Coast for Chicago because his wife found a new job. “She makes way more money than I do, so I had to move with her,” he says. “I moved here without a job. I still don’t have a job, but arts education is what I do, so I don’t care if I get paid to do it or not. I like to think that I am my wife’s contribution to the arts.”
Once in Chicago, Taylor got in touch with William Michel, executive director of the UofC’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Taylor’s current incarnation of Living Bookshelf is being offered through the UofC’s Arts and Public Life Initiative. Taylor had no plans to work with “Invisible Man,” but took advantage of Court Theatre’s production. According to Dara Epison, program coordinator of University and Community Arts Collaborations, “The fact that the students chosen to work with him would have the opportunity to perform their work on Court’s stage with professional actors was simply a result of the stars aligning properly and Court being incredibly supportive.”
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By the end of the first session, the students had had no problem identifying the two characters from “Invisible Man” that they wanted to explore. Selecting the character of Ras, who is loosely based on the Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, was especially easy. The students were intrigued by the man they interpreted as vengeful, strong-willed, and determined.
In between the end of class and the second session, held last Saturday, the students were tasked with creating a biography for Ras that explained his traits. Whether the result of Taylor’s careful prodding or not, imagination was in strong supply.
“Ras witnessed the murder of his family,” said one student, serious and soft.
“Yeah, his father was betrayed by a white guy involved in the Brotherhood,” whispered another.
As they traced out the source of his anger, Ras’s identity came into focus. He was a poet, and a few years had passed since the time of “Invisible Man.” Ras was now a participant in the Harlem Renaissance–another context for the students to explore.
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Most classrooms don’t work this way. Often, mastering the plot is what matters. It demonstrates a student’s ability to grasp and recall information, as that line of thinking goes. But while Taylor has adapted his project to state requirements, he believes foremost in protecting his students’ futures.
“Plenty of people have iPhones or iPads–if you want to know something, you just look it up,” he notes. “The students of today, if they want to succeed, need to learn how to think and create. They will be paid to be creative. The thing we have to prove, and I want to demonstrate with these kids, is that artists can contribute to student achievement. But we’re not going to succeed by having kids just act, sing, and dance. We have to have them get creative in a way they can apply to an academic subject.”
By leading his students through lyric writing, Taylor hopes to grant his students a command of metaphor–something required for state tests and successful communication. Placing these lyrics atop a melody will be no easy task, but the students still have a few more weeks to prepare. In the end, Taylor’s class will have created something new. This ability–creativity–is at the heart of Taylor’s mission.
“Because of the tests, teachers don’t ask students what they think, they ask what do you know, which isn’t so important. When you ask younger kids what do you think, they freeze. But the jobs out there today are conceptual and creative. The arts can help them think and create.”