Alan Steckler can claim a unique perspective on education, having worked as a teacher in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom. In his view, the American kids could learn a few things from their counterparts across the Atlantic.
“When I came back from teaching in England” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “I found the middle school students I was working with in the states were very insular in their views of the world,” he said. “They kind of stuck with their own culture and didn’t know or care much about the world. Having come from England, where kids were much more globally minded, I thought that was not quite right and something was needed to awaken the young people to the world around them.”
That something was the launch of Creative Connections, a Norwalk-based cultural education nonprofit that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Now operating in 26 states, Creative Connections pairs public-school and private-school students in the third through 12th grades with their counterparts in more than 30 countries in a program called ArtLink that enables students to share their ways of life through the exchange of original artwork and observations.
Creative Connections offers a nine-month curriculum. U.S. schools are charged between $695 to $895 per class for the semester, while foreign schools pay no exchange fee. After an introductory period in the first month that establishes the partnership between the U.S. schools and their global counterparts, the second and third months involve the students creating original visual art that reflects their local cultural heritage and social values. During the fourth month, all of the art is forwarded to Creative Connections’ office for processing, with a selected jury identifying work for an annual international children’s art exhibit. In the fifth month, the U.S. students and the foreign counterparts examine and consider their partner class’ art, while the remaining months include a live videoconference that connects the classes for a one-hour conversation and display of the shared artworks.
“They share a curriculum and the idea is to start with a very simple question: ‘What is culture?’” said Polly Loughran, Creative Connections program director. “Then, they start a conversation and ask each other, ‘What is your culture? What are values? What do you value about your culture?’ And then move that to an artistic representation. It is not about the quality of the art, it is about the thought behind the art.”
The use of art to encourage an international conversation has not been without its challenges. Shortly after Steckler launched Creative Connections in 1992, one of the early participating U.S. classrooms decided to create a paper mâché version of the Statue of Liberty that stood roughly four feet high. While Steckler was impressed with the students’ artistic talents, there was a problem when it came to sharing it with their overseas counterparts.
“It cost us $300 or $400 to ship, so we realized that’s not the best model,” he said. Today’s classes create flat paintings and drawings that can be easily sent for minimal postage.
Steckler also learned the hard way that an “artifact box” containing elements of local cultures was a great concept, but only if it was a nonperishable item delivered in a timely manner. A Cape Cod school’s decision to share a lobster packed in dry ice with students at an Inuit school in northern Canada backfired when the Canadian airport was closed for weeks due to the Arctic winter. “When it finally arrived, the lobster was totally unrecognizable at that point,” Steckler said with a laugh.
The videoconference aspect of the program — which Creative Connections introduced in the 1990s with the now-extinct Luma Telecom Video Telephone that offered real-time visual black-and-white snapshots over a phone line — creates a distinctive bond between the partner classes, particularly when the students see their artwork being held up by their overseas counterparts.
“When a student in Uganda is holding a picture from a student in New York City and the New York kids are thinking, that is the art that I created three months ago, it is incredibly exciting,” said Loughran. “And vice versa. That is where one of the first barriers start to fall: they are not only connected, but they are not that different.”
Creative Connections also hosts foreign music and dance troupes for performances at schools in the tristate area. This year, India’s youth dance ensemble Thanranginee! offered both shows and classroom workshops at 15 schools.
Loughran said many American students have expressed surprise at how young people overseas enjoy different freedoms, such as walking to school rather than waiting for scheduled bus rides. On the flip side, some aspects of U.S. life confuse foreign students.
“Students here want to be a football player or a rock star,” she said. “But in India, they want to be a doctor and an engineer, and they ask American students: ‘Why do you just want to be famous? Why do you just want to do sports or music as your career?’ And that starts an interesting exchange. It’s not just learning about another culture. The students learn so much about themselves. It gives them a time to reflect and think through.”