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May 22, 2014 marks the start of the CSO’s Truth to Power Festival, a three-week spring event that celebrates the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. Beyond the concert programming, the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training has facilitated a related educational program for schools in Chicago. Alex Haley Elementary Academy, Walt Disney Magnet, and Swift Elementary were the three schools selected to participate in the program, which featured arts-integrated curriculum workshops for teachers at each school, as well as visits to participating classrooms by Citizen Musician Fellows of the CSO’s Civic Orchestra.

Over the course of the season, teachers at each school developed curricula that focused on the work and actions of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten – composers who embody such an important aspect of citizen musicianship: when face with adversity, they used their art to bring together and give voice to their communities.

It was a busy day at Walt Disney Magnet School. In most schools, the end of May signifies the end of the academic year, and preparations for end-of-year tests are in full swing. Final projects are being turned in, and students are starting to plan for summer vacation. But the students participating in this spring’s Truth to Power Festival experienced a bit more excitement than usual.

An assembly room filled with more than three hundred sixth and eighth grade students gathered at Walt Disney Magnet School to share and support each other’s work – ranging from spoken word poetry coupled with original artwork, to silent films with original soundtracks. Each of these projects was inspired by the message behind Truth to Power: artists have the responsibility – and are able to respond in a far-reaching way – to use their skills to respond to current events and unique needs in their communities. Throughout the school year, these students were able to explore how to make connections between music and social justice issues throughout history – such as civil rights, bullying and gang violence – and connected this experience with the lives and work of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten, the three composers whose work is being featured in the Truth to Power Festival.

While learning about these composers and their historical impact was a vital component of this collaboration, perhaps the most important part was the push for each student to use music or art to express their emotions, and to react to social injustices happening today. Each student was successful, and in the assembly room and the makeshift art gallery, they shared very personal compositions, poetry and art work with their peers – both from their own classrooms, and with the other schools. As each project was shared, respect and excitement permeated the air – one student shared an original piece of artwork – faces of celebrities and models from magazines cut out and pasted to ships in the ocean, with a stamp above them reading “sold,” to raise awareness for human trafficking. Another performed a spoken word poem, “No more violence, no more violence,” pleading that “everybody should just do what’s right.” The excited applause that followed indicates that the students in the room agreed.

Before the students shared their projects with each other, they shared their dreams. As a prelude to the assembly, the Citizen Musician Fellows led the students in a composition workshop. They first spent time introducing their instruments, and performing a string quartet written by one of the Fellows, cellist Genevieve Guimond. Then the focus shifted to the students in the audience: the Fellows wanted to know about each student’s aspirations. Answers ranged from: an urban developer in outer space, an engineer, a surgeon, an author, a drummer. After receiving such a variety of answers, the Fellows prompted the students: “Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something?” Agreement filled the hall, with students nodding their heads. The Fellows stressed that even when feeling discouraged and oppressed, the students should persevere and continue to follow their dreams – using Prokofiev, Britten, and Shostakovich as an example. Then, using snippets of compositions by the three composers, the Fellows facilitated a group composition – students helped decide when and how to use the excerpts, to describe the passion of their dreams, their discouragement when being told “no,” and their persistence to achieve their goals. The final piece, when it was performed at the assembly, also included a guest appearance by Yo-Yo Ma.

While the Fellows and students were composing, participating teachers at each school were celebrating the work that their students created during the Festival, in a discussion facilitated by staff from the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training. The teachers were prompted to recount the successes of the program, and how the project was meaningful to them and their students. Sandi Lerner, a social studies teacher from Swift Elementary described the way her students were starting to “think outside of themselves, and outward to the world. This program helps students discover new tools to express themselves and find ways to respond to social injustices, in their own voice.” Agreement from the other teachers rang up around the table, and Tim Vail, a visual art teacher at Alex Haley Elementary Academy, expressed his desire to do a similar collaborative project again. “We need to do this again. It was valuable to our teachers and to our students. The Truth to Power unit provided us with a vehicle to talk about issues that affect us all.”

Also in attendance at the meeting was CSO Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma, who voiced his support of the educational program tied to Truth to Power, and encouraged the teachers to describe how their students are personally impacted by social injustices. Their response? A strong majority of students from each of the schools have been directly affected by violence, bullying, poverty, and a multitude of other social injustices. But the work that these students produced throughout the program helped them to become more uninhibited, and to express themselves in a safe environment with music and art as a tool for expression. Kim Varner, a visual arts teacher at Walt Disney Magnet School states: “The Truth to Power Educational Program delivered a true depth of learning for our students. It has been inspiring to see and hear their responses to this music and issues that impact them in their own lives.”

At the close of the assembly, as teachers and students alike celebrated and explored the work of students at each school, the purpose behind this program was realized: using music and art as a form of self-expression can empower students, and create community.