People Who Make NY Special

Professional Artists in Public Schools? This Woman Makes It Happen

At ArtsConnection, Rachel Watts introduces artists and performers to NYC students. And learning comes alive.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Watts/Arts Connection

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Public school kids get a hands-on arts education from professional artists and the professional artists get to earn a living wage. The matchmaker behind these harmonious unions? Rachel Watts, director of programs for the not-for-profit arts education organization ArtsConnection.

Thanks to Watts, students at more than 120 New York City schools who might otherwise not be able to afford an arts curriculum have access to theater, music, painting, and other creative programs—all taught by dynamic visual artists and performers who want to share their passion.

We spoke with Rachel about her own education in Trinidad and the impact of art and play in school.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Watts/Arts Connection

What Should We Do?!: Which schools does ArtsConnection currently work with?
Rachel Watts: Far too many to cover all of them here. We have been at PS 130 and PS 38 in Brooklyn pretty much since ArtsConnection’s founding. In both schools, the programming has changed over the years, but the commitment to arts education has remained constant. At PS 130, above and beyond our music, dance, and family programming, we have built a sequential pre-K to fifth grade puppetry program. That school has a lot of ESL students, and the puppet persona they create can help make communicating in English a little less scary. For PS 38, we provide a steel drum program in the upper elementary grades, and they tell us that a highlight of the school year is their performance for families and community. I was raised in Trinidad and Tobago, and seeing a Trini instrument used successfully as a tool to enrich the NYC public school experience makes me proud.

WSWD: You must experience a lot of proud moments!
Watts: I do. Another aspect of the organization that I am personally very passionate about, but is lesser known, is our teen programs. They’re multifaceted after-school programs that help coordinate teen access to arts and cultural institutions across the city. Many of New York’s most important art centers are unfortunately either financially or psychologically inaccessible to many NYC public school students, so we aim to bridge that gap. Whether it’s by taking advantage of our High 5 Tickets for events and museum passes, exhibiting student artwork, or participating in our Teen Reviewers and Critics Program, ArtsConnection is engaging teens to experience art in a personal and meaningful way that we hope will enrich their lives for years to come.

I wasn’t a very good student. Trinidad, like other countries colonized by England, followed the old British system of education. It was often counterintuitive.

WSWD: Did you have an “aha moment” that brought you to this field?
Watts: I wasn’t a very good student. Trinidad, like other countries colonized by England, followed the old British system of education. It was often counterintuitive; we would learn about pine trees and snow instead of palm trees and beaches. Nevertheless, in my final year of secondary school, I developed a passion for reading, writing, and formulating my own ideas. I was writing a research paper for an art class and decided to write about Trinidadian art at a time when there were no books available to research the topic. I had to step out into the real world and find people to interview and artwork on which to reflect. The resulting project focused on three women artists in Trinidad: Sybil Atteck, Pat Bishop, and Irenee Shaw. Through that process, I found myself actively engaged in my education in a way that I had never before experienced. I was no longer an average student. I was a curious researcher and I wanted to know more. The memory of that experience informs how I work with institutions and school systems today.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Watts/Arts Connection

 WSWD: You work with an impressive array of performers who moonlight as teaching artists. Any we might know of?
Watts: Yes! Our teaching artist, Jojo Gonzalez, just finished a run at the Public Theater in Mlima’s Tale, while simultaneously leading creative dramatics residencies for early elementary grades in multiple schools. From the minute Jojo walks into a classroom, he taps into students’ imaginations and gives them the tools to create the most amazing and honest theater. It is a pleasure to watch him work.

WSWD: Do you have an artistic hobby yourself?
Watts: I studied dance and movement all through high school and college; my area of emphasis is in modern and West African dance. I went to college with the intention of majoring in visual art, but I felt a real calling to education. These days, I say that my current practicing art is “facilitation.”

He taps into students’ imaginations and gives them the tools to create the most amazing and honest theater. It is a pleasure to watch him work.

WSWD: If you could make one change to public schooling on the federal level, what would it be?
Watts: Based on my observations on what challenges schools most, I would call for a reexamination of the focus on summative assessment.

WSWD: Translation?
Watts: Less high-stakes testing! And incorporate at least two hours a day of play for pre-K all the way up to 12th grade. When you look at the play of young children, you see them using found objects and their own imagination to create complex games, rules, and outcomes…all skills that many teens seem to lose as they grow older. Children at play ask questions, investigate answers, take risks, and learn from their mistakes. This kind of cognitive processing is a vital component of being literate and needs to be sustained and strengthened far beyond where it currently is. Teachers should be allowed to spend less time preparing students for standardized tests and instead create opportunities for students to play on their own, with each other, and in project-based activities.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Watts/Arts Connection

WSWD: What would that look like? I have a hard time believing you could get a high school senior to play make-believe.
Watts: I bet they would surprise you. Pragmatically, projects could include exploring the natural world, experiencing different cultures’ arts and traditions, and focusing on problem-solving the issues that affect us at home and around the world. That sort of change would democratize the process of access to literacy that has traditionally marginalized nonwhite and less privileged people in America. Students would gain a dramatically greater sense of ownership of their learning, deepen their motivation to continue building their knowledge, and define personally pertinent ways to actively engage with the world.

When you look at the play of young children, you see them using found objects and their own imagination to create complex games, rules, and outcomes…all skills that many teens seem to lose as they grow older.

WSWD: If you had 24 hours to yourself in the city, how would you use them?
Watts: One of the free programs for teens we provide in the summer at ArtsConnection is called Map Free City. It takes participants to all five boroughs to experience a diversity of performances and visual art. I generally try to do that myself on a regular basis. I would love to successfully complete a five-borough arts and culture challenge in a day. One of my most recent challenges has been to walk the full length of Broadway from Inwood to Battery Park. I love finding ways to create new experiences in the city; the possibilities are endless.

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