"Now you can take this book and share it with anyone you want in the whole world." Children in New York City’s PS 380 wrote story books as part of Elana Haviv ’94’s Children’s Movement for Creative Education.


Elana Haviv ’94 is transforming New York City’s public schools.

By Alicia Bessette

If you took a trip through your body, what would your heart show you? Dain, age 10, answered: "As I saw my blood-pumping heart it was like a cheetah fast and swift. I went inside my heart, it was like an ant farm, hard workers sending blood back and forth. The energy was tuff. ..."

It is responses like this that keep Elana Haviv ’94 teaching and fundraising 12 to 14 hours a day, as she has for the past six years.

Haviv is the founding director of Children’s Movement for Creative Education (CMCE), a non-profit organization that improves the academic experiences of disadvantaged children through creative teaching. CMCE instructors visit classrooms for an hour and a half each week, staying with the same class for two to four years. They collaborate with classroom teachers, altering the curriculum so that students relate more effectively to it while fulfilling state and district requirements. Thus students learn history through painting, spelling through poetry, nutrition through dance, geometry through architecture. By answering provocative questions and making books, art, videos or model cities, children take an active role in their own education. "We allow them to take risks and find new success in their learning processes," says Haviv.

Teachers benefit too. Their energy becomes more focused; they engage students more meaningfully. That is CMCE’s mission: to build a healthier, more diverse and more vital society by breaking down cultural and personal barriers in the classroom and throughout the community.

A Bryn Mawr story
Haviv says her own early education lacked such vision: "I grew up in a system that classified creative activities such as music, drama, dance and sports as extra-curricular—literally outside the realm of traditional academic subjects. This system also disregarded the role of self-expression in the learning process." Only at Bryn Mawr did she receive "encouragement of individual vision and support of student initiative." Accordingly, she calls hers "a Bryn Mawr story."

A sociology and anthropology major, Haviv didn’t expect to be teaching during her last two semesters. But she took a year off from classes and wrote an elementary school curricula that encompassed the arts and embraced the thoughts and ideas of students. teaching methods do not recognize thoughts and opinions as important and from a very young age prevent us from developing self-confidence and a sense of self-worth," she explains.

Returning for her senior year, Haviv approached teachers at G. W. Childs School in South Philadelphia for their cooperation in running an experimental pull-out program, when students are taken out of their normal classrooms a few afternoons a week. Implementing Haviv’s curricula, that program became the precursor to CMCE. At first, teachers at the school selected only bright, well-behaved students to participate in Haviv’s experiment. But she requested a group with varied academic success and behaviors. She was not surprised when teachers reported immediate transformations in many students—their attitudes grew positive, their grades improved, and they participated more in classroom activities.

Typically, Haviv’s first teaching experience taught her many things. "I saw that children are full of powerful physical energy that works against them when it is confined and repressed but helps focus and activate them when channeled into learning," she says. "I learned that there is a door to learning for every child—for some through the eyes, for some through the ears, and for others through the body itself."

Haviv also discovered that small changes in perspective can make a world of difference for a child. One girl who had not spoken in school for six weeks and was about to be moved to the special education class finally uttered a few words during Haviv’s program. Haviv asked her what prompted her to speak: "Because we sat in a circle," was the child’s reply.

After graduation, Haviv moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. But only three weeks passed before she realized "there was something missing." Like many Bryn Mawr graduates she felt compelled to make a direct, positive impact on society. Thinking a traditional teaching career would inhibit her untraditional ways, she lunged headlong into Children’s Movement for Creative Expression, making her senior thesis a full-time job. She eventually would change the name to Children’s Movement for Creative Education, clarifying CMCE’s commitment to academic instruction, pedagogical reform and creative teaching and learning techniques.

Children trace each other with bright markers, then write I Am/I Can statements inside. "Bragging is allowed and the more boastful, the better," says Haviv. "When ‘normal’ life resumes, the students get to tuck all the marvelous things they saw and felt into themselves and hold onto the feelings of being free and powerful."

Moving, meditating is learning

Haviv starts each CMCE session with movement exercises, which release physical tension and allow students to " ‘think with their bodies,’ absorbing mental concepts physically." In the atom dance, students make up the precise number of neutrons, protons, electrons and outer rings in a hydrogen, carbon or oxygen atom. "By ‘dancing’ the atoms, students learn about atomic structure and physically experience charge and mass," says Haviv.

Then comes "centering," a meditation as students close their eyes or rest their heads on their desks. "I create an atmosphere in which students can concentrate on their own thoughts and ideas about the material being studied. It’s a period of mental and emotional privacy in the classroom where they can consider what they think and experience images and feelings connected to the subject matter." During the I Am/I Can lesson, Haviv asks students to think about what they have "always wanted to do or be, things they have always thought were wonderful, but out of reach."

After centering, students write about the subject freely for 10 minutes. "At this point, their minds are clear and distractions are at a minimum," she says. "The writing is ‘free’ in the sense that students are encouraged to use their imaginations, follow their instincts, incorporate ideas that came up during centering, and involve their hearts as well as their minds." The kind of writing varies. During a lesson on similes and metaphors, students write poems likening themselves to other things and beings. During a lesson on the life cycle of plants, the writing takes the form of a dialogue between a flower and a bee. When learning fractions, students create a series of pictures that demonstrate a "whole" of their choosing—a family, an orange, an abstract shape—separating into its parts, then rejoining into one piece.

Haviv brings the community into the classroom whenever possible. Recently, fourth-grade students studying their individual family heritage outlined the history of immigration in New York City from the early 17th century to the present. Each student interviewed a parent or grandparent, focusing their questions on childhood and culture. Some students were videotaped as they pretended to be their "interview-ees" and told their stories, while others acted as the production crew, holding the microphone and operating the camera. The students shared their videos with each other and put together a multi-media presentation at the school including their videos, writings and collages about their heritage.

In another community-based lesson, Holocaust survivors visited a sixth-grade classroom studying World War II to share their experiences during the Holocaust. Their visit paralled the students’ study of current events in Bosnia. Haviv read from Anne Frank’s diary and the more recent best-seller, Zlata’s Diary, by Bosnian teenager Zlata Filipovic. "It’s too late to save the children who lived during World War II," Haviv told them. "But we can learn about what happened to them and use what we learn to help other children today." She asked them to meditate on moments in their lives when they needed help and on the colors and shapes that formed in their minds. Then, wielding crayons and markers, the students created art to send to a Bosnian orphanage. Many images were of gentle animals and lush greenery. Weeks later an unexpected package arrived in the classroom, postmarked in Bosnia. The orphans had returned the gesture, enclosing letters, photographs and artwork of their own.

CMCE also sponsors weekend events to involve the community. "Creativity Saturdays" are workshops where students, teachers and families take part in creative learning projects and dialogue about common education concerns.

Haviv says CMCE "slowly but surely" is becoming self-sufficient. "At first I was very naive, thinking that after a few months of hard work, the money would just fall into place. That was a harsh lesson. I was of course not financially supported right away, and Ireally went through the trenches, learning how to manage money and staff." Now teaching two- to four-year programs in four schools, CMCE is funded by grants organizations such as the Threshold Foundation and the New York City Board of Education. Private contributors additionally support its annual budget of $200,000.

CMCE recently has launched a new campaign: teaching manuals that detail its methods and curricula, supported by an interactive website for teachers who independently are implementing those methods and curricula in their classrooms. "CMCE’s future growth will be best realized not by expanding to an ever-larger number of schools," says Haviv, "but rather by making our programs accessible to an increasing number of educators." For example, classroom teachers will have their standard fifth-grade math books, but also a supplemental CMCE fifth-grade math book that covers the same topics using creative lesson plans.

CMCE has nine part-time instructors including Kate Chumley ’94. They started out as volunteers until CMCE began receiving donations. Haviv always assigns two instructors to every classroom. "They can support each other, and their different backgrounds combine into a unique perspective for the students." She says patience, enthusiasm, people skills, passion and a commitment to creative education are essential qualities in a CMCE instructor.

In addition, a part-time assistant recently joined CMCE to handle administrative duties from its office in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan—allowing Haviv to "focus on the fun stuff": teaching.

Elana Haviv in 1996, with the first class to complete the two-year program.

support from the mawrter side
Alicia Walker ’94 was Haviv’s senior-year roommate and has been involved with CMCE since the beginning, when she accompanied Haviv to G.W. Childs School. Now she is CMCE’s primary grant- and copywriter, producing brochures and a regular newsletter while pursuing a Ph.D. in Byzantine art history from Harvard.

"CMCE fulfills a special need," says Walker. "It gives teachers a way of making their time and energies more effective by turning academics into something that’s fun for kids, that’s not just memorization but really relates to how they feel, how they think and express themselves and how they have fun. The teachers who are most committed to the program have been able to take the lessons that CMCE instructors develop and make them work for themselves. They become independently able to engage kids in this way. That’s the ultimate goal.

"CMCE changes the way children relate to their studies. You’ll have these 8- and 9-year-olds before class talking about their feelings. That’s a remarkable step forward in elementary education, to have kids so engaged with themselves and their perspective that they can motivate themselves to become productive learners."

She, too, views CMCE as "largely a product of our Bryn Mawr education," allowing her to address the social concerns she developed as an undergraduate. "I received encouragement from my professors to mix my love for art history with my interest in childrenart education." She calls her work with CMCE "a great way to stay in touch with issues of education, particularly with children, who have always been very important to me."

Walker adds, "Elana has taken risks that most people just wouldn’t take. She has risked all her personal time and what little financial resources she has. She has such a bone-deep dedication to this. That’s extremely rare."

For more information contact CMCE at 427 West 45th Street, Suite 2FE, New York, NY 10036 or at (212) 664-1014 or visit the CMCE website.

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