Author Archives: Santina Protopapa

15 Years of Dreaming and Convening

Me and the cool kids: With the PAA All Stars following the 10th annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp in 2011.

Me and the cool kids: With the PAA All Stars, some of the “Grandmasters,” following the 10th annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp in 2011.

By: Santina Protopapa, PAA Founder 

Since I was six years old, I’ve been finding ways to make my crazy ideas a reality. My parents were the first people to help make things I dreamt up come to life. Later, it was my teachers in school and then it was Bob Santelli, my first boss and mentor who helped launch my career in arts education.

Progressive Arts Alliance is by far the biggest, craziest idea I ever had. PAA has become much more than I ever dreamed. As I bid farewell to my role as PAA’s Executive Director, I can’t help but think that PAA’s growth over the last 15 years has been all about the results of dreaming and convening.

In late 2001, I had the idea that I could harness my passion for designing and implementing unique approaches to teaching in and through the arts by creating a non-profit that would be a platform to realize my ideas. To help make this a reality, I convened a group of artists I had been working with at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and together we dreamed what we could do with hip-hop and other forms of art, culture, and media to bring learning experiences to Cleveland that had never been done before (and it had to be fresh).

What We Didn’t Imagine
What we didn’t anticipate during our initial convening in November 2001, and perhaps, even, didn’t have the capacity to imagine, was that through perseverance and passion, the impact of PAA would be even bigger than any of our dreams.

One significant dimension of our work that we didn’t imagine when the crew and I developed PAA’s vision was that we could build on one of the most important traditions of hip-hop: mentorship and community. As hip-hop culture emerged, a crucial part of the scene was the mentorship that developed between the pioneers of the culture and the aspiring artists who were eager to contribute to the movement. The pioneers became “Grandmasters” and they helped young innovators find their way to mastery in their art form and the aspiring creators in turn, mentored a new generation of artists.

Back in 2006, unintentionally, we continued this tradition by convening and developing a group of students who were more committed to PAA’s annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp than other participants. We designed special opportunities and sought additional outlets to take their artistry to the next level. It’s been a thrill to witness the development of student-artists who have now become the Grandmasters of PAA. After over 10 years of mentoring, convening, and creating a community, the result is a group of passionate experts who facilitate our programs and in two cases, now work full-time to make PAA’s magic happen on a daily basis. And I’m proud to share that they now have their eye on the next generation of PAA students to develop.

Why PAA Matters
PAA’s work over the past decade and a half grew from dreaming (“wouldn’t it be cool if we..?”) to a sophisticated strategy supported by a group of staff members, Board members, funders, and donors dedicated to transforming the lives of kids in our community through the arts. From a retired teacher who shared that working with PAA was one of the highlights of her career, to students explaining how PAA helped shape their identity as artists, I’m truly humbled by the impact my dreams and the dreams of others has had on our community.

What I’ve come to understand as the founder, dreamer, and convener, is that Cleveland gave us the perfect platform to be nimble and responsive to our changing environment. It gave us the opportunity to translate crazy ideas into academic rigor. It gave us generous donors that made “If we had this .. we could do this” become more than just a dream. And it gave us a lasting legacy of students, teachers, school principals, artists, and colleagues who have been touched by the arts more than I could have ever imagined.

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Guest Blog Post: How Integrating Art into Math Provided Multiple Connections for Me and My Students


By: Theresa Bender, Middle School Math Educator
Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy
Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Prior to working with Progressive Arts Alliance, teaching for me was driven by state exams, academic rigor, and pacing charts. When I heard my school was adopting an arts-integration strategy, I was skeptical and extremely concerned that I would not be able to integrate art into my math class. I just didn’t know how I would blend the two concepts together and still reach the academic demands that were set by my district.

At the beginning of this school year, my school received a grant that launched our partnership with PAA. Needless to say, I wasn’t too thrilled for the reasons I mentioned earlier.  Yet, I knew I had no choice and needed to see this through. I was paired with Ben Horvat, one of the artist-educators from PAA. We met a few times and decided to create a unit that incorporated the Laws of Levers into a three-dimensional mobile project. Again, I was skeptical because I just didn’t see how this would help me meet my objectives and educate my students in math. I didn’t understand the vision of how all the pieces came together.

As part of the collaborative planning process with Ben, I researched how mobiles were balanced by applying the Law of Levers. Once the PAA program started in my classroom, I  worked alongside Ben and my students on the project. A short time after the project began unfolding, I reached an “ah-ha” moment – I heard my students solve multiple problems using knowledge gained from the arts-integration lesson in other lessons outside of our PAA time. The students were demonstrating to me that they were able to apply the concepts from PAA’s mobile project to other situations and I learned that the students had created connections I hadn’t expected.

In the end, I discovered many things about PAA’s arts-infused lessons I plan to incorporate in my future lesson plans. By collaborating with PAA and Ben, I reached my students in new ways providing them multiple connections to the concept. I also found that my students were engaged at a higher level, and students who normally struggled with math seemed to flourish. Finally, the permanent display of the mobiles in our school’s cafeteria created a visible sense of pride for my students and other students in our school. As a result of these outcomes, I am eager to continue my collaborative work with PAA again this semester.

To learn more about the mobile project at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy, click here to visit PAA’s YouTube channel.

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Learning From Failure: A Conversation

Artist-Educator Ben Horvat working on a circuit with a student at Hannah Gibbons STEM School during a recent residency project.

Artist-Educator Ben Horvat working on a circuit with a student at Hannah Gibbons STEM School during a recent residency project.

At the close of this fall semester, PAA Artist-Educators Ainsley Buckner, Ben Horvat, and Lauren Sammon gathered to discuss how learning from failure plays a part in their work as artist-educators and as practicing artists outside of PAA. They also reflected on how they observed students learning from failure during their work this semester in our partner schools.

One theme the group immediately came to when discussing failure is the idea of adaptability.  “I’ve learned to adjust my instruction to meet students where they are at.  Even if I’m teaching the same lesson, I know each class is going to be different,” explained Sammon. Horvat also agreed, “As an artist-educator, you have to be adaptable.  You can’t show you’re frustrated when students aren’t grasping a concept.” He added that by making lessons modular this semester, he was able to allow students to experience success when everything came together at the end.  Modular lessons (lessons that are contained to one session rather than over several weeks) also helped him manage classes where attendance from week to week was inconsistent. Horvat avoided having students feel like they were behind and failing by having a different lesson or project each session.

The group also agreed that balance in the classroom is an important part of enabling students to learn from failure. Buckner described balancing activities that allow students to experience accomplishment quickly with challenging tasks that might result in failure the first few times.  “There has to be a series of peaks and valleys in the classroom lab,” she explained.  Sammon agreed.  She described her methods of balancing time on design challenges with other activities students are comfortable with.  She also added, “One way I help to create balance in the classroom is empowering students who are succeeding to help others work through their challenges.” Buckner also mentioned that it’s important to understand how students communicate.  “I’ve learned to balance students’ frustration. If someone is acting out, it might be because they are experience difficulties and do not know how to communicate their frustration.”

In reflecting on their work over the course of this semester, each member of the group has learned a lesson that they are going to be taking with them in their personal studio practice as artists. “I’ve learned that there are different approaches to confronting failure.  As an artist, you have to decide, is this something I can fix or do I need to start over,” explained Buckner. Horvat agreed and also added that he plans to explore collaboration in his practice.  “I’ve learned that it’s important to collaborate to help clarify expectations of your work.  I’m looking forward to dividing labor to help projects succeed.  I learned that this semester.”


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Guest Blog Post: Learning from PAA to Build our Capacity

Librarians from the Cuyahoga County Library system worked with PAA to learn how to use tools to fabricate Rube Goldberg machines.

Librarians from the Cuyahoga County Library system worked with PAA to learn how to use tools to fabricate Rube Goldberg machines.

By: Heidi Andres,  Teen Services Librarian
Cuyahoga County Public Library,  Middleburg Heights Branch

As a librarian with over 15 years of experience working with teens in a suburban library setting, I know the types of programs parents want for their children, as well as the kinds of programs teens will most likely be interested in attending. My library system, Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), is fortunate to have Progressive Arts Alliance (PAA) in our community to assist us in providing young library customers with innovative and engaging programs. From Scratch animation and wearable technology workshops to a variety of multi-day camps (music production, stop-motion animation, and kinetic sculpture building, to name just a few), PAA’s artist-educators have helped local youth develop an array of skills and techniques necessary to succeed in an ever-changing academic environment and job market. PAA’s programs are built on the concept of project-based learning (fostering young people’s learning processes through problem-solving and creation) as well as the importance of the arts in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programming – all concepts which dovetail perfectly with Cuyahoga County Public Library’s youth programming philosophy.

This past September, several Progressive Arts Alliance artist-educators presented two professional workshops for CCPL’s youth services staff. The topic of the first workshop was exploring circuits through creativity. Much like the sessions PAA conducts for youth, the artist-educators asked library staff to share what we already knew about the topic (conductivity), provided us with some circuitry basics, and then gave us a challenge: create a circuit which would illuminate a small LED bulb. With limited assistance from our instructors, library staff worked in pairs to incorporate what we’d learned into (usually) working circuits. Being students, as opposed to our customary roles of program facilitators, allowed library staff to experience first-hand how teens in our programs approach challenges and use problem solving skills and teamwork to create a finished project. Click below to see a video from the workshop that includes the work we completed using Chibitronics circuit stickers:

Building and designing kinetic sculptures (i.e. Rube Goldberg contraptions) was the focus of the second day’s workshop. The artist-educators provided an overview of kinetic sculptures, followed by instruction on safe ways to use tools in programs (should library staff opt to do so). CCPL staff then worked in teams to plan, draft, and build our own miniature kinetic machines – working teeter-totters. Just like the teens in library programs, final results varied, but library staff left with a better understanding of the benefits of and requirements needed to lead such a program.

Although there are more exceptions than not, library staff can sometimes seem hesitant to plan or lead STEAM programs, often due to a perceived lack of confidence in their science, engineering, and/or math abilities – there’s a reason most of us became librarians and not rocket scientists! Throughout the two workshops, PAA’s artist-educators readily shared their best practices on how library staff can conduct hands-on STEAM-related programs which allow teens to develop their presentation skills, critical thinking abilities, and self-confidence. The knowledge and guidance provided by Progressive Arts Alliance’s artist-educators during the two workshops helped library staff become more comfortable with our own abilities to continue providing these vital and necessary programs for the young people we serve.

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Guest Blog Post: Why Our School Chose Progressive Arts Alliance

A parent and student work on an art activity at a recent family arts meets academics night hosted by PAA at Dunbar.

A parent and student work on an art activity at a recent family arts meets academics night hosted by Progressive Arts Alliance at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy.

By: Sofia Piperis, Principal
Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy
Cleveland Metropolitan School District

This spring, our school’s faculty and administration decided that we would like to implement an arts-infused curriculum model. We saw this strategic decision as the best option to effectively engage students and to make their learning meaningful. We were also interested in differentiating our school from other schools in our Ohio City neighborhood.

We chose Progressive Arts Alliance as our partner to implement our new arts-infused model because of PAA’s comprehensive approach to arts-integration. Our team was impressed with the strategic methodology PAA implements that includes instruction that address math, science, and other core curriculum standards as well as standards in the fine arts. We were excited to bring PAA in as experts to tie the arts into the academics at our school. Our teaching staff is new to an arts-infused approach to teaching and we believe working with PAA’s professional artist-educators is the perfect way to model what high quality arts-integrated teaching and learning can look like.

As we’ve been implementing our new PAA partnership this fall, it’s been great to see how much our faculty, students, and families appreciate the access to PAA’s high quality arts learning activities. I’ve also been pleased to see how PAA’s work provides the opportunity for our students to apply their learning in the core curriculum to the artistic process. By working in an arts-integrated environment, our students are able to see how their learning in other subjects can be worthwhile in a variety of contexts. PAA has empowered our students to apply their learning and understanding in more modalities than ever before.

Dunbar sixth graders work with PAA Artist-Educator Ainsley Buckner during a recent residency workshop.

Dunbar sixth graders work with PAA Artist-Educator Ainsley Buckner during a recent workshop. The workshop was part of a PAA arts-integration residency exploring the structure of molecules through creating molecular relief models using clay and other materials.

One of the other reasons we chose PAA as our arts partner is their holistic approach to engaging the entire school community in their work. PAA has helped us involve our students’ families in our new arts-infused model. Engaging our families in this work is crucial. Parents don’t always know the depth of what students are working on in the classroom. Through hosting family programming with PAA, we have connected parents with our arts-infused curriculum. Our parents have participated in activities that have allowed them to create new art and build large-scale work side-by-side with their children. We have been pleased with PAA’s ability to better connect our families to our school curriculum.

The changing landscape of education puts a strong emphasis on standards-based performance assessments and as a result, students often don’t have an outlet for self-expression. The arts are the perfect way in which students can express themselves in a manner in which no one can say what’s “right” or “wrong.” The arts provide a platform for freedom of self-expression and bring joy back to learning and collaborating. I am pleased that my school has made access to the arts a priority for our students and we’re proud to work with PAA to transform our students’ learning experience as a result.

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Reflections: 14 years of Hip-Hop Camp

A student-designed "F" in graffiti style that was rendered in 3D and printed using a 3D printer at this year's RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp.

A student-designed “F” in graffiti style that was rendered in 3D and printed using a 3D printer at this year’s RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp.

By: Santina Protopapa, PAA Founder and Executive Director

This month, after completing the 14th annual installment of our annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp, I’ve been reflecting on our experience over the last 14 years using hip-hop to teach in and through the arts.  As the founder of the program (and PAA), I’m humbled by the growth trajectory the camp has undergone.

As I’ve been reflecting on what has made the camp a success over the years, I’ve realized that three key themes continue to resonate from year to year. These themes include:

Since the first day of camp in August 2002, our commitment to innovation has been a key driver in our work. We have always been insistent on using the turntable as a modern electronic percussion instrument. We have accomplished this by teaching the skills that DJs and turntablists have been innovating since DJ Kool Herc first introduced the world to what would be known as hip-hop in the Bronx in 1973. This year, in addition to continuing our focus on DJing innovation, we also added additional technology innovation tools to our camp curriculum. During our graffiti classes, students learned how to render their graffiti designs into three-dimensional digital files that were then fabricated on a 3D printer. Students also learned how to render their designs and fabricate their work using as laser cuter. Integrating these rapid prototyping tools into our camp gave students an additional glimpse into how the skills they learn at hip-hop camp can be applied in other contexts.

I still vividly remember so many amazing instances when perseverance paid off for our campers.  I’ll never forget when Robert finally got his head slide he had been working on in 2005.  Or in 2013 when Emanuwel described how a new dance move was “really, really hard” and then told me and the rest of the campers, “I can’t wait to keep trying it again tomorrow until I finally learn it.” And there are also countless stories of practicing at home (outside of camp time) so that no momentum was lost in the pursuit of mastery. As an arts educator, perseverance is one of the key skills I hope our students take from their arts education experience. Hip-Hop camp has been the perfect outlet for dozens of students to understand the value of perseverance.

Understanding the context of hip-hop’s beginnings and the development of its artistic art forms has been an important part of the camp since day one. My work in curating the camp’s artistic and educational objectives has always included making sure students understand the key innovators in each of hip-hop’s art forms (DJing, MCing, dance, and graffiti) and whenever possible, giving students the opportunity to meet one of the innovators. We’ve been so fortunate over the last few years to have DJ Rob Swift, one of the key innovators in the art of turntablism, join us as a resident instructor. This year, we spent time allowing students to develop an understanding of the mechanics of the craft and processes that each of our instructors have developed as professional artists. These sessions featured our instructors in a live interview format sharing work samples and discussing their work and artistic philosophy. Following these interview sessions, students shared amazing feedback. Students noted how much they enjoyed learning how our MC instructor AtLas’ uses personal stories from her life in her songs and how our graffiti instructor Keny Medina translates his graffiti skills into his college studies in architecture. Understanding context gave our students a glimpse into the life of artists both young (like them) and old. I loved hearing one student explain, “I was so surprised to learn the history of DJing. I had no idea all that went into it.”

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Guest Blog Post: PAA’s RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp Empowered Our Daughter to Dream Big

Guest Bloggers Ken Espenschied and Regina Jolly Espenschied of Olmsted Township with their daughter Liz following last year’s RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp concert performance.

By Regina Jolly Espenschied and Ken Espenschied

Like most parents, we try to find fun and intellectually stimulating summer activities for our kids. Over the years our daughter Liz has attended a variety of camps including: chess camp, science camp, string camp, and skating camp.

PAA’s RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp stands out among the rest. The combination of technology, visual art, music, and dance results in an exciting multi-faceted camp that encourages students to challenge themselves as individuals, helps them step out of their comfort zones, and keeps them focused as a team to create a performance experience to share with the Greater Cleveland community, all while having fun.

The camp faculty are incredible teachers who are world-class artists. They have the passion, energy, and expertise to teach young adults in a technical, yet entertaining and engaging way. The faculty consistently encourage the students to keep a strong work ethic, maintain a growth mind-set, and make a difference in the world.

We often have to pry information from our daughter about her camp activities. Hip-Hop Camp was different. Each day Liz came home excited and shared with us her activities: a visit to MOCA or think[box], new dance moves she tried to perfect, or even Skype sessions with Darryl McDaniels from Run-D.M.C. and break dancer Storm (all the way from Germany).

Attending Hip-Hop Camp was a unique and meaningful experience for our daughter. The welcoming environment, honest feedback, and ability to work in small groups with seasoned professionals empowered her to dream big and feel that she can achieve any goal that she sets.

Get the latest news about this year’s RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp by signing up for our mailing list here.


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Highlights from Spring Semester 2015

We’re pleased to share a selection of highlights from our Arts-Integration Partnerships in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s PreK-8 STEM Network.

Click below to see the exciting work our artist-educators collaborated on with CMSD faculty and scholars.

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Staff Spotlight: Santina Protopapa recognized by CWRU

Progressive Arts Alliance Executive Director Santina Protopapa visits with kindergarteners during a recent workshop at Mound STEM School.

Progressive Arts Alliance Executive Director Santina Protopapa visits with kindergarteners during a recent workshop at Mound STEM School.

We’re pleased to share that our founder and Executive Director Santina Protopapa has been named the 2015 recipient of the Young Alumni Award from the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Santina is featured in an article in the recent issue of art/sci, the magazine of the College of Arts and Science.  Click here to read the feature.

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Staff Spotlight: Ainsley Buckner

Ainsley Buckner Zoetrope Project

PAA Artist-Educator and Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner working with third grade students to assemble a zoetrope at Orchard STEM School.

Ainsley Buckner joined the Progressive Arts Alliance full-time staff in spring 2013. In her role at PAA, she serves as both Program Coordinator and Artist-Educator. She is a visual artist who attend the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) where she majored in general fine arts and participated in MICA’s Community Arts Partnership. Her work at PAA includes overseeing the design and implementation of our programs at our partner schools and library locations as well as experimenting in the PAA lab to help test ideas and discover new methods for students to realize their artistic creations.

During the spring 2015 semester, Ainsley collaborated with two of PAA’s artist-educators to help launch new projects that our organization has not implemented in the past. We had a chance to catch up with Ainsley between running from school location to school location to discuss her recent work.

Editor: We’re excited that you’ve designed and fabricated a hydro-powered zoetrope for a third grade residency with PAA artist-educator Jen Craun at Orchard STEM School. Can you describe your process of designing and testing the zoetrope? (For more information on what a zoetrope is, click here.)

Ainsley: The challenge for my design was to use everyday materials to emphasize repurposing of materials and encourage students to think about how they could make a hydro-powered mechanism on their own. The materials I used were a CD spindle, plastic spoons, a piece of Styrofoam, modeling clay, a threaded rod, PVC pipe, a block of wood, nuts, washers, and a cooler chest. When testing out materials and designs I had to keep in mind that 3rd graders would have to be able to construct it and I needed to consider ways that I could scaffold the instruction for the students to be successful, but still leave room for exploration. The other main challenge in designing the hydro-powered zoetrope was figuring out how to change the direction of motion from vertical to horizontal. I solved this issue by using a bevel gear, which the students constructed out of two wood laser cut circles and fluted dowel pins.

Ainsley's planning sketch for the hydro-powered zoetrope project.

Ainsley’s planning sketch for the hydro-powered zoetrope project.

Editor: As you were guiding students into building the parts of the hydro-power system that you designed, what did you notice as the students engaged in the process?

Ainsley: Once the hydro-power zoetrope was complete, you could see students start to compare their hand-powered zoetrope with the energy from the water. The students developed an understanding on how the two different energies affected the motion of their zoetrope animations and which energy source is the most sustainable.  (See the zoetropes in action at the link below.)

Editor: What did you learn as an artist by going through the design process to design the zoetrope and its hydro-powered system?

Ainsley: Going through the design processes helped re-emphasize the importance of being open to learning through testing and letting my mistakes inform new iterations of the design. While building the hydro-powered mechanism with the students, I realized how important it was for me to share the steps I took and the problems I faced in the design process to deepen their understanding of how everyone can learn from their failures.

Editor: 3-D printing is a one of the current and rising trends in the growing Maker Movement. This semester you’ve worked to implement 3-D printing as part of the process of creating installation art with fourth graders at Michael R. White STEM School, in collaboration with PAA artist-educator Allison Bogard. What are some of the challenges of using 3-D printing in the elementary classroom?

Ainsley: I think one of the biggest challenges in teaching 3-D printing is having students understand how the object they’re creating exists in three planes, since they are used to working traditionally in 2-D or two-dimensional planes.

Editor: What did students learn through the process of creating a three-dimensional object? How did students react to seeing their creation come to life on the 3-D printer?

Ainsley: The students learned how to simplify the complex components of a bird’s figure into simple shapes. After breaking the body into simple shapes they were able to see how each body part of their bird informs the body as a whole. The students were very excited to see their 3-D models come to life. They were amazed by the additive sculpture method that takes place during the 3-D printing process. The printer takes plastic filament, similar to how a hot glue gun works, and heats the filament so it can be extruded as a liquid. The liquid then hardens back into a rigid plastic after seconds.

Editor: What does engaging in the process of designing and creating interactive installation art provide for students?

Ainsley: I think teaching students about interactive installation art shows students how they can not only transform a space through visual art, but also how they can inform and educate people through hands-on engagement of their audience.  (Take a peek at the link below to see the process of creating a 3-D bird.)

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