News from the Field: Community Connections Through Art and Storytelling at CAPE 21st CCLC

Written with input from CAPE 21st CCLC

For the past three years, students at Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE) 21st CCLC program have been partnering with local artists to explore relationships between the classroom and their communities and to tell their neighborhoods’ stories. Through arts integration, the artists and classroom teachers collaborate to integrate music, visual arts, dance, digital media, and drama into their academic lessons.

Two girls practicing an interview   

Two students from Telpochcalli Elementary School practice interviewing,  audio recording and storytelling.


At Telpochcalli Elementary School, one of CAPE’s four sites, the school’s dual-language bilingual program inspired a project called Nuestras Historias (Our Stories). The teacher-artist duo led the project in Spanish and encouraged students to explore the role of the Spanish language in their self-expression and in community engagement. Students first learned storytelling, interviewing, active listening, and audio recording skills. At the same time, they began exploring their communities by collecting pictures related to their families’ stories. Students later applied their interviewing skills during a visit to the StoryCorps Booth at the Chicago Cultural Center. StoryCorps is a nonprofit dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs and has studios across the United States. At the booth, students interviewed each other and saved these high-quality recordings for their project. The project culminated with the audio of students’ interviews and family stories in Spanish playing alongside the related pictures that students had collected in a final exhibit.

   Student and teacher working on a storytelling piece

Teaching Artist Laura Saenz works with a student to develop her storytelling piece.

At George Washington High School (GWHS), another one of CAPE’s four sites, students explored arts integration through an initiative called the Lunchroom Transformation Project (LTP). Students suggested the project because many of them saw the school lunchroom as a stressful environment where security protocols resulted in students rushing through in single-file lines, getting their lunch, and quickly eating without much social interaction. Through the LTP, students created a makerspace, a collaborative space where students gathered to create projects, invent new ones, and share ideas, and where they produced several installations. These included colorful murals with positive messages, participatory 3D art pieces, and a student performance space. Students reported a calmer and more positive atmosphere during lunch. During the three-year period that the project took place, the number of students in the afterschool program increased each year, suggesting more students felt ownership of the work and the space.

3D art of wheels and colorful mural on wall   

A colorful mural and a 3D art piece developed by students at George Washington High School.


The projects culminated in an art exhibition called Shifting Boundaries, which include art exhibits from the four sites, a teen-artist summit, and a family night. The exhibition displayed the photos and stories that students from Telpochcalli had compiled. Also, students from GWHS created a pop-up makerspace, where visitors made art pieces that will later be installed at the school’s lunchroom as part of the LTP.

The teen-artist summit was an evening event attended by 40 teen artists from the program and 40 Chicago professional artists. The 80 attendees divided into groups of five teens and five adults. The students presented their work to the adult artists, who then provided feedback and asked questions about the students’ work. This prompted the students to analyze their projects more deeply and imagine diverse possibilities for their work in the future. Most of the work on display in the Shifting Boundaries exhibit is “in process” work that students will continue working on this spring.

   lunchroom with colorful murals and paper birds hanging from ceiling

The transformed GWS lunchroom with murals and other artwork.

Finally, CAPE hosted a family night for the exhibition. Nearly 300 people, representing close to 100 percent of the students who were in the project, attended the event. As one teacher observed about the event and its impact on students, “Tonight, this is their space.” There was a sense in the room that the students were the artists being celebrated by their families and communities.

Read more about the Nuestras Historias (Our Stories) project at Telpochcalli Elementary.

Read more about the Lunchroom Transformation Project at George Washington High School.  

Read more about the Shifting Boundaries exhibition on the CAPE website.