CAPE Network Forum Newsletter: Volume I Issue 4 (Archived)

Originally published: May 12th, 2020

Welcome to our fourth issue of the CAPE Forum Newsletter. In this issue, we are highlighting a past example of CAPE research that looks at different aspects of CAPE’s work, including expansive learning and transformative agency. We see examples of both in the spice maps example, and in Sonja Moser’s example of the shifts that happen when we transform obstacle into potential. We will all need to keep making these shifts as we move forward in this evolving situation, including the new possibilities of teacher and artist co-teaching together again online.

— Scott Sikkema


Chicago Public Schools central office announced a new policy for external vendors and partners working with schools. This policy was announced on May 6 and presented to vendors and partners on May 8. CAPE is designated as a Tier 1 partner/vendor, and school administrations should have access to a list from central office of which partners or vendors re classified in which tiers. As a Tier 1 partner, CAPE teaching artists can join their classroom teacher partner (or another principal-approved school representative) with students on Google Meets sessions, provided that the teacher initiated the sessions and that the teacher is present for the duration of the session. Sessions can only happen with multiple students in attendance and only on Google Meets. There are further, important details to this policy. Teaching artists must check-in and go through their teacher partner, and principals must be aware (and approve) of contacts with multiple students (excluding all phone calls or phone texts, which is not allowed under any circumstances). Please see the CPS website page, as well as the CAPE letter sent to teachers and artists on May 8, and please also alwsys check in with school administration.

The Illinois State Board of Education announced that summer school in Illinois will be conducted via remote learning: Chicago Public Schools central office has followed by announcing they are planning for summer school to be held virtually:

ISBE is conducting a survey until May 31 regarding educational needs during remote learning and anticipated needs should schools reopen.  Please go to the ISBE COVID-19 updates and resources page for a link to the survey:

CAPE Network Forum Tumblr Highlight:

School: Waters Elementary

Teacher: Olga Johnson

Teaching Artist: Sonja Moser

Video: Creative Evolution: Big Marsh Field Trip Videos


In this CAPE Network Forum Tumblr post, Sonja reflects on the creative possibility allowed.

Description by Sonja Moser:

As I think about the larger life skills imparted by arts training, the creative mindset – imagining possibilities, seeing potential instead of obstacles – jumps out in this moment. I have LOVED listening to CAPE artists in our digital PD’s talking about the ways they have shifted their focus in this moment to suit the situation. Whether it’s adapting projects to fit materials children have ready access to in their homes or shifting projects entirely to being about the home (to name only a fraction of examples), there’s a distinct absence of head-banging in trying to fit an old project into a new context.

For me, this transition meant heading out with my video camera (a.k.a. phone) to Big Marsh. My collaborator, Olga Johnson, and I were part of a CAPE subgroup this year focusing on natural sciences and the environment. Known as the Big Marsh group (after the new south side park where we had our first PD back in August), I reveled in the coincidence of getting to focus on a spot I’d already been studying with my homeschooled son, and which was so close to where I lived in Pullman. In fact, back in the fall, I’d actually been a bit frustrated that the school where I was working as a teaching artist – Waters Elementary, on the north side – was so far away. How could I ever get the students down there as much as I’d like to share this amazing resource?! 

Enter distance learning.

In the virtual field trips I am creating for CAPE and my CAPE drama students, yes – I am working in an absolutely new medium. But I am also using what I have at hand – my relationship with a deeply-loved place that is close by, and the minds and imaginations of our Waters drama students, to which I tailor the content – all the while fulfilling perhaps even more deeply our stated curricular focus. Ultimately, I feel like I’m getting to share something dear that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Which reminds me of a core principle in the theatre which further underscores my point from the beginning: Constraint Breeds Creativity.

CAPE Network Research Highlight:
Objects of Activity, Expansive Learning and Transformative Agency

In 2018 researcher Ray Kang presented a paper on his work studying CAPE’s Artist/Researcher Partners program in London at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences titled, “Empowering Critical Resistance through Experimenting with the Arts in Public Schooling.” Kang looked at a number of aspects of CAPE’s work, including “three key conceptual lenses:” objects of activity, expansive learning through practical experimentation, and transformative agency. Here is an excerpt on these three lenses from Kang’s paper:

“First, the defining feature of any human activity is its object, or “true motive” that meets a need, is invested with meaning, and motivates human effort (Leont’ev, 1978 as cited in Sannino, Engeström & Lemos, 2016, p. 602). As Sannino, Engeström and Lemos (2016) articulated:

Because of its link to human needs, an object is a historically developing entity that is never fully attained or complete. As a general entity it resembles a vision, often utopian, that, however, finds concrete instantiations in everyday life … An object is contested and often also fragmented. Moreover, an object carries in itself the pervasive contradictions of its given socioeconomic formation … The deep-seated contradictions in objects make them dynamic and unpredictable. (pp. 602-603)

Importantly, the objects of human activity contain a variety of contradictions—simultaneously existing yet incompatible forces on the components of an activity system—derived from its cultural and historical situation that manifest in the practical outcomes of an activity. Such contradictions result in untenable tensions that compel the subjects of an activity system to engage in cycles of critical reflection and searches for solutions, seeking to resolve these contradictions. Ultimately, contradictions must be “creatively and painfully resolved by working out … something qualitatively different from a mere combination or compromise between two competing forces” (Engeström & Sannino, 2011, p. 371).

These competing forces represent a fundamental truth about the historical expression of power, namely that “power does not always assume just one form and that, in virtue of this, a given form of power can coexist alongside, or even come into conflict with, other forms of power” (Koopman, 2017, ¶10). These contests of power result in a conflict of motives within an activity system, which require critical experimentation to resolve and transform. The qualitative difference of these transformations manifests as expansive learning in the activity system, changing its components, their interrelationships or both (Engeström, 1999). Expansive learning views learning as a creative and productive process “in which learners join their forces to literally create something novel, essentially learning something that does not yet exist” (Sannino, Engeström & Lemos, 2016, p. 603). This powerful and productive process “requires breaking away from the given frame of action and taking the initiative to transform it” or, in other words, requires engaging in the practices of resistance and transgression (p. 603). Furthermore, the object of formative interventions is to “attain a rich reconceptualization of the object of activity,” a process requiring practical experimentation with their problematic situation, where people critically experiment with how to abstract meaningful tools from the contradictions confronting them (Sannino & Engeström, 2016, p. 605). In this sense, CHAT provides conceptual tools for understanding the activities of resistance, specifically through how people expansively learn by establishing new normals of activity.

Ultimately, expanding and experimenting with activity requires enacting transformative agency, where participants “[break] away from the given frame of action and [take] the initiative to transform it” (Virkunnen, 2006, as cited in Engeström, Sannino & Virkunnen, 2014, p. 124). Engeström and colleagues (2014) argue that transformative agency fundamentally “stems from encounters with and examinations of disturbances, conflicts, and contradictions in the collective activity,” resulting in the development of new possibilities for activity as a response to a conflict of motives (p. 124). Taken from their work with Change Laboratory processes, they list examples of transformative agency they have identified, which include acts of resistance, criticism, and experimentation with activity. Moreover, they argue the evolution of these actions is a form of learning.”

If we now consider CAPE teachers, artists, students, and program staff engaged in the object of remote learning in a pandemic, the power of these lenses becomes even more apparent.  We are as a network creating “something novel, essentially learning something that does not yet exist,” in this unprecedented crisis. CAPE teachers, artists, and program staff have enacted the kind of transformative agency where we all have broke “away from the given frame of action and taken the initiative to transform it.”

Kang looked closely at two CAPE Artist/Researcher partnerships in the paper, and concluded that, “the critical and transgressive experimentation of the two AR partnerships here fundamentally involved CAPE’s challenge of re-/presenting students breadth of experiences within the cultural and historical constraints of a traditional schooling. These teacher-artist partnerships empower resistance within their classrooms by providing opportunities for students to develop and enact their transformative agency. The conceptual and practical tools of artistic disciplines allow for students’ to expand classroom activity, confronting and resisting the normalizing power that consistently marginalizes, censors, and dismisses them. By deliberately designing curricula that expose students to underlying contradictions inherent in their classroom situations, we can allow students to exercise their agency to resist the normalization of the world as it is and transform it into the new possibilities they imagine and create.”

CAPE students, teachers, and artists are themselves all powerful wielders of transformative agency, and this is why the network continues to imagine and create new possibilities. 

For the full text of Ray Kang’s 2018 paper, please click here. 

Research excerpt written by: Raymond Kang
Framing text written by: Scott Sikkema and Joseph Spilberg

Contemporary Recall:

Spices Map
Written by: Mark Diaz

Maps are usually thought of as visual, diagrammatic representations of land and space.  But maps are also spatial imaginaries through which organic forms move through: the movement of people and the global transportation of goods. To explore issues around one’s personal connections with globalization, teachers and teaching artists re-conceived a world map by tracing the movement of common food products. For materials, participants were provided a selection of spices and dried food products from around the world, glue, and a large sheet of paper with an outline of the world based on the Peters projection.  Their sole instruction was to read each package to determine the production, packaging and distribution points of each item. With that information, and any other details they may already have had about the production of any item, they laid-out and adhered the spices and food products onto the map re-creating these trade routes. Throughout the process, as routes accumulated, crossed and intersected, the teachers and artists engaged in dialogue about their relation to the world economy and geopolitics.