CAPE Network Forum Newsletter: Volume II Issue 1 (Archived)

Originally published: March 19th, 2021

Welcome to the latest issue of the CAPE Network Forum Newsletter.  In this issue, we include a critique of current narratives, a Forum highlight, two exciting CAPE public sharings, and a look back at some email excerpts from one year ago.

Narrative theories help us think about how narratives come together, what shapes they take on, what functions they have, their connections with identity, who generates them, who receives them, and more. Such theories help us understand how narrative projections and receptions can circumscribe or define perceptions, thoughts, and responses. Recent news stories around the physical return to school in Chicago Public Schools serve to illustrate the troublesome power of projected narratives.  

In national news sources (both liberal and conservative), the return-to-school issue was frequently framed as, “Children are failing, and parents demand schools reopen.” This immediately directs the receiver of the narrative towards the perception that the narrative revolves around conflict, with parents and children as the protagonists championing reopening. Next, the news stories set forth that unionized teachers are resisting this cause, standing thus as antagonists (I note unionized, as I saw stories that tried to pit small town, non-union teachers against big city union teachers in this regard).  

The narrative projections that dominated the news substituted the centrality of debate with no easy answers for the easy certainty of a “one versus the other” narrative. This is often the way of narrative—ie., many narratives function to remove uncertainty for the reader or the viewer.  

Unfortunately, this choice by editors and reporters and media owners eliminated multiple points of knowledge and questions that parents, students, and all of us in society have a right to access and ponder. Here are a few of those points:

–In Chicago, parents rightly had a choice whether to send their child back to school in person. There is a wide variance of percentages of parents within schools and neighborhoods who made the choice to return. There are schools which started in person with 50% or less students returning.  

–It could be readily argued that much of the lower percentages of parents choosing to return correspond directly to much higher COVID-19 rates in the neighborhood in which the parents and families live in. Parents are making an understandable choice, deserving of support, based on the empirical evidence around them.

–Chicago Public School teachers went back to school, but not with the “return-to-school” scenario as played out in national media, with all students present. Nor did Chicago Public School teachers have the hybrid scenario of certain pods of students present on some days, absent on others, all self-contained within these pods. Instead, Chicago Public School teachers have the challenge of being required to simultaneously teach students who are in their physical classroom, and students who are attending online, both at the same time. That is an especially difficult set-up for student engagement and support.

–The last point I will make is perhaps the most controversial (and also a point that merits more space than I will give to it here at this time): it is a false construct to frame all remote teaching and learning as a wholly negative experience. Many Chicago Public School teachers and students have experimented and found new ways to reinvent teaching and learning. They have reconceived the relationship of home space and digital space to form new learning spaces, and forged new dialogues of learning within families and across families. They have centered learning around what is unknown (and therefore interesting).


I do not downplay the difficulties of attendance that transpired in many classrooms during remote learning, nor do I downplay the tragic and immense inequities of resources available to low-income families across the United States. But narrating remote learning as only negative not only ignores real discoveries and accomplishments, it potentially serves as a subterfuge to reassert systems and bureaucracies of compliance and punishment that bestrode education before the pandemic.  

This dominant narrative we’ve seen for return-to-school also serves to deny teacher autonomy, and relegate social and health inequity to the sidelines.  Further, it has, as either a possible outcome or possible motive, the effect of devaluing curricula that is emergent, rooted in community, exploratory, not always geared to predetermined results, and truly owned by the teachers who teach it, the students who learn it, and the parents who support it, together.  

Scott Sikkema

CAPE Network Forum Highlight

From Tim Rey & Melanie Ruiz, North-Grand High School

‘Get to a place of problem solving’ -Writer/ performer, McArthur ‘genius grant’ winner, Anna Deveare-Smith, on writing new plays

Process: Students brainstormed themes for a possible play and then began crafting it via character sketches on the character’s “wants,”  “needs,” and deepest desires. Character’s victories, obstacles, tactics, and expectations were formed, although these terms were not always used directly to define each action. Students began writing the play at its beginning, but then I suggested that we start writing backward as a murder mystery is all about revelations. So…from the end, we began working our way backward and met in the middle of the script. Melanie and I were just ‘side coaching’ the students, and our feedback was very much based in a ‘yes and…’  improvisational philosophy. As in any play development, not all ideas make it to the page, but the students had such an overwhelming sense of creativity, that a lack of ideas was never a problem.

As the play developed, students improvised scenes (acted them out/read through them) and kept a journal of running notes on the script as to plot.

The Murder Mystery and long-form play is an awfully hard form to write, but the students never wavered or gave up. This is important to note. The play’s creation was ultimately designed by the students.

Visit the CAPE Network Forum here.

A new book, The Corona Chronicles: On Leadership, Processes, Commitments, and Hope, is out from Dio Press.  It includes the chapter, “Navigating COVID-19 and School Closures via a Connected Network of Teachers, Artists, and Students,” which focuses on the work of CAPE students, teachers, artists, and program staff during the first few months of school closures in Chicago.  Sections of the chapter examine voice and identity, body and space, and uncertainty and openness.  You can purchase the book directly from Dio Press (, as well as Amazon.

CAPE Dialogue: What is the Body?

Scholars have discussed the intentional boundaries surrounding certain bodies in art: what bodies are seen, what bodies do, and what bodies can look like. CAPE Dialogue: What is the Body? aims to explore the many interdisciplinary ways in which we can center our bodies within others and our environment to reimagine equity within the arts. If art is a product of a time, place, and culture that influences how narratives are constructed, then how can we (re)envision the possible futures and imaginations that could be evoked through the exclusion or inclusion of certain bodies and relationships? This event celebrates the following panelists: multimedia artist, michelle miles; Artistic Associate and Co-Leader of Shawngram Institute for Performance & Social Justice, Kealoha Ferreira; and choreographer and artistic director of Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape, Ayako Kato. CAPE Dialogue: What is the Body? is hosted by CAPE Program Coordinator, AmBer Montgomery, and CAPE Research Program Coordinator, Jenny Lee.

The event is free, but please register here: 

COVID Recall:

In place of the “Contemporary Recall” we have featured in past newsletters, we are instead doing a “COVID Recall.”  Many people are looking back a year to when the pandemic started; I came upon some emails from last year that are striking. To begin, here is an excerpt from an email I sent out dated March 13, 2020, before we knew schools would completely close.

March 13, 2020

Dear CAPE colleagues,

I hope this message finds you well.  The COVID-19 or coronavirus is of justified widespread concern, and for our specific context this is true as well.  Many of you have contacted CAPE staff to ask questions, seek updates or clarifications, and inform us of particular courses of action taken in individual schools.

Excerpt here: March 13, 2020 Email to CAPE Network (link)

The March 13 email was sent on a Friday. CAPE staff quickly worked out a contingency plan for artists, and Mark Diaz and Joseph Spilberg each sent out versions of the same email to artists the night of Monday, March 16, 2020, excerpted here:

Hello CAPE Artists,

CAPE deeply values its relationships with you, our teaching artists we work with every year to implement programs, represent CAPE, and push the boundaries of what is possible in the intersection of public education and art making.  

 CAPE staff and the CAPE Board of Directors developed a plan to provide you with some compensation during this extraordinary time. In an emergency meeting on Monday evening March 16, 2020, the CAPE Board voted to use a portion of the CAPE reserve fund to support this plan long story short – we’re dipping into our savings for this because this is what savings are for! 

Excerpt here: March 16, 2020 Email to CAPE Network (link)

On March 20, 2020, we reconnected with artists and teachers to discuss the evolving situation, and reaffirm our network, seen in the following email excerpt:

Dear CAPE artists and teachers,

  I will start by stating that the main thing to consider is acting responsibly as to your own health and safety, and the health and safety of others.  It is completely understandable if you feel it is best that you do not do something or do not engage in work.  It is also okay to wait awhile and see how this situation progresses.

Excerpt here: March 20, 2020 Email to CAPE Network (link)  

The query in the March 20 email regarding some kind of online exchange for partners to share with each other prompted many enthusiastic responses, and on March 25,2020, in the following email excerpt, we announced the CAPE Network Forum.

Dear CAPE artists and teachers,

 I am writing today to announce that we will have a new online forum for the CAPE network to share ideas and work happening in response to the COVID-19 closure of schools.  The forum will be for both in-school and after-school CAPE partners.

Excerpt here: March 25, 2020 Email to CAPE Network (link)

The CAPE Network Forum would prove crucial during this initial school closures period for sustaining the network and moving forward art, pedagogy, and research amongst our partners.  What was essential in this effort was the capacity of CAPE—teachers, artists, program staff—to listen to each other, respond, and evolve. These early email messages are but one small sample of evidence of this capacity.

Scott Sikkema