It’s Different and That’s Okay: Lessons Learned in Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts Program

One hundred pounds of clay. One hundred sketchbooks. One hundred watercolor sets or, if you prefer, 800 watercolors. One thousand two hundred oil pastels and the same in colored pencils; Four hundred sheets of watercolor paper. All for more than two hundred students from more than twenty schools. The numbers are dazzling and dizzying. 

An unexpected benefit of a virtual Arab Arts Program is its reach. I remember this Fall, learning through trial and error how to adapt our After-School Arab Arts Program, which has been such an integral component of Al-Bustan for so long, to a virtual format. I wanted the students to experience the same program that they would have enjoyed in years past. I wanted to make sure that the rhythms of the doumbek were crisp and the songs of the Arab World were clear. I wanted to make sure that our young artists could explore every inspiration with Ms.Lisa. I still want all of these things, but I’ve learned that this program is not and cannot be exactly like the program in-person. But our students have learned so much from the program this year that they would not have learned in-person. And our program, formerly confined to one place and time, now serves so many more students who would never have had the opportunity to be exposed to the arts and culture of the Arabic-speaking world.  

Bridget distributing art supplies

Our young drummers have learned how to listen to each other in a new way. On Zoom, you cannot play at the same time as another student—you have to wait, listen, and play when it is your turn. You have to be respectful and ready. And in Singing with Mr.Serge, you need to be confident. You cannot let your voice fade into the background. You have to sing out proudly and without hesitation. In Ms.Lisa’s class, our students now share their artworks with students who live across the city. Students from Feltonville Intermediate take inspiration from Girard Elementary students. Our students are endlessly collaborative and the connections that they form in our program are even more special in this time when so many of us feel separate from our communities. The Al-Bustan community is an incredible thing—it was what drew me to this organization and what invigorates me each day and I am so grateful that all of our SDP students are a part of it this year. 

I am reminded that this year is different in so many ways, but that different is always a bad thing. I am inspired by our students’ adaptability and enthusiasm for the program. Each week, I watch them use their circumstances to their advantage, whether that is through creating Zoom portraits in Lisa’s class or sharing their home instruments from their own countries with each other in Serge’s class. The program is growing and adapting and I am learning along with it. As our 2021 program continues into the spring, I am excited to learn more from our students, as they drum, sing, and create with our teaching artists.  

Bridget Peak
Programs Coordinator
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

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