The goal of both Maria’s lesson plans about bogolan (the mudcloth they studied) and Crocodile River Music’s teaching approach is to show students that African art requires dedicated study. Like other art forms, West African art is ruled by socially meaningful principles. “We want all of our encounters with students to communicate that African art deserves to be studied and experienced in its own rights, for its own merits, not merely in comparison to other popular art traditions.”
Twenty years ago, Zach Combs visited Pine Point School to share his experience of making music in the Malian tradition and met their art teacher, Maria Iacoi. Zach began studying West African drumming as a student and was now bringing his joy and interest to Pine Point. Zach remembered that first visit: “I was so nervous. I’d only been in one other school as a visiting artist, but only as a helper. This was all me. Solo. Would students think it was fun? What if it was a train wreck?”
But it wasn’t a disaster, and as it turned out, the success or failure of the day wasn’t on Zach alone. Zach led the Pine Point community in a drumming activity. Drumming together requires everyone’s energy, no matter how expert or novice. Everyone has an important role to play—an idea at the heart of meaningful collaboration.
Returning to Pine Point
In 2017, Zach returned to Pine Point, now as the founder of Crocodile River Music (CRM), a music and arts education organization that includes artists from around the globe. Pine Point students and staff participated actively through drumming and dance. The Pine Point community wasn’t just witness to the learning, they helped co-create the experience.
Zach and Maria want to emphasize that this work comes with responsibilities to their students and all of the teachers who have shared their cultures and expertise with them: “Our communities deserve an education that is intentional and respectful of the traditions we are sharing and studying.”
The goal of both Maria’s lesson plans about bogolan (the mudcloth they studied) and CRM’s teaching approach is to show students that African art requires dedicated study. Like other art forms, West African art is ruled by socially meaningful principles. “We want all of our encounters with students to communicate that African art deserves to be studied and experienced in its own right, for its own merits, not merely in comparison to other popular art traditions.”
A Lasting Partnership
The effects of CRM’s visit were lasting. The class made mudcloth prints on paper and fabric after looking at bogolan and learning about how it is made and used in Mali. Maria’s students learned about geometric motifs, stamping, and dyeing techniques for bogolan and adapted those methods to make their own. Maria brought the African art and artifacts from CRM to her art classes as inspiration.
Great collaboration between organizations like CRM and schools can yield fresh and innovative learning experiences. Zach points out that he gained as much from his partnership with Maria as Pine Point did. His relationship with the school helped him envision how his passion for African music and culture could become CRM.
In 2020, Maria was working on professional development opportunities with her faculty. “I found myself going back to the experience with CRM. I wanted to participate in a professional day that allowed me to be the student and engage in something that would unite and excite me, my team, and ultimately my students. I wanted to find a way to use what we learned about African culture to inspire projects that could breed further collaborations with other disciplines.” So Maria turned to her long-time collaborators Zach and CRM.
The resulting professional development day featured art, music, and dance led by CRM co-founder Issa Coulibaly, a West African master drummer, and West African dance teacher Assitan Coulibaly. The experiences were never separate from discussions of aesthetics, techniques, and social values of the art. The day inspired Maria and her team to think about lessons they might create with CRM’s help. They wanted to use the art, music, and dance they learned to create lessons to share and use in their disciplines and collaborative work.
Into the Future
The relationship Zach and Maria forged from those exciting first days didn’t necessarily mean that later collaborative projects would happen. Keeping the energy and innovation going in their respective organizations meant they needed to grow their network of people and resources so they didn’t get tapped out. Collaboration requires commitment and must be beneficial to everyone involved.
“I think the lesson is,” Zach says, “collaboration can take you to some pretty exciting places. We’ve certainly seen that in CRM’s work with Pine Point. But it also takes work and time.” With twenty-three years of friendship and collaboration, Zach and Maria learned that all that work and time pays tremendous dividends—both for their respective organizations and the people they serve.
Art teachers celebrate student success through a variety of collaborative and group-focused assignments. Two educators forge a partnership to teach students about African arts and culture, while another educator creates an opportunity for students to paint with their feet. Students also work together in small groups to complete table-sized craft paper drawings; team up with a Chicago muralist to complete an outdoor mural; participate in a school library sculpture challenge; and more.