Program reminds kids reading is cool

Teaching children to appreciate the arts, Cool Classics! was one of 12 after-school programs given the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. 

By Kendrah Villiesse

As a proud parent of two Chicago Public School graduates and as a respected journalist, Mara Tapp knows literary arts are crucial to children’s education. While substitute teaching at CPS schools, Tapp noticed a lack of art in classrooms, which led her to take matters into her own hands. 

“I started bringing in the books I had and started reading them to the children,” Tapp said. “I discovered that they loved it. I ran into a funder of the Kellogg Foundation, who asked me about CPS and asked me to create a program.” 

Motivated to teach literary arts and why they are important, Tapp created Cool Classics! in 2006, an after school program that allows children to develop critical thinking skills and be creative. 

“Many schools have lost art; our public schools have lost anything to do with the arts, and we are in a country that does not always value the arts,” Tapp said. “We know from many studies that learning the arts helps children to learn and to think and to be successful.” 

Eighty percent of U.S. schools’ funding has been cut since 2008, with art and music first on the chopping block, according to an April 2014 U.S. News article. 

Cool Classics! is one of 12 after-school programs honored with the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award on Nov. 9.

“[I was] delighted and surprised,” Tapp said. “Working with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards staff has been so wonderful.” 

Each year, a classic book is chosen that will be the core of the Cool Classics! curriculum. Children in the 25-session after school program create crafts, dance, listen to music and, at the end of the year, put on a theatrical show based on the book. 

The children also go on field trips to museums, galleries, restaurants and other art events, Tapp said. The first field trip is a visit to the local library. 

Laura Jenkins, a children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library’s Uptown Branch, has worked with the program since it launched. 

“Children are curious about everything about the world,” Jenkins said. “They are learning and they want to learn. Performing and visual arts, to them, are the same as any other kind of expression of human inquiry.” 

The program is designed for first-through third-grade classes and is a part of Lakeview’s Horace Greeley Elementary School’s reading with the arts program, according to Liliana Silva, bilingual coordinator and resource coordinator at Greeley.

“It gets the students motivated to read books, especially from the

authors they’ve been working on,” Silva said. “It helps build their comprehension and interest in reading in general.” 

Tapp said she is hoping to expand Cool Classics!, so other schools will be offered the same opportunity. 

“We are serving children in underserved communities,” Tapp said. “What they face are more obstacles and what they lack are resources. Our job is to remove the obstacles and provide the resources. We set the bar very high for our children because we know they are brilliant.”