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Tips for Successful School Residencies

Diane Daily, Program Manager

photo taken over the shoulder of a few young people working on a marine life themed collage on a table top
STARS residency at Pine Cobble School in Williamstown.


For 13 years, Mass Cultural Council’s STARS Residencies has provided grants to support school-based creative learning residencies in the arts, sciences, and humanities.

As we prepare for the Agency’s next year of grant-making, we brought together a group of experienced teaching artists and scientists to capture their insights on creating a successful school residency. This is what they told us:

What are the most effective things you do to design a school-based residency?

  • Offer options so schools feel they have a choice. This is important – they know their students, and you don’t yet.
  • Meet the teachers where the students are learning and build on top of what they are doing.
  • Ask: what are the students’ areas of interest? What do you want me to lean into?
  • Establish one point of contact at the school and one for the cultural partner early on. Things are changing all the time and communication needs to be clear.
  • Ask: is there anything (socio-economic, culture, gender) that you’d like to bring my attention to that is going to help me be a more informed person in your classroom?
  • Visit the classroom before the residency so you can see how the students and teachers work.
  • Be very flexible! Always go in with the assumption things might change.

What are the most effective things you do to work well with teachers on a residency?

  • Make it easy for the teachers – they are VERY busy. It needs to be seamless.
  • Meet with the teachers in person before doing the residency so they feel they have input into the program.
  • Share the big picture of how it’s going to go.
  • Approach the residency as a partnership. Make sure the teacher has a role and is working with you as a team – this makes for a stronger experience.
  • Provide resources in a Google Doc so teachers can support the learning between sessions.
  • Pay attention to which teacher wants to be in charge and who doesn’t feel as confident with arts-based or science-based learning.
  • Build a relationship of respect.
  • Adapt, be flexible and communicate so teachers can let you know if something isn’t working, needs more scaffolding, or is too long for the students.
  • You are a guest in their classroom. It’s about the students, the teachers, and the school.  The minute it’s about you the relationship changes.

What is your secret sauce for engaging students?

  • Be attentive to the rhythm of the classroom such as sitting too much, times of calm, times of higher energy. Incorporate a flow to engage different students who need different energies.
  • Be attentive to learning styles: which students need visual cues, which need audio cues. Respect the fact that there are a lot of different minds in the room.
  • Make things relevant. Use experiential, hands-on learning. Let students feel they’re part of the process.
  • Be flexible. Have a plan A and B. If it isn’t working, change it.
  • Create space to listen and support. The “old” attitude says: “You have to cram everything into this human being.” Instead, use this approach: “This human being has amazing capacities and understanding. My job is to create a situation where their natural curiosity and understanding can emerge and be collectively refined and developed.” Students and teachers respond to this because you’re honoring who they are and that everyone has some level of expertise and something to share that’s going to make the collective experience a little richer.
  • Do not be afraid to show the love you have for the work. To survive and thrive as a teaching artist, find fuel in the enthusiasm and energy you bring to your craft.

Teachers and students are still working hard to address and recover from the academic and social/emotional impacts of the pandemic.  Many teachers are looking for experiences that bring joy to their students, engage them in learning, and help them regain their social/emotional balance. Cultural partners can engage students in new ways, encourage them to explore and learn, and provide a new voice to help students connect with their own voices through creative learning experiences. We are in awe of all that cultural partners bring to this work and the students and teachers they serve.

Many thanks to the teaching artists and scientists who shared their residency strategies, experience, and time with us:

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg of the Arts Integration Studio
  • Jay Mankita of Playful Engineers
  • Valerie Maio of Dance4All
  • Ethan Janis of Change is Simple
  • Faye Dupras of Cozy Arts
  • Dr. Sandra Pearl of SEED, Inc.

Learn More About STARS Residencies

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