Newsletter, February 2017



Arts and Humanities Civic Engagement


Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes arts and humanities as social resources.



  • Pre-Texts Workshop at Conservatory Lab Charter School
  • WHEN: February 8 and 15 | 12:30p.m.- 3:30p.m.
  • WHERE: Conservatory Lab Charter School, 2120 Dorchester Ave, Dorchester, MA 02124, USA
  • WHAT: The Pre-Texts trainers team is collaborating with Dr. Linda Nathan, the Executive Director of Center for Artistry and Scholarship. She will be facilitating a series of Pre-Texts training workshop for education leaders of CLCS (Conservatory Lab Charter School –
  • Visit our flickr to see the first session:
  • 2017 HNMCP Art Competition
  • DESCRIPTION: Want to be paid $200 to have your art displayed at Harvard Law School? The Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program is searching for artwork that reflects themes of peacekeeping, negotiation, and/or conflict resolution to decorate the walls of its office at HLS! Submit your artwork for a chance to win $200 and have your artwork displayed at HLS for a year!
  • DEADLINE: March 17, 2017
  • Terms and conditions: |
  • Questions:

General News: Cultural Agents 

Second Symposium on the Afrodescendants Movement and Latin American Studies

There was a Second Symposium on African descendants and Latin Studies at Cartagena, Colombia on December 9th and 10th. The Afrodescendant movement includes diasporic activists, academics, international organizations, and political leaders. Professor Doris Sommer, the Director of the Cultural Agents, was invited to participate in the conference. This conference recognized the importance of moving beyond the hegemonic discourse of White Western European knowledge to include knowledges of excluded black thought. Also, the power of arts was mentioned to represent transformative knowledge. The diverse presentations from different community groups and organizations expressed their ways of collaborative knowledge and research.The Cartagena conference brought many scholars and leaders from Latin America who are involved with Afrodescendant movements and other movements. It was a space of cultural, intellectual information and exchanges and establishment of partnerships and alliances.

Visit the Official Site of 2nd Symposium on the Movement and Latin American Studies: 

Cultural Agents Course Students Testimonies

On December 7th students from the course “Cultural Agents: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding”, taught by Professor Doris Sommer at Harvard University, gathered at Knafel Cafe to present their final projects. The assignments required students to design creative aesthetic interventions to address social issues pertinent to our times. This year’s event showcased a series of refreshing and creative ways of problem solving, innovative interventions, and the great possibilities of smart collaborations.  Some of the ideas presented during the Cultural Agents Student Fair ranged from: digital spaces of dialogue that break through echo chambers; ways of responding to hateful rhetoric; the crowdsourcing and development of dotacle glasses for global education; the re-envisioning of details in public spaces; and awareness of mental health issues in college campuses.
For the full album, please see:

My project is “Seeing a Better World: The Role of Virtual Reality in Combating Hospital Induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So, the pediatric cancer world has been my biggest passion for the last 8 or 9 years, and I’ve been blessed to use art in combating it to a certain degree with music and songwriting, for the kids that I mentor through their cancer battles. But it seemed like the art means and the tech means of combating pediatric cancer as very distinct things and the biggest thing that this class and this project taught me is that there is a degree of artistry in innovating. Say, using virtual reality, creating these artistic worlds, which the patients go through finding cures or in treating secondary illnesses and mental impacts that they have. The biggest thing that this class taught me was that, there really is art in so many different facets of life that we don’t necessarily associate.


Cultural Agents Course Student

“Humanizing The Crimson Through Social Media Through Humanistic Reimagining” […] was born from me trying to apply the concepts taught within class with the extracurricular things I’m doing. Putting on an aesthetic view and artistic lens into solving issues that have been typically tackled with big data, efficiency, and questions about how to do it mathematically and rationally. A shift in mindset can do a lot of difference. If you think artistically and aesthetically, a lot of the issues that have failed through traditional methods of analytics are successful. At least that is what I’ve learned from the course and by trying to apply these things to the extracurricular life I have.

– J.S.
Cultural Agents Course Student
General News: Pre-Texts


Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) Speaker Series: Pre-Texts – The Arts Teach (Anything)

This event featured FAS (Faculty of Arts and Science) and HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education) instructors discussing Pre-Texts, a program for educational professionals to employ close reading and critical thinking skills by making art based on challenging texts.

“To teach broad basis of poor people how to enjoy a difficult text to not to leave them behind the lettered city”. “Why not invite young people into rigorous freedom of making art and we can educate the world.” Doris Sommer

“Is pretext an appropriate way to learn as a second language english learner?” “…Participating in arts activity that are designed for and evolved around the targeted text that the teachers will teach will help them to be speakers and get into learning from non-traditional method” Gigi Luk

“Thank you for the Pre-Text activities. I enjoyed it so much because it really involved a deep engagement with the text and we play with the text.” A member of the audience

Learning Global Citizenship Through Shared Experiences Involving Art, Literature, and Culture with Syrian Refugees in Connecticut


Two UConn ECE teachers from The Master’s School in West Simsbury have been awarded a grant for their joint proposal for a collaborative, project-based learning initiative designed to address the psychosocial effects of war and resettlement on refugees in Connecticut. Sarah King (SI 12), who teaches ECE English 1011, and Lisa-Brit Wahlberg, who teaches ECE Political Science 1402, plan to use art, literature, and community activities to teach citizenship, social justice, and cultural awareness. Students and refugee participants will engage in journal making, writing, and activities to record their stories, discussions, and shared experiences.

The proposal developed for both teachers out of a concern for the global refugee crisis, which led to discussions that involved seeking ways to engage students in active citizenship. King and Wahlberg agree that the UConn ECE Small Grant for Classroom and Community Development application provided the encouragement  and opportunity to generate their ideas into a planned initiative. Their project is titled “Finding Humanity in the Story of Resettlement: Learning Global Citizenship through Shared Experiences involving Art, Literature, and Culture with Syrian Refugees in Connecticut,” and will begin immediately with teacher training at IRIS—Integrated  Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven.

Part of the motivation to write the grant proposal resulted from King’s participation in the September 30, 2016 Pre-Texts workshop at Storrs, sponsored by the Connecticut Writing Project. The workshop, led by Doris Sommer from Harvard, trained teachers to use multiple art forms as expressions of story. Somers reinforced the power of creativity in learning, as it allows readers to engage in multi-sensory processing, enhanced memory, and deeper connections with texts, which inspire people to share their stories in community.

King and Wahlberg will continue to lead their students in their respective ECE English and Political Science classes, and have also scheduled joint classes for collaborative training sessions and field trips. Their project will connect students with child refugees and their families in various settings to teach global citizenship and cultural sensitivity. UConn provided another venue for King and Wahlberg to launch their ECE project ideas when the Dodd Research Center hosted the Children’s Literature and Human Rights Panel on November 10, 2016. UConn Professor Pegi Deitz Shea was a panel presenter who discussed her numerous children’s books about resettlement and her writing workshops with refugees. Professor Shea’s commitment to social justice and activism has prompted a new book project which will include refugee student writing and artwork. Syrian artist Mohamed Hafez will work with Shea to lead art and poetry workshops for refugee students in New Haven.

King and Wahlberg are grateful for the opportunity to volunteer at these workshops in 2017 and are encouraged by this kind of support and continued networking provided by the UConn community. They look forward to leading their ECE students in activities and written reflections that are intended to encourage compassionate  citizenship.

Sarah King and Lisa-Brit Wahlberg,
Connecticut Writing Project, TWR

Pre-Texts in China

In November 2016 I attended a Pre-Text training workshop in Shenzhen, China.
The Pre-text programme provided a great opportunity for me as a teacher to discover an innovative new method of teaching, and I discovered that there were many valuable aspects to it. What struck me most about the programme was the level of engagement elicited from the participants. By using literature as a base, students asked their own questions, created art and acknowledged other students’ achievements. Through engaging with the text in fresh ways, the students took full ownership of it, which in turn leads to deeper comprehension and appreciation of literature. Afterwards, students were asked to nominate and verbally express their admiration of another’s work. This allowed each participant to step out of themselves and foster a gracious and magnanimous mindset, and so develop themselves further on a personal level. I found the programme both interesting and worthwhile and would recommend it to other English and ESL teachers who are seeking ground breaking new ways to enhance learning in their students.

Sharon / ESL Teacher (Shenzhen, China)

Pre-Texts at UConn Brings Art and Social Justice to the Classroom

Harvard’s Doris Sommer Works With Teachers

Amanda Navarra (SI 08), Justis Lopez, and Matt Delaney of Manchester High School make cartoneras, or handmade books.

Doris Sommer hopes to do no less than change the world, and she plans to do so with art.  Professor Sommer teaches Romance Languages and Literatures and African and African American Studies at Harvard, and she is also the founder of Cultural Agents, which is dedicated to the use of the arts and the humanities in public engagement. Specifically, Professor Sommer has developed a program called Pre-Texts that teaches teachers how to use the arts and humanities to teach their students to interpret texts in ways that disrupt and develop culture.

Professor Sommer came to UConn on Friday, September 30, to run two workshops for K-12 teachers, professors, and graduate students.  Her visit was sponsored by the English Department, the Connecticut Writing Project, the Equity and Social Justice Committee of the Neag School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

The majority of the 31 educators in attendance were middle- and high school English teachers, but there were also many art teachers, social studies teachers, language teachers, and K-6 teachers, as well as a smattering of English graduate students and professors of education.

The first workshop was preceded by ice-breaking activities based on the work of Agosto Boal, author of Games for Actors and Non-Actors and Theater of the Oppressed, which extends the work of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed into the world of art and art education.

Once everyone was sufficiently warmed up and familiarized with one another’s names, Professor Sommer introduced an activity based on the work of the cartoneras of Buenos Aires and the lectores of the Cuban cigar factories.  The cartoneras made books from scrap cardboard for mostly middle class readers during the depths of the Argentine great depression, which lasted from 1988 to 2002.  The Cuban lectores read books to the cigar rollers, many of whom were illiterate and few of whom had access to other forms of literature or literacy.  The practice began in the 1860s and continues today in some parts of Cuba.

One of the teachers, Mary Gelezunas of Ellington High School, read the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to her colleagues while the rest of the teachers created cartoneras from art supplies, and then wrote questions on papers that were hung from an improvised clothesline (also an adapted practice of distributing poetry in poor communities in parts of Latin America) strung beneath the high ceilings and tall windows of the North Reading Room of the Wilbur Cross Building.

The second activity was called figuras and involved creating physical sculptures (figures) that embodied figures of speech in the text.  This was done in groups of four, fishbowl-style, so that the teachers sitting in the circle had to use the text to locate and identify the figures of speech being embodied by the figural sculptures.

After lunch, two teachers from the group led their peers in different art-based interpretive activities.  James Shivers, an English teacher at CREC Public Safety Academy in Enfield, had the teachers create something akin to blackout poems but based more on the work of Tom Phillips, whose “A Humument” can be seen at MassMOCA.

Then Elisabeth Caplan, an art teacher from North Branford High, had the teachers create haiku from keywords selected from the text.

The final activity of the day was musical.  Professor Sommer asked for three volunteers to sing songs, and then the other teachers were asked to identify passages in the text that exemplified the tonal quality of the songs sung.  Amanda Navarra, an English teacher from Manchester High, sang the theme song from Titanic.  Justis Lopez and Matt Delaney, social studies and English teachers also from Manchester High, did a human beat box.  Sarah King of the Master’s School in Simsbury sang “Counting Stars” by One Republic.  The teachers identified passages that exemplified the melancholy tone of Titanic, the staccato rhythms of the beat box, and the upbeat, welcoming tone of “Counting Stars.”

The teachers thoroughly enjoyed their day of creative expression and interpretation, and while some expressed doubts about their ability to effectively insinuate these activities into the data-driven classrooms characteristic of today’s schools, most were encouraged and hopeful about the potential for Pre-Texts activities to re-shape the cultures of their classrooms. Sarah King of The Masters School said, “This workshop was refreshing and exciting. As a public school art educator, I find it is rare that the professional development workshops we take at school relate to my discipline—or relate to helping our students in the classroom at all. This workshop can be useful for so many students in so many subject areas.”

Connecticut Writing Project, TWR

Pre-Texts in Adolfo Ibañez University, Chile


In mid-January, a diverse group of teachers and professionals from different disciplines gathered at the Adolfo Ibanez University, in the pre-mountain range of Santiago de Chile, with one interest: participating in the Pre-Texts workshop with Professor Sergio Araya, Dean of Design at the AIU, and Professor Doris Sommer, Director of Cultural Agents.

Briefly, Doris facilitated the first activity: a warming up that was a corporal work, a human knot, that had to be unraveled. This served to “break the ice”, because many of us did not know each other yet. Then, we made cardboard books, listened to read aloud, asked questions to the text to publish in the “cordel”, etc. The group dynamics around the texts surprised us, day after day.

The text that we chosen was “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury. It is a science fiction story, and we approached it in different ways: from plastic arts, acting, biology, food, design with laser cutting, electronics, pedagogy, journalism and different tangents of the texts. This tangents are especially important on Pre-Texts and refer to how the text is approached by the reader when unraveling it from different angles. Doris recommended us to bring some documents related directly or indirectly to the story to crumble it and “Go off on a tangent”. Therefore, we printed different documents from internet with different contents. For example, a new discovery about the geography of the planet Venus and an article about female power.

These papers were hung on the “cordel” and served us to read the texts and understand the story through the perspective of our colleges. This activity will be very useful to work with our students and the most varied disciplines.

After five days together in the foothills of the pre-mountain range of Santiago, we approached, we moved and we united around a text in an experience that we will never forget. All thanks to the pretexts.

Francisca Jiménez

Read the article about Pre-Texts in AIU (spanish content):


Featured Story

Woven Chronicles Symbolizes Cultural Exchange

IMAGE SOURCE: The Museum of Modern Art
Until January 22, 2017, the Woven Chronicles was on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York.  Artist Reena Saini Kallat traces migratory paths, human movement, and cultural exchanges around the world in the Woven Chronicles. The wires divulge Kallat’s interest in “the notion of the map as dynamic, ever changing, streaming and transferring data with the global flows of energies and people, as the courses of these travelers intersect.”

I was interested in working with yarn, the trade between India and Sweden and from thinking of yarn, I eventually arrived at working with electric wires, or cables, that would be treated like yarn, to form the work. So I began tracing migrant routes, historically going from indentured labour, to the different kinds of migrants, whether they’re settlers, contract workers, professionals, asylum seekers or refugees. While wires are meant to be transmitters of energy, flows of exchange and ideas, they in this case are converted into barbed wire and cables, and fencing. These kind of inherent contradictions that the work seems to hold within it was something I was interested in working around.


There is also another side to this, where the barbed wire can be seen as a blockade of sorts, in our idea of a cosmopolitan world, and this idyllic vision of multiculturalism that we seem to have, even though there are flaws that are ingrained in the system that prevent it from being ideal.


On the one hand it symbolizes these connections, and yet on the other we know that there are inequities. It’s not necessarily this kind of all-inclusive space as we’d like to think, there are several impediments to cross, and deep rooted prejudices to overcome, so it’s as much about these obstacles.

Ironically, now even as cultures are blending with a greater movement of people and information than any other moment in human history, borders have become more and more controlled and monitored than ever before. So there are many layers of contradictions this web of entanglements holds within it, which are as much a reality as these connections.

Reena Saini Kallat


For more information on upcoming events, please visit our website:

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