Yes! Magazine article: El Otro Lado with Aaron Stern and Chrissie Orr

by Aaron Stern and Chrissie Orr

This Artist and Composer Bring the Power of Story to Your Classroom. They Want You and Your Students to Truly Know “The Other Side” of Each Other.

Since 2011, the Academy for the Love of Learning has used story and art to help strengthen relationships and understanding in Santa Fe classrooms. Now, it’s ready to share its El Otro Lado curriculum with the rest of the country.

The Academy for the Love of Learning, located in the juniper and piñon-dotted hills outside Santa Fe, is a non-profit organization that offers programs to nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages, including teachers and community changemakers.

Its El Otro Lado (“the other side”) in the Schools (EOL) program engages artists, teachers, and students in the creative process of exploring our human connection to the land, our sense of home and belonging, and our consciousness of boundaries and cultural divides. Through sharing their stories, teachers and students learn to see each other in new ways to build a more kind and caring classroom community.

In this free sample lesson, “Journey Maps,” (English and Spanish) teachers describe a journey that they have taken in their lives to prompt memories in their students. The full printable online version of the El Otro Lado Curriculum Guide is available for $50 at the Academy for the Love of Learning website. The guide includes 17 bilingual lessons (English-Spanish), in addition to teaching tips and opportunities for additional training.

Aaron Stern is president and founder of the Academy for the Love of Learning—a “think and do” tank. Aaron collaborated with beloved musician and mentor Leonard Bernstein to create the Academy in their quest to find ways to awaken, nurture, and sustain the lifelong love of learning as a means to becoming more fully human. Aaron is also a musician, teacher, father, grandfather, and internationally recognized consultant on learning.

Chrissie Orr, a Scottish native, is a co-founder, with Aaron Stern, of El Otro Lado in the Schools, and the Living Story Collaborative. Chrissie is internationally recognized for her pioneering work in community-based projects. She helped establish the SeedBroadcast Collective, a mobile broadcasting station that gives voice to the often unheard stories of local agriculture and seed sharing. She is also an artist, animateur, journaler, and recipient of the Santa Fe Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Aaron and Chrissie spoke with YES! about El Otro Lado in the Schools, which they created together. Their answers have been lightly edited.


What inspired El Otro Lado in the Schools, and why is it important to you? What makes this curriculum unique?

Aaron: As a child, I perpetually felt like the odd kid out—unwelcomed, not accepted. I played classical music and listened to opera. As an adult, I became resolved to understand and remedy this both in myself and others. I believe that many of us experience this alienation, resulting in a silent suffering, that can be healed through programs like El Otro Lado in the Schools.

In 2007, Chrissie introduced me to El Otro Lado, a community arts project she was designing. I immediately thought of the kids.

If we could so something that deeply connected kids through their stories, it would naturally foster empathy and bring them together as a classroom community. I also imagined classroom teachers with support to teach their classes experientially—using poetry, arts, story—and celebrating the individuality of each student, while still teaching the required curriculum. Teachers would benefit immensely.

Chrissie: Like many students in our Santa Fe schools, I am from “the other side.” I am an immigrant, now living in the desert southwest with a British passport and a green card. I live in a place that I still do not call home, and I am a visitor in my homeland.

In 2007, I created El Otro Lado: The Other Side. It was a participatory arts project that emerged from in-depth conversations with new immigrants, immigrant rights advocates and community members. The name comes from the first participants, women from south of the border, who call the United States, “El Otro Lado.”

Aaron and I saw the potential to bring a version of El Otro Lado into Santa Fe’s public schools to create empathy and a sense of belonging within the classroom. By 2008, EOL became an integral part of the Academy for the Love of Learning. As our world spins faster and our educational systems are being shaken to the core, we believe that our work can activate a renewed sense of learning, caring, and teaching.

Our approach is unconventional: Teachers and teaching-artists needn’t set aside academic skill-building to engage in the arts. By carefully observing their students, teachers can find ample opportunity to help their classes develop and practice academic skills without sacrificing any of the richness, imagination and joy of the El Otro Lado experience.

What do you want students to take away from these lessons and stories? What do you want them to know and do, and are there any ways to assess this?
We want students—and teachers— to see themselves in a new light, and to understand that their unique cultural roots and identity are not only valued, but are also a vital source of creativity. This awareness allows the classroom family to see one another in new and caring ways. Our intent is that the culture of the classroom shifts through this year-long investigation of personal and collective story—each student sharing his or her own story.

We want students—and teachers —to see themselves in a new light…

At the end of each year, we bring together all EOL classes in a culminating event “De Donde Somos.” All poems, stories, artwork performance, and journals are publicly witnessed. There is a palpable vitality that enters the space to enliven the personal stories. That energy transforms the individual stories into a collective story that brings a new level of consciousness for everyone.

A teacher sat on the classroom floor, spread out her family quilt, and invited her students to join her. All eyes and ears were with this teacher as she talked about how the patterned squares represented members of her family. As she told the students that she slept under the quilt to especially remind her of her mother, she revealed herself in a new light. This story helped her students make the shift to empathy. In some ways it is so simple.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to use this curriculum and stories?

This is not just for your students—it’s also for you.

Here’s what we like to tell teachers: We hope that you embrace the art of teaching by sharing and taking part in EOL experiences. This is not just for your students—it’s also for you. Slow down, breathe, and take moments of reflection in the middle of all the work you have to cover. Find ways to incorporate the curriculum guide into learning standards you’re required to cover so it doesn’t add an extra load to your day. Let EOL add joy, creativity, and lightness to those teaching moments. This calls for vulnerability, which is not always easy in a classroom setting. There are also many resources for the well-being of the teacher in the EOL Teaching Guide.

What additional resources do you recommend?
The Kennedy Center Arts Edge

Voice of Witness

We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, by Myles Horton and Paolo Freire

STORY: An uncommon creative community

Motivate Us: Who am I?

What’s your story?
Aaron:  When I was 4 years old, I was at a babysitter’s house and played the piano for the first time— songs that my parents listened to on the radio. I don’t know how or why I knew how to play music, but it has been at the center of my life ever since. Music is my touchstone and guidance system, and I expect the world to mirror its complexities and beauty. In my late twenties, while Dean of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, I dreamt up the Academy for the Love of Learning with my mentor Leonard Bernstein. The Academy for me is living music!

I don’t know how or why I knew how to play music, but it has been at the center of my life ever since.

Among the most moving experiences I’ve ever had was accompanying my 8-year-old granddaughter, Francesca, to her first surfing lesson; a self-initiated rite of passage. As she approached the ocean, she numinously paused to access the clarity of her intent, got on her surfboard, and paddled out to meet her very first wave. WOW!! She came back more fully herself, having stepped into new capacities of soul. That is something we talk about at the Academy, the soul’s urge to learn—elevating an understanding that learning is, ultimately, a practice that can awaken our hearts and destinies.

Chrissie: I made the long journey from the city of Edinburgh to the “other side” twenty–six years ago with a resident alien card, three suitcases full of journals and clothes, my eight year-old red-headed daughter, a collection of strange memories, and my damp Scottish patterns. I removed myself from where I was from, and landed in a place where I was not from. I had to learn a new way of being.

I removed myself from where I was from, and landed in a place where I was not from.

I did not expect to stay in New Mexico for so long, but it has been an experience that has cut away and reshaped my story in ways I would have never imagined. Now I have a five-year-old granddaughter who was born here, so where I call home is changing.

My hope is that by remembering and sharing our stories, the borders that separate us will dissolve, silenced voices will be heard, and new horizons will be uncovered.