The Passion Project: Using Cultural Figures to Unlock Creativity in Students

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, starring Margot Robbie as the iconic doll, dominated the box office in 2023. Anyone who thought the film was all lighthearted pink froth, missed the more serious message delivered by America Ferrara, who played Gloria, a mother and Mattel employee. Beginning with “It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Ferrara’s character hit on all the stereotypes women are forced to battle throughout their lifetimes. One of her ending lines: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us,” left mothers and daughters, and yes, fathers and sons, with tears in their eyes. Delivery of that impassioned speech is one reason Ferrara has been nominated in the Supporting Actress category for an Academy Award. The Oscars will be presented on March 10, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, and televised on ABC.

Ferrara’s monologue resonated with Gina Canape and Mary Ortiz-Martinez, teachers at the national award-wining School of Arts + Enterprise, located in Pomona, California. Since March has also been designated as Women’s History Month, the two educators felt Ferrara’s message fit in with an educational platform called “The Passion Project,” that they have developed for their school. 

Artwork courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

SAE, accredited by the state of California, is a non-profit, tuition-free charter school which focuses on art, dance, design, music, photography, and theater. No audition is required for admittance and the school attracts students from all over Southern California. Another attraction is the school’s small size, with only 750 students from grades six through twelve. 

Coming out of the pandemic, there’s been much written about students falling behind in key subjects, their scores dropping on standardized tests. At the same time, teachers, burned out because of their long hours and low pay, have been leaving the profession. What’s often overlooked is another development. Many teachers are stepping up, dedicated to their students, finding new ways to inspire them, to tap into their talents and help them prepare for careers.

SAE is one such school and one way teachers there engage students is by using well-known cultural figures who can share their own experiences and show that, no matter the obstacles, there’s always a way ahead. America Ferrara stands out as one such example.

“Ferrara’s passion is acting and we are a performing arts school,” Gina said, explaining why the actress was chosen as the centerpiece of an educational project. In Ferrara’s TET talk she pushed back against Hollywood’s tendency to stereotype her, and other actors, according to their looks and ethnicity. “In middle school, students struggle so much with identity and not letting others impact them,” said Gina. “She addresses these topics and so many others, like current day racism, that a lot of people do not want to acknowledge. She does this in such an unbelievable way and is a true role model for our young generations.”

Mary Ortiz-Martinez and Gina Canape kick off the Kobe Bryant interactive room for Dear Basketball

Gina began working on the precursor to The Passion Project more than four years ago when she taught at another school. After Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020, she discovered Dear Basketball, the 2017 animated film he had narrated. “I knew I had to do something with this film,” she said. Since Covid had forced remote learning, Gina created an interactive program that featured speeches Bryant had given throughout his career. Students were then asked to create their own essays and poems. “I knew this project had so much more potential, but I was not at a school that supported my `out of the box’ ideas,” Gina said. “Starting at SAE changed that and really allowed me to grow as a teacher.”

Gina found support and a new team at SAE. She and Mary Ortiz-Martinez came on board at SAE at the same time and immediately clicked. “As we started working together, we really started to build a foundation to help our students and to make curriculum fun and meaningful,” she said. After much brainstorming, they recognized that anything they did had to tap into a student’s passion. They worked on outlines and templates and met with the school’s Chief Academic Officer Paul Treesuwant and Chief Executive Officer Jon Gundry. An important mentor continues to be Phil Miller, SAE’s Chief Development + Marketing Officer, who also is the school’s Founding Artistic Director.

The Passion Project was implemented  in January 2023 and is added to every year with a full semester of plans built into it. Students create personal narratives, an exercise in creative writing which involves building paragraphs and using transitions. An interactive sensory workshop allows students to use all their senses as they process their feelings. Students create a public product to display.

SAE students at the first interactive sixth and seventh sensory workshop

“What I love about The Passion Project is the energy it brings in the classroom and the passion our faculty have shown in collaborating with each other with a common goal – – student learning and growth,” said Miller. “As a former classroom teacher with over 16 years of classroom experience, I view my role as helping remove as many obstacles as possible for our teachers and supporting their ability to provide the best experience for our youngest creatives,” he added.

While SAE is an arts school, the curriculum also includes a comprehensive college preparatory program. Graduates are accepted by an impressive list of universities and arts conservatory programs, including the University of Southern California, the Berkeley College of Music, Columbia University, New York University, the New School, and Marymount Manhattan. “The Passion Project is rooted in Project Based Learning and designed with an approach to uplift and expand on traditional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) curriculum,” said Miller. “What makes The School of Arts + Enterprise a school unlike most is our faculty’s ability to develop engaging curriculum while infusing it with the creative nature of our nationally award winning arts programs.”

 SAE students at the first interactive sixth and seventh sensory workshop

“We want students to be engaged, and sitting behind a desk or behind a computer doesn’t always allow for students to use their creativity or learn to their full potential,” Gina said. “We are essentially rewriting how curriculum is taught and learned.” She anticipates that The Passion Project will evolve and grow each year. Mary added: “The Passion Project is my favorite part of the year because the students get to showcase their passions and get very involved in doing so. They collaborate with other students on their projects and are consistently striving to improve.” 

Right now the focus is on Ferrara, beginning with her Barbie monologue and TET talk. “Students will be focusing on passions, current day racism, and identity,” said Gina. They will be asked to answer questions like: Have you been isolated or judged for your ethnicity, beliefs, culture, or identity? Do you feel supported by society? Is society treating you equally? Students will then create and present their own version of Ferrara’s Barbie monologue. 

SAE’s The Passion Project is forward thinking and innovative, but also brave, providing a safe space where students can think, create, and talk about their feelings without being silenced or judged. “The Passion Project is developed in a manner that great curriculum is – collaborative, with teachers fueled with energy and a desire to make decisions and moments in the best interest of students.” Miler said. “I am excited to see how this curriculum and curricular team continue to develop in the future.”

Top photo: Mary Ortiz-Martinez (left) and Gina Canape at the first SAE sixxth and seventh interactive sensory workshop. 

All school photos courtesy of the School of Arts + Enterprise

For more information, go to the School of Arts + Enterprise’s website.

About Charlene Giannetti (690 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.