Reflecting on Art Committee Work

It was exciting to articulate a vision statement, as tired as I was in an after school meeting. And I was tired because, after three days of teaching groups of kindergartners up close, I came down with a horrific headache and sore throat.  In spite of my weariness, the group was lively and thoughtful to articulate more of our focus, and, we are getting a glimpse of a statement of purpose. Whatever the goal is for the start-up year, which we assume will be 2017-18, it should be challenging but attainable with support.  Just like the learning goals we set for students.

We talked about the model developing over time, to make it doable, but I also concur with teachers on our need for clear expectations.  Give teachers a clear goal and they will nail it, with the provision they are given time and resources – and the encouragement, i.e. specific, positive feedback as they do it.   Be general in expectations, or keep moving the target, and we will have hostility.  This requires clear communication from leadership.

That brings my thoughts to buy-in.  Any program, read “school wide plan,” needs buy-in to succeed.  If the first year, or the five-year plan, is presented as a choice– play along when you feel like it and ignore it when you don’t like it, then, no matter how elegant the vision and expert the planning for implementation, it will fail.  The leadership for this developing arts program has to obtain the full buy in of the staff, otherwise it will become just another good idea that doesn’t make it.  Any prospective parent looking at the school advertising itself as an arts integration school will not be fooled.  This need for buy in requires clear communication among ourselves and by all levels of leadership.

While it was wise to poll the teachers to look at our expertise in residence, and sobering to look at the time constraints with mandated curricula, I don’t think any design will be effective without working from the students. It will be, by nature, a program.  Programs get in the way of good teaching.  I have heard quite a few conflicting ideas about what “arts integration” might look like.  Some views are basically arts enrichment, which do not meet the criteria of our stated vision, some are centered in performance arts, which is not the expertise indicated in the staff poll, and the county education representatives are promoting arts integration. That’s great, yet limited to classroom scenarios of teachers ramping up their teaching by engaging students in forms of tableaux, sketching, singing, and various arts activities at the service of the text book content, and which will be difficult to infuse all subjects with (take math, for example).  It makes our teaching more engaging.  Yet, if the vision is really the goal, (and I think it’s be wise to think hard on this and ask every single stake holder whether it is) then I have to go back to the students, not the curriculum or the program possibilities.  I maintain that, to go beyond being mere arts enrichment, we have to work with the way we view the students’ experience of school at Valle Vista. Not a short order.  The administration asked us to position our school in the market and see what would make us stand out among the other school choices in the area, while families are fleeing the high cost of living and local residents age beyond the child bearing years.

That means that teachers need a vision for themselves.  I think it would be good to ask each what his or her vision is.

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This brought me to the question, “What does being an artist mean to me for our students?”

What does engaging in the arts look like for students, across any given day? I needed to make a kind of bill of rights for why we might be doing this.  My first thoughts run along these lines: (and this is just a first draft, please!)

  1. All students deserve an expressive education that calls upon varied modes of learning.
  2. All students should be given authentic design problems and the time to engage in their solutions.
  3. All students deserve to learn skills and techniques used in the various expressive art forms.
  4. Our students need to be communicators who can make things for the real world and for real audiences.
  5. Teachers need to believe in students’ capacity to think, to make decisions, and to support each another in projects and performances.

If indeed we are going to aim to deliver a global education, then I think our school curriculum will need to be more student centered, expecting to create independent thinkers, writers, performers and doers. That is work and growth that happens over a time span.  Which means our teaching will have to shift to more modeling and coaching and less prescripted book work.  We might do well to stop buying expensive big box curricula. The very idea of arts includes the studio concept. That means time allotted to try it out, to practice, to get better, to revise, to make something better than the original idea.  It is process oriented, not product oriented.  Which is, by the way, scary for educational leaders and tired teachers.

I have challenged myself to focus on another question about what I believe about the value of arts education. (And I can’t help but wonder how other teachers, aids, parents, students might respond?)

What is my idea of students as artists? 

One of the key words that comes to mind is expressive.  We don’t live in an educational world that truly values expressiveness, partly because of the testing model.  Also, we have conditions, like full classrooms and time limits to deal with.  Children are by nature creative, curious and expressive, and I watch us teach them to be different than this.  I see them become conformed to the way all the projects on the bulletin board look, to the right answer in the workbook, and to formulaic work that shows little thought and less voice.

The other word that comes to mind is ambiguity.  In school, we have the idea that it’s all about the “work” we have to do.  We are driven by the notion that there’s x amount of information that has to be covered.  Instead, in order for real, independent, and meaningful learning to be happening – for creativity to be at play – teachers and students have to learn how to hang out with a certain amount of ambiguity.  Art process is messy and I don’t mean spilled tempera paint.  I mean that creating something starts out with not very much, looks worse, and then sometimes the maker discovers a good direction and pulls off something very cool.  Other times, not.  Creativity can’t be done for a grade. Another snaffoo in our system. The real question should NOT be about how much work we are doing, but how much learning is happening.  Not how much curriculum was covered, but what we can do with our learning.

The last word in my attempt to say what art means is play.  Even kindergarten has gotten so serious.  And play, in its true form, is very serious for children, as is the lack of play.  Play, in a rational world of testing, looks and feels like a waste of time.  It cannot be dismissed in the arts.  Experiment.  Sometimes we give lip service to the idea that learning should be fun, but is it, on a day to day basis, fun (in the sense of fulfilling) for most of our students?  Play can develop stamina, resiliency, empathy, and is a necessary stance for creative discovery. Play invites us to accept differing points of view, to try out roles that are bigger than our habits.

Is my school, are my colleagues ready to hang out in the messiness of expression, the ambiguity of the art process, and overcome our fear of wasting time in play?

There are schools in the world that exist for the sake of nurturing individual capacity.  This is not a new idea, but I think we need to take an honest look at what we believe to be true about art and being an artist, whether that is composing and performing music, designing a website for a social cause, publishing a graphic novel that makes students laugh, taking part in a drama production with all the teamwork required, or just wondering, “what if….”  It may require us to challenge or own ideas about teaching.  I don’t see how giving a school a persona, a special focus, working to make it unique, could simply be about putting on a costume. Wearing an art hat.

I think that the creative process is inherent in all the scientific discoveries, in the entrepreneurial world of business, in grappling with social issues as well as environmental concerns.  Being a communicator and a thinker is what the 21st century learning is all about.

I believe that Valle Vista offering arts integration – putting the vision into action will be exciting and enlivening for both our students and staff.  But then I have a vision that may not be shared by the rest of the staff.  I may just get at this from my own experience of the power of art.  This may be a completely personal essay that goes nowhere for another.

Yet, it what I think as I work on this committee.

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3 thoughts on “Reflecting on Art Committee Work”

    1. Lucy Calkins asks schools to consider their Bill of Rights when they implement Writing Workshop. I find it a useful way to say what I believe students deserve.

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