A few years ago one of my students, Ally, said something to me that sticks with me to this day. As she was trying to explain why making art is so important to her, she paused thoughtfully and said, “Art forces people to think and feel. It rattles and eases the mind.” Ally described her art making process as one where she’s constantly thinking, working things out while her fingers push the pencil or the paintbrush. As she gets deeper into the work, her movements become meditative and peaceful, creating a space that eases her mind. For Ally, having this experience regularly available in school made all the difference. Art offered her, as writer John Updike reminds us, “…a certain breathing room for the spirit.”
Ally’s words and ideas continue to resonate, rattling away in my own mind as I’ve moved on from the alternative school where I taught English and Art for seven years, to my current position teaching in a dual-enrollment program for high school seniors interested in education careers. As my role has shifted to working with early pre-service teachers, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what their preparation should look like. What do my students need to become not only effective teachers, but also imaginative teachers? At a time dominated by high stakes testing, teacher preparation reform efforts leave very little “breathing room for the spirit” or the imagination, and this reality has left me wondering where Ally’s experience fits in. So this past year I set out with my own reform effort: to implement an arts-integrated approach into this early pre-service teacher prep program with the goal of developing inquiry, creativity, and imagination.
My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by my students’ initial confused reactions. My students, who want to be primarily math, science, history, or English teachers, struggled to understand what arts integration has to do with their future professional dreams. Why should Ally’s experience matter to them? After all, she’s just one student who happens to need art to think clearly.
Many people, including my own students, would argue that students like Ally can take an art class or make art at home on their own time, that it’s not necessary to provide these experiences throughout the school day—or that teachers can provide an art option for their artistically inclined students. While providing an art option may seem to address the needs of a wider range of students, it marginalizes the power the arts holds for deep learning for all students. Maybe we are missing the point by only looking at students like Ally when we think about whom the arts benefit. What do we lose when we position the arts as being necessary and beneficial for only a certain population of students? How might making room for all students to embrace the tension between the rattle and the ease lead to deeper learning? And further still, how can engaging in arts experiences help teachers, both practicing and pre-service, develop a more intentional teaching practice?
Figure 1: Designing the foundation for the visual teaching philosophy at FWM.
As a teacher of early pre-service teachers, these questions are central to my work. Many of my students, including those who identify as artists, view requiring arts experiences for all in the classroom as an imposition, rather than one filled with possibility. The project we embarked on over the last year addressed these ideas head on. As part of a year-long research study, my students engaged in a variety of arts experiences, which I designed and developed with my co-teacher Kathleen Moody, and teaching artists Shelby Donnelly and Ryan Parker, both from The Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia (FWM).
As part of the project, students created visual representations of relevant themes and issues related to teaching and learning. Students participated in two field trips to FWM where they were exposed to contemporary art exhibits and had the opportunity to silk-screen print in the museum’s studio. Students also kept a sketchbook as well as created a mixed media visual teaching philosophy.
Figure 2: Playing with silkscreen printing.
The visual philosophies were created from a combination of smaller individual silk-screen works and other fabrics the students chose to include. Students selected, cut, sewed and glued pieces of their artworks to create a collaged mixed-media work, which represents the “pieces” of their emerging teaching philosophy. Each work (like each individual) has its own story, which is evident in the range of ways that students took up this work.
Figure 3: Student work on mylar
Figure 4: Mixed-Media Visual Teaching Philosophies
As my students built their visual teaching philosophies over time, many students discovered a profound shift in their thinking, while others continued to wonder at the value of this approach. Their stories, many and varied, will be the focus of my future posts here on ALT/space. I look forward to sharing them with you in the upcoming months.