Dear Maxine…are we there yet? | Laura Reeder

Maxine Greene, a beloved educator and lifelong advocate for teaching artistry died on May 29th, 2014. This post was written two weeks later as I was putting the final touches to years of dissertation research on “Teaching Artistry as a Critical Community of Practice”. These two events were important to me, because they marked a turning point in my own career…Was I going to leave my gritty and passionate practices in classrooms and community sites behind for spinning philosophies and writing papers? Or was I going to pocket the deeper knowledge that I had gained and apply it to more passionate practices in the arts education ecosystem?

Maxine reminded me that I might find a way to do both.

As a gesture to this wonderful woman, please pause to consider some of her advisement. She never mentions the arts in this quote, but she does indeed invoke the passion of artistic life learning breaking through the crust, defamiliarizing familiarity, overcoming passivity…and awakening…as if things could be otherwise!

To be sunk in habitual routines, to be merely passive is, we well know , to miss an opportunity for awakening. But we as teachers take the chances the young do when we try to enable them to defamiliarize their familiar situations, to take another look at them, to break through the crust, to reflect on things as if they could be otherwise .” -Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar

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Message sharing at our town hall meeting: Americans for the Arts (2014)

 I was recently asked to facilitate a town hall meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, among arts education leaders at an Americans for the Arts conference. This gathering was intended for people who participated in national-level advocacy work, informing policymakers about the needs and abilities of arts education communities around the United States. A majority of these people lived and worked as artists, and more specifically, as teaching artists at some point in their careers. Many still did, even as they took on the extra challenge of administration for non-profit organizations or as advocates for arts and educational issues in their home regions.

This session was intended to provide synthesis after two days of exploring issues such as racial and economic inequity in access to arts experiences, large-scale cuts in arts positions in failing school districts, challenges and benefits of political and corporate partnerships, and ways to make a “collective impact” (NEA, 2014) with networked data from arts programming. I was sincerely worried that we would leave our town hall meeting with meaningless platitudes if we revisited these topics. They were topics that have plagued the work of arts educators for at least a century since the establishment of arts education as a discipline in schools and cultural centers. If we have not solved them by now, then our little hour-long talk was not likely to change much.

On my flight to this meeting, I had been re-reading Dear Maxine: Letters from the unfinished conversation with Maxine Greene (Lake, 2010). In this book, people from many places in the world wrote letters to the patron-philosopher of critical, open-ended “wide-awakeness” in arts and learning to tell her what they had learned from her work. The book title referenced her philosophy as “unfinished” – as an ode to her never-ending dissatisfaction with a status quo world. The letters were making me happy and sad. Sad, because I missed the leadership of a woman who valued the meandering and meaningful learning that came with artistic experience. Maxine Greene had died only two weeks before this meeting. Happy, because it reminded me that I was about to spend time with a roomful of people that did not need to be reminded about this philosophy. They already knew Maxine. They all had unfinished business in their work.

So, with funding leaders, executive directors, program coordinators, political activists, school administrators, and of course teaching artists in the room, I suggested that we write letters to someone outside of our own sphere of influence as a way to reflect on important ideas that we could each share with someone else. We reflected on our own personal positions and problems and then reached out and addressed our letters to real people to recall why and how we envisioned changing the way things were. There were angry letters, frustrated letters, encouraging letters, confused and searching letters, logical letters, letters of appeal, and overwhelmingly: passionate, discontented letters.

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With individual and combined voices, we performed and exchanged the contents of our letters and found that our advocacy was not going to come together in smooth and simple messages. We were reminded about the diversity of our situations and needs. Was this a successful town hall meeting? I do not really know. If you measure success in unified messaging, then probably not. If you measure success in unified dissatisfaction with the way things are, then perhaps we were successful.

Hudson, A. (2014). A New Vision for Arts Education. Art Works Blog, National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved at: http://arts.gov/art-works/2014/new-vision-arts-education.

Lake, R. (2010). Dear Maxine: letters from the unfinished conversations with MaxineGreene. New York: Teachers College Press.

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