Language Matters | Malke Rosenfeld


As teaching artists we write about our work for many reasons.  We write applications to arts education rosters.  We write to state granting agencies or other funding sources.  We keep blogs on our websites to let people know what we’re up to.  We write about what we do so communities, teachers and school districts will hire us.  In the process we often write in general terms using the current language of schools, education standards, arts organizations, and grant makers.  Unfortunately, these words are particular to a certain point of view, highly formalized and, most importantly, vague and many steps removed from the real work and learning happening in our classrooms.

It’s time we used our own language to talk about our work.  Not just to talk to each other, although we need more of that too.  We need to write about our teaching in our own words; there is no other way to describe exactly what is happening when we make art together with our students.  We need to write clearly and with great detail, about what our students do, what kinds of conversations we have, what their questions are, what we’re thinking about while we teach, how students interact, and what we do when challenges inevitably present themselves.

Using our own words, we need to engage in regular written reflection in public venues – not just about the nuts and bolts of a freelance lifestyle or applying to rosters, but about what we’re doing with our students and why.  We need to examine our motivations, our approaches, and hear others doing the same thing.  We need to document our work with images, videos and writing that share our goals, challenges, and solutions within the context of our personal approach to teaching art.

We need to do this because art making is personal and so is the teaching.  Because the words of standardization can never fully or realistically communicate what we do.  Because if we use these standardized words to describe our individual approaches we will obscure the uniqueness, quality and meaning inherent in our work.  Words matter.

The stories collected in this special issue, all originally published on ALT/space online between August 2011 and January 2014, are stunning examples of a very different and powerful way to communicate about teaching artist practice.

These stories of practice are about what happens both in and around classroom or studio work.  These are stories that illustrate a moment or issue that has bearing on the processes of learning to make art.  These are stories that are both highly personal and, often, universal to teaching artist experience. Some have been written as a way to problem solve or clarify thinking around a specific issue, or as a way to resolve a particularly challenging situation, or to simply document what art making looks like inside a classroom.  The theme that emerges after two and a half years of ALT/space online is that honest and detailed writing in personally relevant language clearly and powerfully illustrates the hows and whys of what it is we actually do.

These are also stories to help you think about how you might start writing about your own work in a way that can be useful to you, your colleagues and interested others. These are stories that can help you think about what it is that you want to say, whether you are writing for a newsletter, an arts organization blog, your own blog, or an article in a peer-reviewed publication.

Each of the five sections in this issue illustrates a specific approach or starting place for writing about teaching practice.  Use these stories to inspire your own thinking about what is important to you about how and why you teach art…and then start writing!

–Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Online Editor and TAJ Special Issue Guest Editor

 NOTE: This post is from the Guest Editorial for the Teaching Artist Journal Special Issue on writing about teaching practice which is  now available for free download through the end of December, 2014.  

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