When teaching, I often feel caught between my love of the creative process and the desire for a polished end product. Both are important, but limited time frames to work with students is always challenging. I generally only have 45 minutes to an hour once or twice a week to work with a group of students.
On the one hand, my proclivity is to invest more heavily in the creative process by allowing plenty of time for students to explore their art form unencumbered. On the other hand, I personally feel there is a need for an end-product, which requires focus on performance technique, polishing, and other important tasks. Particularly with the performing arts, I believe if students are not getting a chance to actually “perform” in front of an audience (big or small) they are not really learning the art form fully. Is it fair to cut out the “performance” element in favor of process? I lean towards no. Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience a fantastic solution to the product vs. process problem.
The collaborative performing arts activity I experienced was developed by Christy Robinson, Director of Enrichment at The Children’s School in Atlanta, GA. I am currently working as a choreographer at The Children’s School and we were in the midst of working on the musical There’s a Monster in My Closet.
Production paused over winter break and, when we returned„ instead of rehearsing for the musical in the typical fashion, Christy devised a refresher/warm-up had the students work collaboratively and write a musical scene about what they did during their time away from school.
This semester I will have two courses with our freshman. Freshman year of college is always a difficult time but I think being a dance major makes it a little more challenging.
Most of these students have been the ‘stars’ at whatever school they attended before college and it is always a real eye opener to them to suddenly be in a class where they are more like equals to the other students. These students also have a different schedule than their peers in other majors. They take their dance and academic classes all day long and then spend the evenings in rehearsal. They have between 6-8 courses on their schedule while their peers may have four. Their ‘Dance’ classes also contain many writing and reading assignments. They don’t get to just ‘dance all day’ like their peers assume. When they are not working on all of this, they are cross training. They work at least as hard as the athletes but without the respect.
I am most excited to be working with the freshman in the dance conditioning class. Dance conditioning teaches students alternative techniques for training their body. The complimentary approaches of Pilates and Yoga, for example, help them with the alignment with their torso and pelvis and also with incorporating more breath in to their movement. This course also spends a good deal of time focusing on anatomy. For many of these students, it is their first look at the anatomy of the body and how that anatomy can influence their dance and their performance.
Dance conditioning makes visible just how much unlearning and relearning my freshman dancers need to do. Many of these students have come to us with bad alignment habits. As an instructor, there is a fine line to walk and a lot of trust that needs to built up with the students in order to begin to have them make changes to their alignment and the way that they have been training. Much of this work began when they arrived at school in the fall, but in this class we can really focus on it.
The dance students, after their lecture on leg muscles, use the foam roller to ‘roll out’ the fascia of their IT band.
In many classrooms sitting still and being quiet is the expectation but, to me, it is the death of a class. Certainly, there are times when I need my students to engage in listening behavior, but the key word here is ‘engage’. Hearing is easy – listening takes engagement and practice.
Recently, I was teaching a storytelling unit to a class of third grade students. Each student had to retell a folktale in a minute. I needed to hear all their stories as a baseline. To try to keep them engaged as listeners, I gave them each a simple rubric to fill out; they were to tally how many storytellers they could hear, understand, smiled, etc. It quickly became apparent that these adorable children weren’t listening to each other.
Some would randomly check boxes on the rubric, while others creatively doodled. Some started off with good intentions but, after the third or fourth storyteller, would start drifting off. And there were over 25 storytellers in each class! As it became increasingly apparent that these children had no idea how to engage a live audience, I shortened the time each child had for their initial presentation. I was there to teach these students the art of oral storytelling. I realized I couldn’t do this without first working on listening skills.
I needed a plan. I had to get the students invested in each other’s stories. I separated the class into groups of four or five. Each group had to learn all of their stories. The narrator for each story had to direct a set of three tableaux illustrating the beginning, middle and end of their folktale. All of the students in the group had to be involved in all the tableaux, even if they were part of the scenery.
All of a sudden, creative juices were flowing.
Art and human development students at Massachusetts College of Art & Design (MassArt), 2013
When I am not on the road engaged in professional development with teachers and teaching artists, I am at a state-funded art school in Boston, Massachusetts working with graduate and undergraduate students who aspire to careers as artists who teach. Our program is called “Art Education” in alignment with traditional art school nomenclature. But, like many art schools, we have multiple pathways for preparing artists to apply their learning as teaching artists, art teachers, community artists, museum educators, artist-educators, engaged artists, artist/researcher/teachers, and artist-activists. There is no regular label for what they will be called when they leave our program. This broad menu of possibilities is intentional because our department encourages students to explore their options and define their work in an always changing world.
Yet, sometimes the students do not find these open-ended options to be helpful. Last semester, after an especially inventive series of workshops on teaching strategies where we studied literacy development through playacting elements in a story, and we studied collaborative learning through choreography and dance, some of my students expressed concern that these playful methods might be too weird to convince parents and administrators that this was effective teaching. This led to a conversation about their identities as artists who teach.
They were frustrated with what they perceived as a resistance on the part of our program, to labels and titles for the work they were hoping to do. They wanted to know when it was right to legally call themselves artists, or teachers. They were hoping that a degree in art education could help them to be valued in the world with greater clarity. I told them that after years of living and studying the career lives of artists who teach, I was still undecided about the effectiveness of standard titles that we apply to what we do. But, sharing my own comfort with the ambiguity of teaching artistry was not very helpful. We studied theories and ideas from leaders in the fields of arts education. This quote from Eric Booth, had a similar effect:
My dad, Jim Carlson, used to run the Arts in Corrections (AIC) program at New Folsom Prison (as highlighted in Michel Wenzer’s award-winning film, At Night I Fly). Since the remnants of AIC were finally cut out of the California state budget in 2009, Carlson has been working at the institution as a recreational therapist. This move to mental health services has fundamentally changed the physical space and materials he uses in his teaching practice. In response to the demands of the teaching context—particularly the interplay between mental illness and confinement—Carlson has new students explore drawing through a directed doodling process. The process of doodling provides students with the opportunity to learn about, and employ, the principle elements of art while eschewing some of the intimidating expectations associated with representation.
I do not often get to observe him teaching. Recently, however, I was meeting with an individual writer in the same room as one of Carlson’s visual arts courses and overheard something that has been haunting me since. This particular class was for inmates in the psychiatric security unit (PSU) who have been removed, or “administratively segregated” in prison bureau-speak, from the rest of the mental health services unit based on a serious infraction. PSU is, more or less, the Mental Heath Services version of “The Hole.”
Carlson’s PSU class meets in a small, windowless rooms with eight phone booth sized cages crammed against three walls. The space has an unrelenting echo. It is difficult for inmates to see each other, and the plexi-glass spit-guard on the front of each booth, by design, distances participants from the teacher. Inmates come to class in a chain gang, hands cuffed at the small of their backs. They patiently wait their turn as, one by one, their feet and wrists are unshackled and they are locked into the booths. As they shuffle in, Carlson hands each artist a box of crayons and some print-making paper. When they need additional sheets, he slides them through the gap where the door of the cage does not quite meet its frame.
The night I was there, one particular artist came in loud, shouting at Carlson over the din of cuffs and rusty hinges, motioning him to take the stack of papers he had pressed to his body with his left elbow. Carlson had been gone for a few weeks and this artist was eager to update him on what had happened in his absence.
Artwork by M. Dement | Photo by Jim Carlson
Carlson took the folio and started looking through the artist’s drawing, commenting on color choice, value, and balance. This particular artist had embraced the project, spending whole days creating intense, fantastical images. His compositions have a depth and jewel-like quality that Carlson describes as a “beautiful example of outsider art.”