January 30th, 2014
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The T Word | Jay Albert

This is the final post in our January series inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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Sharing a table with several parents at a school event, conversation came around to my being a music teacher. In the course of the conversation comments came out of a type I have come to accept as inevitable when discussing my field with those outside it. If I had to categorize it I suppose it would be something like this “Talent: those who have it and those who don’t.” It tends to crop up in relation to some child or another, my having it as a professional in the field, or poignantly, the adult’s perspective that they themselves do not possess this “talent” which is required to make music.

It boggles my mind how universal this perspective is. I have heard the same tone, the same assumptions from individuals for many years. As to the source of such perspectives I can only speculate although I have learned of an alarming number of instances where an educator has informed some child that they “cannot sing.” It seems apparent to me that many individuals have years of practice envisioning themselves as “non-musicians.”

As I think back to this particular evening it occurs to me that this issue around talent plays heavily into any teaching of adult music students who, even though they come to learn music skills and expression, often harbor deep reservations about their own ability. Over time I have developed some sequences of activities to address this issue which are introduced with dogged positivity. My position is that people need a “safe space” in which to create, they need to feel that it’s okay to make their sounds, like singing in the shower. Here’s a brief tale of one adult student who was able to make it.

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January 21st, 2014
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What Young Children Can Do | Annie Harrison Elliot

This is the third post in our January series around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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I teach young kids, but at some point I realized my assumptions were getting in the way. The reason I teach very young children in the first place is because I believe strongly in their capabilities and creativity, but at the same time their age was limiting how I was thinking about teaching them. Once I adjusted my thinking from “what are they too young to do,” to “what they can do,” my teaching process became much more fulfilling.

I decided to challenge myself by encouraging my three year old drama students to participate in a scene or at least a “scene-like-structure.” I racked my brain on how to approach this in the classroom. “Are they too young for scene work?” I wondered. In the traditional way, yes. A 3 year old is not going to do a scene analysis of Romeo and Juliet. I thought about how we had begun our dramatic learning earlier in the session with one-word story circle with pass the sound games, and by acting out fairytales and fables as a group. Through these games, they had begun to understand (at their learning level) concepts of beginning, middle, and end, as well as narrative structure. I felt we were making progress, but I also felt like somehow they could be doing more. I needed to ask myself again, “What can they do?”

In order to create a scene-like-structure, I decided to bring in two non-working cell phones to drama class. I set up two chairs in the stage area of the classroom and the students took turns being the audience and the actors. The students who were the audience decided on what character each actor should be, starting with “mommy,” “daddy,” “grandma,” or the “family pet.” Then we decided that “mommy” would call “daddy” on the phone and talk about ______________. I would invite the students to come up with the topic of discussion and fill in the blank. Then the two actors would call each other on the “phone” and voila! An improvised scene! The concreteness and familiarity of the phone -call served as an effective vehicle to introduce the concept of dialogue. Each of the students had previously witnessed their parents and other adults having conversations on the phone, so they could actually utilize their “own experience” to make a scene. This allowed them to translate their own powers of observation about the world into an art form.

Over the next few weeks, I gradually took away the cell phones and, over time, the students started creating more complex scenes with a wider variety of characters and topics.

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January 20th, 2014
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Throwing Cake at the Wall | Bonnie Gabel

I have spent my life learning to be a good collaborator. I create performance work together with groups of people including actors, dancers, visual artists, musicians, and writers.  As a director of devised work I facilitate collaborative processes with adults all the time.  When I work with people I know we use a process we have developed over the course of the past few years, but we also try all different things.  We sometimes talk about throwing cake at the wall and seeing what sticks; it’s not a clean process. Collaboration is messy; it means fights, and feelings sometimes getting hurt.  It means stepping back and trusting that the group knows the right direction, it means letting the story come organically instead of trying to force it. 

This year I have been working with Ms. Hoke, a third grade English teacher at Andrew Wilson Charter School in New Orleans, to devise radio dramas with her students.  The students have been working over a course of  ten weeks in groups of six to create an audio drama from scratch. They designed their setting as a group, created a storyboard as a group, choose music and sound effects as a group, and even wrote a script as a group.

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I spent a lot of time talking about character voice, and how music can create mood and tone. Ms. Hoke taught the students about logical advance of events in a story.  We carefully scaffolded the creation process so that the writing would not overwhelm the students. But on day one problems started arising.  We asked the students to work in their groups to pick the setting of their story and draw it as a group on a huge piece of paper. We asked them to go around and share their ideas, and pick the one the group thought worked best. 

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When we gave the signal to begin everyone started talking at once.  When the din subsided some people’s ideas had been put down and students were devastated that people weren’t listening to them, and frustrated that they had to go along with ideas they did not think were as good as theirs. Most groups were at a stalemate, fighting over what to draw instead of drawing. Ms. Hoke and I realized that we needed to scaffold more than the writing process if our students were going to be successful in the project. We were going to need to teach collaboration. I was terrified.  After all, I feel like I am still learning lessons about collaboration— how was I going to teach it to my students?

Ms. Hoke and I started throwing cake at the wall.  We added extra steps to every lesson.  We made “compromise” a vocabulary word and talked about its meaning before every class.  We started talking about strategies that can help us come to a decision as a group, instead of just thinking that a group decision would happen.

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Sometimes the results were beautiful.  One group in our first class of third graders decided to combine their ideas for a setting to come up with something better.  One eight-year old wanted to do a story set inside of Popeye’s (a fast food chicken joint), the other wanted to do a story set inside of an octopus.  They decided their final setting was an octopus inside of Popeye’s. I had to trust the process as much as they did so I let them go with it.  What came out at the end was a hilarious story about a group of people who go to Popeye’s only to have the whole restaurant eaten whole by a very hungry (and very giant) octopus.  (You can listen to it at kidsmart-wilson@tumblr.com if you want, it’s great.)

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Sometimes things were still…messy.  Personality conflicts arose and I ended up routinely taking students out of the room to talk them through what to do when they felt like they were not being heard, or when they were having trouble listening.  I learned that I could coach a student through a rough spot individually, but that it was also important for them to learn the skill of stepping up to be heard when they needed to be heard, and stepping back when they needed to listen. It was okay that things got a little messy, as long as at the end of the day every student was proud of and invested in what they had made as a group.

Despite my initial apprehension, I feel like I’ve come to understand how to support collaboration in the classroom. I’ve landed on four principles that have guided me through the messy times:

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January 14th, 2014
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Who is Art Really For? | Debora Broderick

Here’s the second post in our January series about can’t, not, and aren’t in relation to art making and teaching.  We had an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors; completely independent of each other, four of our writers sent in a story on this theme of limits. Two more to come later in the month. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about why so many of my students are quick to emphatically tell me, “I am NOT an artist.”  For many of my students, (high school seniors enrolled in a one year exploratory teacher preparation program), the artist/non-artist dichotomy prevails, and there seems little room for the liminal spaces in between.  But why is this? How did my students land here—so certain in their state and fate as non-artists? In encouraging my students to embrace an arts integrated pedagogy in their future classrooms, I’ve been forced to recognize and acknowledge their anxiety about making art and facilitating arts-based lessons.  This has left me pondering a question that kept surfacing throughout the year:  Do you have to be an “artist” to make art?

This seemingly simple question would appear to have an obvious answer: No! Of course you don’t have to be an “artist” to make art!  A passing glance at some of the work my students have produced confirms this answer (image below). But in talking to my students over the course of the year, and trying to figure out the why and where of this question, a few things have become clear to me: this is a complicated question tied up with students’ identities and perceptions about what counts as art; and just because we tell students they don’t have to be artistic or artists to participate in art experiences doesn’t make it so. If students don’t feel some level of success and pride in their work, they tend to give up—and with art class available to “give up” or drop once they hit high school, art becomes the outlier, only available to those with “talent,” and it rarely makes an appearance in any of their other classes. 

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Academy students’ individual & collaborative silk-screen projects

So why is it that so many students give up art?  Artist and author Lynda Barry (2008) suggests we are all plagued by what she calls “The Two Questions”—the questions we ask ourselves when judging our own artistic work:  “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” These are questions Barry argues emerge as we age and as we begin to judge our work as an object rather than as an experience. 

As Barry so painfully and comically reveals in her own work, children tend to have an art experience on the page—they will scribble and scratch on any surface, all the while creating a fabulous narrative in their head. The final product is often abandoned, left as litter on the floor, an afterthought secondary to the experience the child had while creating the work.  But as we age, we tend to focus on how the final work will be judged by others as well as ourselves. An unfortunate consequence is that many of us abandon art unless we are deemed talented by the art teacher. In the case of my students, by the time they reached high school, all but a few of the thirty had stopped taking art classes, and most vocally identified themselves as “NOT an artist.” 

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January 13th, 2014
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Investing in Artists | Elise Gallinot Goldman

This is the second in a four-part series illustrating the work happening at KID smArt in New Orleans, LA featuring both teaching artist and administrative voices. There’s a new post every Monday this month. Read the first post in this series here and don’t forget to put ALT/space in your feed reader so you won’t miss a thing! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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Through the years that I have worked with KID smART and, especially in the last eight years, I have come to understand one truth that guides my work—the best use of our resources is investing in artists. 

As a program director and manager, I have always believed that decisions should be made by the people who will be living with the repercussions.  Since we started investing in training our artists and building their skills and capacities, I feel like this is truer than ever.  Our organization works in a transitional and complex environment. So much is different from school to school and classroom to classroom. Organizationally, we are driven by our flexibility and responsiveness to our individual schools and teachers and it is impossible to do that from behind an administrator’s desk. Our artists are our lifeline to the teachers and kids we serve and they know best what they need to do their job well and to make the work relevant and powerful for our schools

In New Orleans we have a fractured public school system.  Since Hurricane Katrina, our public school system has transformed into an almost exclusively charter system. Currently, over three-fourths of the 90 public schools in the city are charters and 84% of our students are enrolled in charter schools[i].  We have also seen a great influx of new, young classroom teachers coming through alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and TeachNOLA.  These teachers have passion and drive but sometimes lack the experience, tools, and knowledge of student culture that could make them truly effective. In the years after Katrina we found that often KID smART teaching artists were the most experienced educators in a school. 

We realized that we could help build the capacity of the classroom teachers with whom we worked. We started the Arts Experience in Schools (AXIS) program in partnership with local arts organizations to create an opportunity for classroom teachers to come together and learn arts integration strategy. We brought together teachers from around the city together with a consultant from out of state. These monthly sessions helped teach our teachers how to develop arts integration strategy in their own schools. 

After the first year we realized that our own team of artists, who were already working in residency in the schools, had the potential to lead these workshops just as  powerfully and with the added bonus of having already established relationships with the schools and teachers. 

We also realized that over the long run, paying for someone to train our artists in how to create and present workshops would not only build artist skill and earning potential, but cut that consultant budget by over 75%. We would have better trained, local artists leading workshops and being paid presenter fees and at the same time save the organization money by taking travel and hotels out of the budget.  

That was a transitional moment for us organizationally. It was the moment when we took ownership of the kind of professional learning we wanted for our classroom teachers and it was our first concrete step toward realizing a goal of professionalizing the teaching artist field in New Orleans. 

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In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.