Partners in Purpose | Daniel A. Kelin, II

Vanmark sat in the corner, his hoodie drooped far over his eyes. He volunteered no answers to questions. During the drama sessions he, like most of the other students, waited for others to stand first or looked about the room before making any choices and then usually contributed the minimum possible.

Four years later, Vanmark still wears the hoodie, but by creative choice as he is portraying the Prince of Darkness in a Faust-like scene that his group is creating.  Four years later, he has annually participated in my drama residencies as well as occasional projects conducted by his teacher. I have, in essence, partnered with Vanmark and sixteen other students from his class for various numbers of years (Henney and Charisma, 11th graders, first participated when in elementary school).

In this remote, North Hawaii Island high school, artistic experiences are few and nearly non-existent for the English Language Learners (ELL) with whom I work. About 30-40 of them see me generally for 7-8 sessions each year as a part of an annual residency that is financially precarious; the very existence of the partnership is a struggle as mandates and funding are subject to the almost whims of administrators and legislators far removed from the daily benefits of such collaborative relationships.

Despite the precarious arts education situation in my island state, these students have experienced a long-term, widely-spread developmental cycle in which growth has been steadily apparent. Intrinsically motivated involvement has increased and the students’ enhanced awareness and understanding of drama has contributed to both comfort and the desire to engage.  I cannot, however, claim complete responsibility for these successes. Strong, enthusiastic partnerships support, extend and make possible this work in a school that lacks consistent arts experiences for any of its students.  The school ELL resource teacher is enthusiastic and hands-on, the Vice Principal is a quiet cheer-leader and the District-wide ELL resource teacher is a champion who digs up needed financial support.

I write about this multi-tiered relationship, as I have been thinking a lot about a recently released nationally-focused white paper which defines a partnership triad that includes arts educators (part- to full-time faculty or staff in a school setting), classroom teachers and visiting teaching artists.  As it defines and triumphs the skills and expertise that each of these roles brings to the various possible partnership permutations, the paper also broadly devalues the role of the teaching artist in a classroom setting. The core argument, as I read it, being that the teaching artist potentially provides schools/districts a cheaper alternative to the arts educator yet lacks the training and comprehensive programming that is necessary in school settings.

My question is, why the divisiveness?  Why not champion the myriad of possibilities of partnerships? To date there is no clear, large-scale commitment to arts education in our country.  We, the arts educators and teaching artists, need to define and promote how individually and collectively these roles can enhance the school experience of students, not in preference to one another, but how each can accomplish the desired outcomes of quality arts learning experiences.

In my case, the strong partnerships that permeate my work in this small Hawaiian high school contribute to large-scale comprehensive success. My immediate partner, the ELL resource teacher has, over time, collected materials I provide as a part of such residencies, and slowly constructed her own extensions that she employs in her classroom regularly now, which are spoken of highly by the Vice Principal He provides support that makes the teacher’s hosting of this annual residency much easier.  The VP notes that this teacher has become a model for all of the school’s other English teachers.  The District ELL office has provided needed supplementary funding for this and other district schools.

We have, together, overcome the challenges to encourage students such as Vanmark to become more engaged, artistically active — and to find value and purpose in it.

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