There are giggles, but there is mostly a steady drum rhythm, concerted movement, and agreement on direction. A spiraling and progressive dynamic emerges. It synchronizes the tempo of so many bodies, and opens spaces for newcomers to gracefully join in. Some folks choose to sit along the edge, but they clap, chant, and reinforce an ages-old circular form with their own collective organic border-shape. There are leaders and followers, there are innovators and doubters, there are adults and there are children, there is unity, and for a few moments of this day there is equity of power and position. Most of all, there is joy.
In this moment, how can such a celebratory and odd-shaped experience be powerful education reform?
According to many wise people, paradigm changes[i] are happening that require us to imagine education not as an ordered system, but as an interconnected and essential force in a global ecosystem. How does dancing and human play contribute to such a huge idea? The people in this dance are teachers, students, and community partners at Seymour Dual Language Academy in the Syracuse City School District. They are Latino, African-American, Haudenosaunee, white, brown, black, poor, middle-class, and multiply-labeled by documents of education that categorize participants as citizens, aliens, union-members, administrators, assistants, learning disabled, underperforming, and special. They are not documented as friends, lovers, tricksters, cousins, dancers, dreamers, or neighbors – but if you ask them, the undocumented information will likely come first.
The moment of dance was part of a reform effort titled “Seymourofus” [see more of us]. Seymourofus has a budget to engage community artists, historians, experts, and friends in creative work that could include physical exploration of science concepts such as life cycles, organization and communication strategies in art exhibits, and past-to-present historic inquiry through role-playing and empathetic storytelling. Artistic processes are integrated into curricula so that students can transfer knowledge beyond the boundaries of school walls. It is funded by a corporate partner and a handful of educational and cultural organizations. The people “in the dance”[ii], singing and touching; and the people far away from the dance, writing policies and allocating dollars; may never meet. Somewhere in between the dance and the distance, the teaching artist is being re-imagined as a hybrid and nimble body that can bust through the boundaries of inside/outside, artist/teacher, or school/community.
Seymourofus was officially structured on contemporary research[iii] that identified cognitive and cultural benefits from arts integration practices in places far away from the school. Yet, it was conceived and shaped through the steady successes and intimacy among teachers, learners, and artists in the hallways, on the playground, and in the classroom. Although we are the ones defining our own roles in this project, we nevertheless find ourselves inhibited by typical limitations during the process of formalizing the creative work.
Our mutual goals are expanding but teachers still work inside of the “teacher identity” with a reading series that is written for students in Texas[iv] and requires a lock-step schedule of lessons and assessments for a market-driven outcome. Artists still stay within the “artist identity” and produce final performances and exhibits to showcase the imaginative products of their work. Students are still limited by their own “student status” when they show their fear of moving their bodies or getting something wrong. Cultural partners shush excited and delighted students in their galleries, and require them to move in organized lines to prevent damage to the artifacts paid for by their own funders.
The distance of the funding institution from the participants is reinforced by real or perceived “mother-may-I” behaviors that are hard to ignore. Administrators anxious to sustain resources frequently ask, “Will it be okay with the funder if…?” Student teaching artists from a local university must check department budget lines to ensure that their volunteer work with us does not conflict politically with funding from other sources.
Michael Apple (2001) reminded us that what we consider to be progressive action in changing policies and educational systems may simply be an exercise in abstraction that does very little to address the “actual lived realities of real schools, teachers, students, and communities.” (p. 421) He said that, “While such meta-theoretical work is crucial, its over-use has left a vacancy” that is being filled-in by conservative “solutions” that reproduce the same limitations on individual agency that already exist. Teaching artists, by naming ourselves in terms that are historically challenged and privileged, may find that our defining habits are less meaningful because they are categorized by old paradigms.
Is the label of teaching-artist a “conservative solution”? Can the work of a creative, thinking, learner be positioned as a dynamic instigator of reform? In his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change, Charles Payne (2008) reminded us that we may not ever be able to identify finite roles for more effective change. He urged us to, “act as if [our] possibilities are boundless” (p. 213). Who then, is the artist, who is the teacher, and who is the learner in this work? In Seymourofus, the blurred definitions are emerging as strengths and the named roles are somehow less potent than the collective work of so many, but isn’t it in fact, a re-forming of identities for us all?
Back in the center of the circle of dancers, the youngest participant decides that it is time for a rest. He lies down and looks up at the people swirling over him. His grandmother lifts him and dances him to a side, fourth-grade students and their teachers move to the perimeter of the spiral, and his uncle begins a wild individualized version of the dance. When he is done, he takes his nephew from his grandmother and talks with us about caring for others and sustaining a legacy of growth as part of his warrior work. He reminds us all that the momentum of moving together is an acknowledgement of the movement of the earth that we share. There is more dancing, more questions and ideas, more music, and teachers decide that they don’t have to hurry back to their textbooks just yet. There is so much more to be gained in this soft-focus moment.
Apple, M. (2001) Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education. Comparative Education, 37 (4), pp. 409-423. Special Number (24): Comparative Education for the Twenty-First Century: An International Response. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Liu, E. & Noppe-Brandon, S. (2009) Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility. Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA.
Marzano, R., Zaffron, S., Zraik, L., Robbins, S., Yoon, L. (1995) A New Paradigm for Educational Change.Education, Vol. 116, 1995
Payne, C. (2008). So Much Reform, So Little Change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Harvard Education Press, MA.
Robinson, K. (2010) Changing Education Paradigms. RSA Animate Video, downloaded from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U .
Rolling, J. H. (2009). A paradigm analysis of arts-based research and implications for education. Studies in Art Education, 51 (2), 102-114.
Seidel, S., Tishman, S., Winner, E., Hetland, L., & Palmer, P. (2009) The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education. Harvard Graduate School of Education, MA.
p class=”MsoEndnoteText”>[i] Robinson (2010), Rolling (2009), Marzano (1995), Liu & Noppe-Brandon (2009).
[ii] I use “in the dance” as a parallel metaphor to “in the room” (Seidel, et al, 2009) which describes a space in the Qualities of Quality report where rich arts learning happens among learners, teachers, and artists at the center of concentric circles of influence. “Just outside of the room” is a layer of administrators, parents, community members, etc. who make decisions about what happens “in the room”. At “the greatest distance from the room” are the policymakers, researchers, resource providers who generate even more rules and criteria.
[iii] There is a vast body of research that influenced this work, examples can be found in Arts Integration Frameworks, Research & Practice: A Literature Review (2007, Burnaford, G., Brown, S., Doherty, J., & H. McLaughlin, J.)
[iv] Texas is the state with the largest textbook adoption market. The Macmillan Treasures textbook series recently adopted by the Syracuse City School District is filled with chapters such as: Deserts – A Walk in the Desert, Desert Animals – Roadrunner’s Dance, Energy – The Power of Oil, Teaming Up – Ima and the Great Texas Ostrich Race. At a 2010 meeting of SCSD elementary school teachers, they expressed confusion about why the series loved Texas so much!