White-board crammed with (numbing) educational responsibilities.
Arts education philosopher and social activist, Maxine Greene often says, “the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic” as a way to remind us that art is often misunderstood as something purely decorative in our lives. In my years as a teaching artist, and as someone who trains teachers and teaching artists, this misunderstanding has emerged as a roadblock to using art in educational situations. Real feelings, ones that make our hearts beat harder, have become difficult to imagine in our classrooms for so many reasons.
Greene used that quote in 2007 to grapple out loud with the imaginative powers of terrorists who dreamed up and carried out their vision of an airplane as a weapon on September 11, 2001. I used that quote and story in a room full of slouching, exhausted, elementary school teachers during a professional development institute on Long Island, hoping for an enlightened response. We were beginning a year of collaborative work that would involve teaching artists co-designing and implementing arts-integrated methods in their classrooms.
“No surprises there!” said one of the teachers. The others laughed.
“Well, it’s no surprise that an imagination can dream up all kinds of good and bad stuff,” said another teacher, “our students come up with very imaginative ways to avoid the hard problems we give them. But, we don’t have the luxury of letting them come up with happy artsy solutions because we have real work to do.”
“Yup, no songs or dances are going to help my very imaginative students to settle down and be better readers. But, maybe if it is fun enough, it might stop them from drawing guns in the margins of their papers.” The first teacher was saying this amid nods of agreement.
My role in this institute was to help teachers and teaching artists work together to make more room for artistic thinking in their work. These teachers were dealing with new Common Core standards and teacher evaluation systems, and now they had been assigned by administrators to try this silly arts thing. They wanted less frivolous and sensitive activity, and more efficient ways to meet requirements. How could we address “guns in the margins” at the same time as story structure? How was I supposed to invigorate this inertia?
The teaching artists in the room had been engaged as sympathetic partners in this enterprise. But now, they were exchanging covert looks of concern. How could their deep-breathing exercises or dance tableaux be understood as anything less than playtime to these weary, wary teachers? The moment was packed with resistance. Teachers had their arms crossed. No artist could make their work easier with reflections, or songs, or performances.
I remembered Maxine Greene. The opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic. The opposite of numbness is feeling. Anesthetic is not used to alleviate pleasant feelings. It is used to numb pain. What if we used our aesthetic abilities to acknowledge pain and frustration instead of circumventing it? Could aesthetic or “artsy” learning be of greater value? Was there room for not-so-decorative, but deep and real feeling here?
With nothing to lose, we detonated a Syrian bomb in the middle of the room.
This “bomb” was a three-minute film made by Syrian artist-activist Bassel Shehade as part of his admission portfolio for film school in Syracuse, NY. It featured a little boy, possibly a second-grader, enduring an explosion that killed his family. Bassel Shehade got into film school, but dropped out and returned to Syria and was killed while making another film about unrest in his homeland. As an artist, Shehade told a story that used a simple narrative formula for engaging us. As a learner, he was able to explain what was distracting him from his schoolwork. As a teacher, Shehade reminded us that his gritty, blood-spattered reality was indeed the opposite of anesthetic. This was art, but it was not silly. It was a very imaginative way to deal with hard problems.
The room was silent. Arms were uncrossed. Everyone was sitting up. This was not a fun study of storytelling techniques that would help us to dance and sing our way through standardized curricula. It was shrapnel and violence and dead people who reminded us that a performance could make us feel pain, and that art needs only three minutes to tell a better story.
The anesthetic had been lifted. We were ready to get to work.
Greene, M. (2007). Imagination, Oppression and Culture/Creating Authentic Openings. The Maxine Greene Center for Aesthetic Education and Social Imagination.
Shehade, B. (2010). Saturday Morning Gift. Video retrieved from:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hVceFcBh8Y.
 Maxine Greene attributes the origin of this quote to John Dewey (1934) who advocated for increased hands-on and emotion-filled experience in education. She names Dewey each time that she says, “the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic” as a way to demonstrate her own belief in crediting the living, breathing people who touch our lives in meaningful ways. By naming Greene and Dewey here, I hope to continue the tradition of bringing human warmth and feeling into my own teaching of teachers.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.