Arts Teachers Know This Already!

Student ArtistThis is a terrific article written last May for the Washington Post online magazine.  My friend and fellow arts instructor, Jan, sent it to me today.  It reiterates what I have been saying to anyone who will listen: Improved test scores are not an adequate reason to include or exclude a subject area.  Arts have intrinsic value not specifically related and yet foundational to learning in core subject areas.

Let People Know, Arts Education Matters

Kennedy Center seen from the Potomac River.
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I wrote an email to my state’s arts council and the education director who read it got so excited, he posted it in the newsletter.  The lesson for me is this: When we think our voice is not heard, our letters go unread or our children’s accomplishments go unnoticed, we may be wrong.  Rather than wait for the acknowledgement fairy to visit, we can all write an email to encourage an arts group, thank a teacher or influence a legislator. Trust me, what we think matters.  Here’s a reprint of the August 2011 Oklahoma Arts Council Newsletter article in its entirety:

Quality Arts Education for All Students – Why It’s Important

August 1, 2011

by Michael Eddens

Prompted by ongoing national and statewide conversations on the economy, budget cuts, and government programs, along with an emphasis on student test scores and decreased attention given arts education, I’ve been thinking about the impact (and potential impact) of arts education on Oklahoma students.

As director of arts education programs for the Council, my work involves evaluating arts education programs funded by the Oklahoma Arts Council in schools around the state. From music and theatre camps to visual art programs and innovative arts integration projects, I’ve been impressed by arts education’s power to unlock learning and greatness in young people.

Recently I was greeted by a wonderful email that speaks directly to what’s been on my mind:

Dear Michael,

My daughter, Emily is the 2011 recipient of the 2011 VSA (Very Special Arts) Playwright Discovery Award, a prestigious honor culminating in a professional production of her original work at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Emily, now a 2011 graduate, was encouraged by her drama teacher to enter the competition for plays featuring a character with a disability. Though Emily does not have a disability, she has friends who do. One friend in particular inspired Emily to write the award-winning play, “Handspeak” about a deaf girl and her developing friendship with her interpreter’s non-hearing-impaired son. The VSA representative who called Emily about her award told her it was very easy to select her play as it stood out for its excellence

Emily also won first prize last year in the local City-County Library System Young Author’s Competition with a different play about how mental health issues affect families in her updated and exploratory modern take on the Lizzie Borden tale. One of the contest judges who is also a university professor and director noted that it was the best student play he had come across in his five years directing the library plays. This is a prestigious honor for a local kid and as a proud mama I wanted to tell you!

All of my children love and participate in the arts. It’s important to their success as students. Because even with the positive things they do academically there is no way I could get them out of bed in the morning without a vibrant arts program in their school.

Sally A

Thank you so much Sally, for that story. Sally’s letter provides an example of why it’s important for us to ensure quality arts education for all Oklahoma students.

While some youth have the means by which to explore, experience, play, practice, and learn to develop their creative talents, many students are not as fortunate. And while most children may not endeavor to become an artist, Sally’s letter demonstrates the importance of students being allowed the opportunity to participate and grow in the arts should they choose. And though students may become accountants, doctors, home builders, or business managers, the skills and knowledge acquired from arts education will surely transfer to their adult lives.

Sally’s letter is also an example of how relevant arts education remains for today’s youth. This is not only an example of how youth can create great art, but also an example of the deep level of social conscience and relevance the arts can inspire. How could anyone argue against the value of such work? Any good parent would be proud to know their child, student, friend, or neighbor had communicated something artistically that could make a real difference in our world.

Overall I am most impressed with Emily’s accomplishments. I love the idea that it actually CAN be our children, Oklahoma children, who achieve things like this if we simply give them the opportunity to do so. Perhaps by preparing our children now, they’ll be equipped to do a better job of dealing with the issues with which we struggle.

Michael Eddens (Director of Arts Education Programs) joined the Council in 2008 after a ten-year career teaching visual art in the Oklahoma City Public School district. Eddens provides oversight for the Council’s school and community-based arts education grants and programs and the Teaching Artist Roster. He also provides consultation on the development of arts education programs and assistance with professional development and arts education advocacy. Michael can be reached at (405) 521-2023 or michael.eddens@arts.ok.gov.”

Creativity Begins at Home

Yeah, that's right, we wear costumes to the RenFair

At the recent Creativity Summit in Tulsa this month my kids and I joined a breakout session where we could share our ideas on the question: “How can our schools continue to produce creative young people in a climate of reduced support for education, especially in the arts?”  I made a short video and both of my kids answered with a piece of poetry.  My daughter’s piece, titled A Sense of Urgency has to do with the reason kids feel misunderstood in the current system.  My son’s piece is a reworked poem titled Wasteland. He approaches the idea from a more absurdist perspective because, as he says, the current thinking about education is absurd.  Both kids are award-winning writers and I love being able to get a glimpse into their heads.  Enjoy!

A Sense of Urgency

Perhaps I just don’t comprehend the issues.

I am a member of a generation

That has become lost in the whirrs of

Machinery, internet porn, and WoW

We are members of Generation Tech

And we do not write on legal pads anymore

We write exclusively with the help of

The Grand Masters:

Microsoft, Apple, Dell and Windows

Words that all mean one thing:

Freedom.

Our own brand of freedom.

On the internet, we are who we want to be,

We can be any gender, any age, any sexual orientation

And in that sense, we are the

Most creative generation

But perhaps I don’t understand the issues

The older generation is trying to impart to us

“A SENSE OF URGENCY”

Because apparently our cities are dying

And apparently it’s our fault

Damn kids with AC and TV and LOL

Kids that won’t go outside when it’s hot

Who prefer the internet to sports

We plug headphones into our ears

Drink Mountain Dew

And stare at the shimmering, lovely screen

Our fingers whispering over the keys

Like mice

And you could practically smell the cooling fan burning,

The processors are so fast

The older generations are trying to tell us

“Stop! Now! Before it’s too late!”

But don’t they know it’s already too late?

That there’s nothing to be done to save us?

The older generations will look at us

And shake their heads, slowly and sadly,

And stare out the windows at our coffee shops

And our sidewalks, crawling with the misshapen mass

Of Generation Tech,

And they will feel sorry for us

That we cannot kick a can across the street and feel the joy in that

BUT

We will feel sorry for them as well.

Because they are trapped dreaming of old worlds

Worlds that are long dead

And we are here, on the information superhighway,

Creating the new

Wasteland

One blustery day,

We decided to build a wasteland.

So we put on our toolbelts and fastened our knapsacks

And set forth to make a difference.

First we had to rid ourselves of the buildings

We didn’t bother to check if anyone was inside

This was too important to worry about casualties

“Why must we lay waste to these places?” one man asked.

“We lay waste to make waste,” I responded

“Or have you no ambition?”

We waltzed through the destruction

To see what had yet to be born anew

Taking a pair of curtains, we tore apart the fabric of time and space

We found an extinguisher and doused the fires of love

We turned a dinner plate and cooked a feast of dead ideas

All to make way four our glorious wasteland

That was to be our paradise

“Is there no food or water?” a woman asked

“We shall feed on the fruits of our labor,” I responded

“And our thirst shall be quenched by the sweat of our work

Or have you no motivation?”

We took food out of cans

We took milk out of cartons

We took files out of file cabinets

It was becoming difficult to work

We could not see through all of the light

The only solution, then, was to destroy the sun

“A rocket?” one man asked

“Too obvious”

“A cannon?”

“Too cliché”

“Perhaps a monster”

“Where do you propose we find a monster?

The lawyers are all dead and the math teachers are too distracted”

Little Billy climbed on top of a recently built pile of rubble

He placed his index finger and thumb an inch apart

So that the sun fit perfectly

He plucked it from the sky and buried it in the dirt

Surrounded in darkness, we could see as clearly as ever

Again we set to work, building as much waste as we could

We tore and shredded and smashed and crushed

When all was done, I listened

I could hear no voices

No children laughing, no men arguing, no women gossiping

Who knows what happened to them?

I care not

As long as I have my wasteland, I am happy

With my wasteland built, I lay down for my eternal slumber

I do not know how long I was asleep

Millennia, years, months, days, perhaps seconds

Perhaps I had gone back in time

What woke me up was more of that distracting light

Muttering angrily, I looked up

In the spot where Little Billy had buried the sun, a star tree had grown

Each star on each branch was emitting the most obnoxious light I had ever seen

I got up to cut it down, but then I saw something

I saw what was left of my wasteland

Instead of rubble, there were buildings

Instead of destruction, there was construction

Instead of remains there were beginnings

I wept silently to myself

They had destroyed it

They had destroyed my beautiful wasteland with society

The fools had no idea

I collected myself and began to travel

There was a thriving place nearby

The perfect place to build a ghost town

Fast Track Preschool

Children in Jerusalem.
Image via Wikipedia

This New York Times story of preschool madness elicits an obvious response: “Are these parents crazy?”  There are more subtle forms of directed learning that may thwart rather than propel children. We all know that an over-scheduled child can become a stressed-out child.  It would take a month’s worth of blogs to identify negatives associated with stress. For this post I’ll stick to the theme of directed learning.  I should call it over-directed learning.

I have seen teachers and parents (including me) pulling their hair in frustration because a child won’t go along with our learning structure.  I am a fan of giving a certain amount of structure to kids. This includes a few rules, a reliable schedule and logical consequences. That structure allows kids freedom to create within a psychologically safe environment. But here is where I differ from those who push their children to earn their place among the learning superstars before they enter middle school. A child who plays with Lego’s by destroying and rebuilding or spins around in the backyard until he falls down, stands up, looks around, and spins again is learning. We label this kind of learning “play” and by doing so we reduce its importance in the educational hierarchy. Learning does not only occur at a desk or in an environment where right answers rule the day.

Coercing children into directed learning environments such as the one described in the New York Times article or even placing your baby near the stereo to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has only a short-term effect on spatial-temporal reasoning and no discernible increase in intelligence. Why, then, do we continue down these competitive paths? Sometimes we  favor organizational skills and following directions over experiment and exploration. Imposing adult standards on children for things like order, neatness and organization has more to do with convenience and less to do with allowing children to learn and grow. Failure Freedom is missing in these environments.

The freedom to fail boldly is what allows for quantum leaps in learning. By encouraging our children to be afraid of failure and push harder to please the adults in their lives we have siphoned the gas from our educational engine. It took me three kids and many years in the classroom to learn this lesson. But my failures (and not the copious books I have read) have been my greatest learning tool.

Why Are Creative Kids So Easily Bored in School?

Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Pueblo pe...
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Dr. Robert Sternberg, is an American psychologist and psychometrician and Provost at Oklahoma State University. He was formerly President of the American Psychological Association. Although Dr. Sternberg developed assessments for creativity and practicality (problem solving) he is not a fan of the current model of educational testing.  He asserts that rather than focus on what has been learned, he is interested in assessing a student’s ability to learn.  In his talk at a recent Creativity Summit at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he answered his own questions, “What do you mean by creativity?” and  “Why isn’t everyone creative?” He restated an idea he promotes in much of his work: “There are people who buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.”  This is shorthand for Sternberg’s Investment Theory of Creativity developed with Dr. Todd Lubart.  My short version of the theory goes something like this: Creative people come up with novel ideas.  The mere novelty of the idea causes it to be rejected by the majority of people.  This rejection is not just a rejection but an acceptance of the status quo.  This is the “buy low” portion of the theory.  The innovator invests effort into convincing others that the idea is not only workable but superior to the status quo. This precedes the “sell high” portion of the argument.  When an idea’s value is finally recognized, the creator ‘sells’ the idea to others to develop while the innovator moves on to other projects. As Sternberg notes, “If you think about it, that’s what creativity is about.”

Sternberg has been quoted as saying, “Creativity is a decision.” He cites 7 Key Decisions in creativity:

1: Decide if you have a problem that seems unsolvable.  Then ask, “Can I redefine the problem?”

2: When you have a creative idea, ask yourself three questions: a) What’s the best that can happen? b) What’s the worst that can happen? and, c) What’s likely to happen?  This helps an innovator analyze potential outcomes.

3. Look for entrenchment.  “Where there’s vested interest, it’s hard to sell creative ideas.”

4. Realize that knowledge is a double-edged sword when it comes to creativity.  Knowledge means less repetition but it can also cause entrenchment.  When knowledge of past outcomes is the lens through which a person creates, “many experts are less creative… [because] they can’t see through other lenses.”

5. Be willing to take sensible risks.

6. Persevere in the face of obstacles.

7. Find what you love to do. “With your kids and with your students, what’s important is not what you want them to do but what they want to do.”

Dr. Sternberg is an authentic and innovative thinker.  Despite expertise that could cause entrenchment in a less playful personality, Dr. Sternberg is the perfect person to explore the educational landscape of assessments and creativity.  Although the entrenchment many of us face in the world of teaching makes innovation challenging, it will help to remember Dr. Sternberg’s 6th Key Decision.  Keeping the creativity conversation alive may cause enough of a shift to allow innovative thinkers a seat at the table when assessments are discussed.

Born Creative

This is the video I made for a recent Creativity Summit in my city. The question was a prompt designed to encourage discussion and creative response.

 

Part 4 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

Chemical structure of Penicillin G
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This series could go on indefinitely but I thought I should wrap up this segment on reconceptualizing education with an idea.  Reconceptualizing isn’t just about innovating.  It’s about how and why we innovate.  So, instead of featuring an education innovator from the national stage, today I want to acknowledge the innovation of teachers a little closer to home.  Last night I attended what we refer to at my school as School Out of Doors or SOOD for short.  For my team, it was a chance to take 70 7th grade students into the wilderness with tents and sleeping bags and create something memorable for the class of 2016.  But we live in the only state about which Will Rogers famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait five minutes.”  With sudden thunderstorms, threats of baseball-sized hail and an eerie tornado warning, we spent our School Out of Doors INdoors.  While sirens were blaring outside, we gathered the kids into a cinderblock hallway near the gym and sat them on the floor with all their belongings.  The amazing part to me is due to the calm and positive response of the teachers, all the students behaved as though this was an expected part of the weekend.  They played cards, sat and talked with friends, read books and seemed genuinely happy to be in a hot, dark, smelly, cramped hallway with 70 of their closest friends.  When it became clear there would be no night hike, cooking over a flame, or outdoor games, the 7th grade teachers sprang into action.  Okay, maybe we didn’t spring, but we all had a trick or two up our sleeves.  The Dean set up a projector and sound system to show a movie on the gym wall to rival any drive in.  Parents brought in pizzas, the 7th grade teachers helped the students create an indoor campsite complete with tents and flashlight games.  In the morning, they supervised the breakdown of the campsite treating it as they would any clean up they would have to manage in the woods.  This morning we took our students to the school’s courtyard where they made pancakes on camping stoves and ate off tin plates.  There were buckets of suds outside the library where the kids washed their dishes and after eating they broke down the cook sites.  It may not sound wildly innovative but in light of the circumstances the teachers were creative, innovative, encouraging and modeling a critical skill; flexibility.

As teachers and parents we often get caught up in the outcomes game.  If the outcomes don’t match our expectations, there is disappointment and frustration.  We too often pass this culture of inconvenience to our kids.  What would it take to change the mindset that has us become irritable when things don’t go as planned?  If we could make that important adjustment and teach our kids that a change in plans doesn’t have to be negative, we would create a generation of curious and motivated innovators.  I’m all for making plans and following through, but if change is necessary or a better idea reveals itself, shouldn’t we be vigilant and prepared to shift gears?

Smart Dust, now used as a tool in destroying tumors, was a graduate student’s ruined homework.  At USC, Jamie Link accidentally blew up a silicon chip.  Because she was vigilant, she discovered properties in the detritus that made her famous in medical circles providing a previously unknown cure.  The Popsicle, invented by Frank Epperson, was a result of a mess left outside when Epperson was 11 years old.  He left a drink with a stir stick on his front porch.  The cold night left him with a frozen treat on a stick the next morning.  He patented the dessert two decades later much to the relief of kids everywhere with sore throats.  In 1928, Alexander Fleming‘s experiment with bacteria was ruined, or so he thought, when mold showed up in the Petri dish.  His vigilance allowed him to see where bacteria were avoiding the mold.  This led him to a discovery that has saved millions of lives.  Penicillin was the first antibiotic and his flexibility and open mind allowed him to create something exponentially better than what he had initially intended.

The most important lesson we can learn about innovation is this: If we are vigilant, a change in plans can produce greater results than any outcome we could have imagined.  There are myriad stories of greater-than-expected outcomes in science, math, art, literature and every other academic discipline.  This mindset is what we can teach our kids in an age where knowledge is secondary to creativity.  As one of our greatest thinkers once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Can U.S. Teachers Truly Be ‘Nation Builders?’


This post breaks education needs down just as a contractor might when building a house. It’s an interestin­g metaphor. I was especially surprised to learn that more than half of public school teachers held masters’ degrees. He reveals this while at the same time asserting that “most of the new hires are coming from the lower quartile of college graduates”­. He also does a dis on alternativ­e certificat­ion programs which I believe could be the saving grace of the teaching profession­. For the most part, teachers are the most compassion­ate, intelligen­t, quick-thin­king people I know. A teacher who goes from class to class with five minutes prep time to face 30 or more students over several hours has got to be a pretty fantastic people manager… or a magician. Would anyone you know in human resources manage adults in that context any better? The thing we rarely acknowledg­e is that despite the poor model, teachers who care will work their butts off to improve student performanc­e. Daily we pack our fairy wands, magic dust, and sorcerers’ hats and sail into the classroom prepared to watch and listen for magic. When no magic happens, we use all the tools we bring; when that doesn’t work, we go for more wizard training; and when that doesn’t work, we blame ourselves. Let’s consider setting teachers and students up for success. That could create some real magic!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

 

The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press

 

The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

 

The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.

 

The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

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