Trusting ourselves to trust our students

What my son has reminded me about being an art teacher

For some reason beyond my uncool dad comprehension, my blue-eyed, sandy-haired, 15-year old is really into rap and hip-hop music and has been for several years. My son can speak like a musicologist about the genre, and he will often share his latest finds with me. He knows the context for each artist and their back stories. He can analyze the lyrics in a sophisticated way and can recognize a West Coast beat from a Detroit beat from an NYC beat. He has strong opinions about who is a true artist and who is a poseur. This music speaks to him.

Of course, when he first got into this music, I was concerned about the language, misogyny, and the attitude that success equals money in many of these songs. The lyrics seemed pretty rough for a young teenager. I swear like a sailor and listening to some of these songs makes me uncomfortable.

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When we talk about the music he likes, I’m honest with him about why it makes me uncomfortable. My son distinguishes between poetry and confrontational exhibitionism pretty well. He explains to me that the artists he respects are writing from their own sometimes troubled life experience and are reclaiming the language. I get that. It’s not the words themselves that bother me so much, as an artist I object to the laziness of some composers going for the easy shock-value.

Of course, all teens experiment with their identities and sometimes imitate their heroes. Hoodies and Jordans are part of my son’s fashion statement, but he understands that he comes from a different place and can separate himself from that language, which is not his own, in his attempts at writing lyrics. I believe that this ability to admire but not emulate these artists is because his interest has not been censored. He has been allowed to explore these songs on his own, and our discussions help him put the music in context and clarify differing values. While he knows rap and hip-hop is not my cup of tea, we discuss the music on his terms. We often agree to disagree, but he knows I respect his genuine curiosity and the intelligence of his arguments.

In all the time he has been listening to this music, I have only heard my son swear one time, in a highly emotional state, and he immediately apologized. He is a respectful, gentle, polite young man. He stands up for the rights of his female friends and is protective of all his friends.

His older sister, who has no patience for what she perceives as the violent misogyny in this music, takes him to task for his support of these artists. They vehemently disagree, but they each have thoughtful positions which they passionately defend. While I sometimes have to referee these discussions to keep the peace, I’m impressed by their ability to present evidence to support their viewpoint, honestly look at the other side and then make their decisions. They can do this because they have had teachers who showed them how.

I am grateful for those teachers, and the administrators who have supported them. If we are to raise generations of engaged and informed global citizens, we need more of that kind of teacher. We need to champion their courage, honesty, and skill. We need schools who don’t shy away from difficult questions for the sake of playing it safe. We can’t teach students to be critical thinkers and then be critical of what they think.

In light of what I have recently written about art class inadvertently enabling civic illiteracy, I was asking my friend who is the band teacher if he deals with delicate subjects in his classes. He told me a story of how one of his students protested that they shouldn’t play Michael Jackson music anymore due to the accusations against him. My friend reeled off several composers and musicians whose biographies include despicable behavior. These artists were known to his students, but this behavior was not. These revelations led to a great discussion about separating art and artist. While they came to no definitive conclusions, my friend felt the conversation much more valuable than the time they would have spent rehearsing.

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Our instinct to protect our students should not include denying them exposure to topics that have unpleasant, contentious, or sensitive aspects. Instead, we need to help guide them in dealing with these subjects intelligently, critically, and equitably so that they have experience with navigating and debating challenging ideas respectfully when they enter public life. Like anything they learn in school their ability to do so will increase in complexity as they develop, and our job as teachers is to guide them in developmentally appropriate ways.

This week the Trump administration tried to censor a report by one of its climate scientists in congressional testimony because the facts didn’t jibe with the administration’s position. Thinkprogress.com reported that GOP Congressman Rob Woodall had dismissed the Mueller report without reading it because a DOJ investigation “can drive an agenda.” Eight U.S states have laws that limit how teachers can address LGBTQ issues. Spin and willful ignorance are not strangers to politics, but the brazen nature of the attempts to scrub public policy of inconvenient facts seems on the rise along with the acceptance of that scrubbing for partisan and emotional reasons. If we have any hope of building a more sustainable and just world we must foster the ability to see the consequences of actions in a broad worldview. If we are to thwart the advancement of public policy put forth by those that cultivate and hide within an ignorance that denies any criticism of its specious positions, we must create citizens that can recognize and deconstruct subterfuge

Saving the world is an unfair burden to put solely on the young, but every generation faces, and hopefully improves on the world left to them by their parents. My son has shown me that by my respecting his curiosity, he is capable of finding a balanced and nuanced understanding of the art he enjoys. I’m confident he will take this curious and critical approach to find a balanced and nuanced understanding of the world at large. He has reinforced for me that I can trust myself to trust my students with issues that challenge their comfort zone.

Does art class breed illiteracy?

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” – Cesar Cruz

It’s difficult being a teacher in our current milieu. When your stock-in-trade is thinking and knowledge, it’s tough to operate when opinions are elevated over facts, emotion over science, and complexity and nuance are drowned out by soundbites and tweets. In a dumbing down of post-modern critique, public discourse is reduced to relativism where alternative facts recklessly compete with actual facts. Consequently, there is no solid ground beneath our feet. Education, generally seen as a path to upward mobility, has failed so many that the difference between information and knowledge is obscured and experts dismissed by a suspicious public. Writing in Salon magazine, Henry A. Giroux, English and Cultural Studies professor at McMaster University, states, “Ignorance has lost its innocence and is no longer synonymous with the absence of knowledge. It has become malicious in its refusal to know, to disdain criticism, and render invisible important social issues that lie on the side of social and economic justice” (Giroux). Know-nothing politicians secure status by appealing to a narcissistic notion of exceptionalism where ignorance is celebrated. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. When there is no shame in being blatantly dishonest and hypocritical, and retaining power at all costs is the modus-operandi of the political class, the social contract breaks down. It’s hard not to feel that morality and ethics are for suckers.

Artwork from grade 12 student at the International School of Beijing

I have written before about all the complex thinking that goes into good art education. However, I’ve been reading lots of posts from art teachers on social media platforms complaining that their students don’t like art class. How can it be that teachers who are passionate about their subject struggle with engaging their students? Perhaps it is because the school culture demands they water-down their curriculums to remove anything remotely socially or politically controversial. Some art teachers worry about losing their jobs if they expose students to images that contain even minimal or abstracted nudity, hence cutting out a substantial segment of the Western canon. Feminist art, LGBTQ art, or art that challenges the ruling class – forget about it. Reluctantly, to keep the peace, these teachers censor student artworks that address outlier themes. They are hamstrung by policies that de-professionalize them put in place by others who often have no contact with a classroom. These policies at best inadvertently, at worst overtly, discourage critical thinking and promote civic illiteracy for the sake of a social agenda. What is the fallback for these art teachers? One answer that emerges from these posts is to stick to formal or technical elements in art class. It’s hard to rock the boat while your class is making color wheels.

In high school, I never understood math. I think it was because it was never put in context for me. The beauty of it was never pointed out. It all seemed like theoretical gobbly-gook and academic exercise. I took three years of math and physics in high school, but when I got to university, I tested into the lowest section of the class for those students who were, to put it politely, math challenged. Even when factoring in my lack of natural ability, I have to wonder if the emphasis on the mathematical procedure in my math classes, devoid of application or historical context, actually made me math-illiterate. Is there a correlation between this procedural approach to teaching math, and the procedural approach to teaching art which focuses on exercises emphasizing technique or the formal elements? Might this approach lead to illiteracy about art?

One of my art-ed mentors, Dr. Renee Sandell, writes, “In contrast to stereotypical “make and take” school art projects, art is a vital and core subject that should be seen as balanced, interdisciplinary, and grounded in meaning and inspiration. Furthermore, traditional overemphasis on formal qualities (in terms of studio materials, as well as art elements or design principles) is insufficient in a digital global world where social and other forms of communicative media are prevalent in daily life” (Sandell et al.). This digital, global world is the platform where the division between information and knowledge is currently waged. Untethered from cross-examination and without the ability to find coherence from this onslaught of information, civic literacy is under siege.

Art reflects the human condition. As such, it can be beautiful and inspirational, but it can also be ugly and disturbing. An analysis of these extremes deepens our understanding of what it means to be human and differences in cultural and societal values. Being able to understand and intelligently appraise and debate these values expressed through art is visual literacy. Sensitivity to community standards is respectful teaching, but having the art curriculum held hostage by “the malicious refusal to know” breeds illiteracy. Ignoring art that presents inconvenient political history to satisfy a certain narrative makes a critical analysis of that narrative impossible. Sanitizing art class of rigorous or controversial ideas removes the very thing that makes art interesting. Many artists address difficult social, cultural, personal or political subjects. It’s not necessary to show high school students Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (a brilliant work by the way), but I’m not sure how you can teach about modernism while avoiding Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” While Kara Walker’s images might be too hot button, certainly Bettye Saar and Faith Ringgoldcould be used to show how artists take a serious approach to issues of racial inequality in America. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs would be inappropriate to introduce identity and gender in art, but Keith Haring’s work shows that gay artists can address issues that affect the LGBTQ community balanced with wider ranging social issues in a way students can handle. There are certainly artworks that are unsuitable to use in the classroom, but there is almost always artwork that can illuminate sensitive themes appropriately. Sensitive or controversial themes aren’t the only ones worth studying, but if we exclude them we are neglecting to present a full picture of what art can be. I believe students know when we are not being straight with them. By not respecting their ability to grapple with these motifs intelligently, is it any wonder that some students find art class boring and irrelevant?

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Ridicule of art they don’t understand by the “I know what I like” crowd stems at least partly from their participation in art classes in which the expression of ideas emphasized artistic skills which they didn’t possess and so their buy-in was limited. “Consensus in the field suggests that it is during the middle school years that young people, often experiencing confused thoughts and feelings about their place in the world, “drop out” of art making altogether” (Charleroy et al.). Like my math experience, art procedures in isolation have little meaning and give little satisfaction. Art courses that neglect analysis beyond the formal elements don’t provide a complete picture of Art’s depth. Context is everything. Unfortunately, when students don’t have access to the full spectrum of artistic thinking and therefore cannot find their place with creative expression, art becomes just another mechanism to make them feel inadequate. An opportunity to inspire curiosity over apathy forfeited. Their ridicule becomes ammunition in the manufactured culture war between ignorance and expertise.

The art teacher’s contribution to building literacy goes beyond an appreciation of art and culture. Professor Giroux continues, “As the public’s grip on civic literacy weakens, language is emptied of any substantive meaning and the shared standards necessary for developing informed judgments and sustained convictions are undermined. At the same time, those institutions dedicated to producing critical knowledge and informed citizens are under attack and are slowly disappearing. In a world where nothing is true, all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. One consequence is that everything begins to look like a lie” (Giroux). If our students are to have a future of freedom and agency, we must examine if as art teachers, we are confronting or enabling the spread of civic illiteracy. If we desire to develop creative, critically thinking global citizens, our practice demands it.

images courtesy of grade 12 art students from the International School of Beijing

Works Cited

Charleroy, Amy, et al. Child Development and Arts Education: A Review of Current Research and Best Practices. Jan. 2012.

 Giroux, Henry A. “Against the Dictatorship of Ignorance in the Age of Donald Trump: Part 1 of 2.” Salon, Salon.com, 18 May 2019, www.salon.com/2019/05/18/against-the-dictatorship-of-ignorance-in-the-age-of-donald-trump-part-1-of-2/. Accessed 31 May 2019.

 Sandell, Renee, et al. Section 3: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful Interweavings: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like. 9 July 2012.

What your art teacher is thinking about – Understanding the complexity behind the curtain

Sometimes art seems to appear in schools by magic. Concerts fill the air with music, theater productions showcase aspiring performers, and artworks bring color to the hallways. Parents beam at displays of their talented offspring, and there is perhaps no better PR for all the remarkable things a school is doing to develop young minds. The arts bring life to a school, and even though many people may not understand the process of how the art, music or theater productions come together, they recognize that teachers and their assistants must be working hard behind the scenes to make it happen. While it’s satisfying as a teacher to receive kudos for your efforts, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy perpetuates the mystery of how these art productions materialize. As long as concerts, plays and art shows occur everyone’s happy. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to find out how they came to be.

The problem with enabling this mystery is that it leads to an awareness deficit about the deep thinking that goes into the design and delivery of good art education. In the worst-case scenario, this lack of understanding leads to the cutting of art programs when budgets get tight, but even in a supportive school atmosphere, the arts are usually relegated to elective or ‘specials’ status. One problem with this marginalization is that schools are not taking full advantage of all the complex learning that is happening in the art classroom when evaluating the overall curriculum they deliver.

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What is the art teacher thinking about when they plan their courses? They know there’s a substantial difference between the art program where students produce school-friendly art products and the one where students are learning about what makes Art such a vital part of the human experience. Too often, schools assume that the nature of art as a subject alone means that when students are in art class, they are learning to be creative and expressive, developing some artistic techniques and that they are gaining knowledge about culture and an appreciation for art. These are indeed aspects of art education, and for many schools that is good enough – art is not a core class after all. Without too much examination about what is happening in the art classroom, there’s a relief that the bases are covered.

However, teaching about Art requires more thinking than that. When a school wants its students to learn about Art, it empowers its art teachers to create an authentic and immersive artistic experience which is relevant to each student’s life. To do this, Art teachers employ as appropriate many aspects of current best practice in education like individualization, project-based learning, integrated technology, and portfolio assessments. They know a multi-layered, sophisticated process is required whose efficacy may not be apparent to the casual observer focused solely on the artworks hanging in the halls. To fully understand the complexity of that process we need to investigate a bit more.

DEVELOPING STUDENT THINKING

Like any other subject, art has a particular way of accessing and developing knowledge. Understanding how meaning is made requires that students learn to analyze a broad spectrum of symbolic representations. This analysis is done through discovering connections between the form of an artwork, the artist’s theme or intention, and the context in which it was made. Dr. Renee Sandell, the NAEA 2019 Lowenfeld Award recipient, has written, “Excellent visual arts teaching helps learners navigate through our visual world using two qualitative and interlinked experiential processes: creative expression and critical response.” (Sandell et al., 2012). While students explore how to represent their intentions through their studio work, they must simultaneously deconstruct the art of others to internalize this symbiotic relationship. An Art teacher provides the tools and experiences for this to happen by designing projects that integrate art history with studio problems, allowing students to experience artistic concepts through both their heads and hands.

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The findings from this analysis must then be critically assessed to see if the meaning extracted has significance or relevance to culture or the student’s life. In “Ten Lessons the Arts Teach,” Stanford professor, Elliot Eisner writes that “The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships.” (Eisner, 2016). Again, an understanding of the art-making context is essential. Since meaning in a work of art is often ambiguous, this requires students to make a broad range of connections to arrive at and justify their position. Becoming comfortable with ambiguity is a crucial aspect of being creative and flexibly-minded. Qualitative relationships in life are not limited to the arts, and a student’s experience here will help them navigate the world. The Art teacher is purposefully blowing minds to expand them.

DEVELOPING LANGUAGE USE

When working with schools, language education expert Dr. Jose´ Medina emphasizes that all teachers are language teachers. The language in the art room goes beyond the development of art vocabulary and terminology. Again, this doesn’t happen coincidentally. The use of language to organize the analytical and critical thinking mentioned above, in either a written or verbal form, also is developed in the art classroom. Examining and annotating an artwork according to formal, thematic and contextual attributes happens in critiques, discussions and written assignments. Synthesizing these annotations into critical arguments of how an artwork functions within a given context requires students to use high-level thinking strategies.

Activities and assessment vehicles need to have built-in tools which give language users of all levels the support they need to express their thinking clearly. Ready access to developmentally appropriate vocabulary banks, sentence starters, definitions of terminology, and student-friendly contextual resources are things the Art teacher designs to support language learners and users. The Art teacher is not just developing visual language in students but functional language as well.

DEVELOPING CREATIVE BEHAVIOR

A small percentage of students who take art will go on to study art at the post-secondary level. While it is essential to help those students to develop their skills and understanding of art to allow them to be competitive in the art school admissions process, there needs to be value for those students who will not pursue art beyond high school as well. Acquiring some knowledge of and appreciation for the arts fill that order somewhat, but Art class does much more for both sets of students.

The arts have no monopoly on creativity but experiencing how an artist thinks and acts provides insight into what it means to be a creative problem-solver. Making art is just one vehicle for the expression of creativity. For those students who will not pursue art further, and maybe even for those who do, the art they produce, while personally dear, is of secondary importance to an understanding of the creative process. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as, “the process of having original ideas that have value” (Robinson, Aronica, 2016). Indeed, a lot of art, student-made or otherwise, is neither original nor of value. Yet for creativity to be possible the Art teacher must establish an environment where outcomes are unpredictable, ‘mistakes’ are recognized as feedback, where risk-taking is rewarded in the assessment, and where students have considerable agency in decision-making about their artistic pursuits.

The establishment of this environment can sometimes come into conflict with school policies, programs, or initiatives that work well for other subjects but not for art. Reliance on easily controlled, predictable, and measurable exercises or standardized assessments of both students and teachers can make it difficult for Art teachers to facilitate, and students to truly express creative behavior. “In the school environment, creativity can be considered pathological behavior as opposed to the compliant traits of being reliable, sincere, good-natured, responsible, tolerant, and peaceable — the qualities associated with the lowest levels of creativity,” writes Cevin Soling, director of the documentary “The War on Kids” (Soling, 2014). The reason that the art room looks messy and informal is that creativity exists on the edge of chaos. Different classroom management strategies are required. UCLA professor of psychology, Dr. Robert Bilder has found in his research with school children that… “It was that freedom to explore that led them to be increasingly engaged and allowed them to forge connections that allowed them to be more creative.” (Schwartz, 2014). Schools need to become comfortable with and learn to appreciate the apparent disorderif they genuinely want teachers and students to be creative. Student engagement is the most important indicator that the Art teacher has found that sweet spot on the edge of chaos for their classroom.

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DEVELOPING GLOBAL COMPETENCE

As the world finds itself increasingly faced with problems of sustainability and equity, the imperative for developing global awareness and caring and competent citizens is clear. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development defines global competence as: “Global competence is a multidimensional capacity. Globally competent individuals can examine local, global and intercultural issues, understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being.”

Art class introduces students to varied aspects of visual language from different cultures, so it seems natural that schools would see art class as a solid contributor to their efforts at developing global competency in students. This approach alone would be another missed opportunity. Art can use its particular attributes to develop global competence in students beyond merely introducing them to the art of diverse cultures. Many artists address political and economic inequality, environmental issues, and social injustice in their work. By providing students projects structured to include assessment of their level of global competence, the researching of global concerns, defining and debating positive and negative outcomes, and creating artworks that interact with the local community in some way, Art teachers purposefully develop global citizens.

Effectively scaffolding these attributes into the art program is something the Art teacher is thinking about a lot. In an art classroom where students are learning about Art, they are not just working on skills and techniques to produce effective visual communication. Art class is not only a place where students get to think differently and be more hands-on, although both of those things do happen. The Art teacher has a plan to develop curious, creative, and competent global citizens. Through an immersive art experience, students learn that Art is about ideas and that these ideas come from, connect, and interact with a wide range of human endeavors. They see that they can have a relationship to the world that isn’t driven by commerce or utility. Students come to understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems and that it is possible to proceed even when you are not sure about an outcome. They become participants in culture rather than observers of it.

To get art students to that place much is going on in the Art classroom that may not fit the normal teacher evaluation process. To champion the deep learning happening in the art room professional conversations would be a more conducive and satisfying way to get a feel for how the Art teacher’s plan is unfolding. Rather than the teacher adapting what they do to fit a standardized evaluation model, the evaluation process should accommodate and embrace the specialized pedagogy the Art teacher practices.

Most schools support the importance of the arts in education. An understanding of what and how the Art teacher is thinking, planning, doing, evaluating, and refining, will prevent this support from getting inadvertently diluted by policies and procedures that hinder rather than enhance what the art program is capable of adding to the school’s mission.

Works Cited

Eisner, Elliot. “10 Lessons the Arts Teach.” National Art Education Association, 2016, www.arteducators.org/advocacy/articles/116-10-lessons-the-arts-teach. Accessed 12 May 2019.

Robinson, Ken, and Lou Aronica. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, New York, Penguin Books, 2016.

Sandell, Renee, et al. Section 3: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful Interweavings: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like. 9 July 2012.

Schwartz, Katrina. “KQED Public Media for Northern CA.” KQED, 6 May 2014, www.kqed.org/mindshift/35462/on-the-edge-of-chaos-where-creativity-flourishes. Accessed 12 May 2019.

Soling, Cevin. “KQED Public Media for Northern CA.” KQED, 18 Mar. 2014, www.kqed.org/mindshift/34481/can-creativity-truly-be-fostered-in-classrooms-of-today. Accessed 12 May 2019.