The missing ingredient

I attended my first meeting about full-day kindergarten in the Spring of 2010, 7 years ago now.  In the intervening years, I’ve worked as a classroom teacher in FDK and as a support person for FDK classrooms.  I’ve thought hard about the progress we’ve made and the progress we’ve missed as I’ve observed and documented, reflected and refocused.   And I have to say that, although there are some shining examples of excellence, our progress, across the province, hasn’t been where many of us would have hoped.   We are, in many meetings, still talking about the same issues we were discussing 7 years ago.

Why? Why haven’t we, in spite of our best intentions, been able to move the needle on some of these critical issues in early learning?  Why is my daughter still coming home from her second year of Kindergarten with worksheets and fixed-result crafts?  How can I possibly be having the same conversations with her teachers that I was having with my son’s teachers in 2012? They’re getting tired of it and so am I (imagine for a moment the delight a teacher feels when I walk into their classroom information night… oy).

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions a lot this year, especially as I’ve been working with the teachers, educators, and artists in our Artists-in-Residency (AIR)(education) program (generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council).

Without exception, the artists working in this program bring an entirely fresh perspective to the classrooms they’re working in.  They see things with new eyes.  They don’t have the same preconceived notions that many of us in education do about children, their capacities, and the possibilities for learning in the classroom.   Let me give you an example.

In one of our schools, we have had an artist working with both a kindergarten teacher/ECE team and a grade 3 teacher.  The same artist also worked in the school last year but this is the first time we’ve extended the program beyond kindergarten.  She has been in residency, typically spending two half-days per week in each class, for 8 weeks.  As the grade 3 teacher pointed out, that’s the equivalent of 9 months of Visual Art instructional time according to the minutes allotted in our board (which are comparable to instructional time allotments across Ontario).

During this time, the grade 3 students have made plaster casts, abstract maps, and clay pots.  They’ve experimented with linocut printmaking and copper tooling.  They’ve also made their own paper and learned about 3-dimensional drawing techniques.  It’s been a rich and rewarding experience for everyone and represents a particularly brave leap for the teacher; grade 3 is a testing year in Ontario and many teachers would be reluctant to give so much time to an Art project.

But we’re here to talk about Kindergarten so let me tell you about the project in that class.  Last year this artist worked with the students’ interests and curiosities to create a very detailed 3-dimensional model of a coral reef, including a reef sculpted in wire, covered in plaster bandages, and painted in bright acrylics.  This year, the class began working on a few projects to test the water and get an idea for where the students wanted to take the project.  They began with the students’ existing fascination with building which prompted tall paintings (à la Holton Rower) and architecture-inspired floor plans and building designs.

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tall paintings mounted for display

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Kindergarten blue print
The project quickly shifted, however to a focus on space.  Space.  As we had done the previous year with the coral reef, this direction prompted some soul searching on the part of all the adults.  Space seems an awful lot like a theme.  Was this really where we wanted the project to go?  Did it have enough to do with Art? Was it a genuine place of curiosity for the students or was there a bigger question we were missing? But given that we didn’t have any other obvious direction, we decided to go for it.

I ordered batteries, wires, and LED lights while the artist’s receipts revealed purchases that stretched from one end of the dollar store to the other.  The students made a planetarium out of a giant cardboard box, featuring constellations that were wired together and used finger pressure to connect the circuits.  They created Mars rovers and a dramatic play centre that featured plaster bandage helmets and moon shoes.  They created a cave populated with crystal sculptures.  The project went well beyond where anyone would have predicted at the outset. The teacher and ECE reflected:

“It was interesting to observe an inquiry progress through the arts. The children’s questions lead us. I wonder how our project would have looked if we had not used the techniques introduced by the artist?”

And that’s the rub that we’re facing, 7 years in.  We’ve tried to adopt Malaguzzi’s broad view of 100 languages without bringing in the translators he used.  We are like aliens, fish out of water.  We don’t know how to navigate and though we’re trying, gamely in many cases, we keep reverting back to our old languages of reading, writing, and mathematics because there isn’t anyone to bridge the cultural gap for us.  The gulf between the culture of school and the culture of childhood remains in large part, I think, because the people who could comfortably stand on both sides of the divide aren’t in schools.  We haven’t asked them to come in.

Vea Vecchi, writing in the journal Innovations in Early Education writes:

“In the late 1960’s the decision was made to have an atelier and an atelierista in each municipal infant-toddler centre and preschool in Reggio Emilia. It was a choice that was revolutionary then and now because it changed a conformist way of thinking about education, of looking at knowledge and learning. This choice created a dialogue between social constructivist pedagogy and the poetic languages of the atelier. This decision was actually quite subversive. In a very short time after the original institution of the atelier, the culture of the atelier began to infuse throughout the entire school. The atelier brought certain techniques and certain culture into the school but also had an intense effect on all the aspects of the school.” (Fall 2012, Volume 19, Number 4)

The artists of the atelier are not teachers, just as our AIR artists aren’t teachers.  They bring a subversive set of eyes and hands and legs to the classroom and in the upending that occurs, the very nature of what school is changes.

Vecchi writes: “Loris Malaguzzi talked about the atelier as a being an “impertinent atelier.” This is a term that I like very much because it implies that the atelier is a place of provocation. The atelier is a place that guarantees that knowledge and learning are taking place with the mind and the hand as well as rationality and emotions connected.”

Learning with the mind and the hand… learning with emotions.  How many of the issues that we talk about in education, be it a better future for learners who identify as Indigenous, a focus on Mental Heath, physical literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration are so obviously served by having artists present in schools, active in schools, integrated into schools?  How far could we move the needle on student Mental Health if kids had access to an art studio in their schools, if their teachers had access to an artist-in-residency… full-time? How much more creative could we all be if we had the kinds of opportunities that the students and educators involved with the AIR program have had?  What a difference it would make to the culture of school if we had fluent adult speakers of the 100 Languages in the building. I think we’re missing out, our kids are missing out, and our society is missing out.  Send in the artists. There’s no time to waste.

 

 

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Where do the Arts Belong?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with one of my sons’ teachers. He has a classroom teacher who delivers the “core” subjects (not my favorite term, by any means), a physical education teacher, and a teacher whose job it is to teach social studies and the arts. I had asked her to call me in response to some assessments she had sent home. I was a little bewildered as to how she could manage to teach all of these subjects (Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Arts, and Social Studies) during the approximately 30 minutes a day she has with my son’s class.

It turns out that her background and mine are not all that different and that, until this year, she’d been doing a similar job in her school board to the one I have now. So we had a good chat about the challenges of her current role, the ways she’s trying to cope (by focusing on one subject per month in a rotation) and the near impossibility of giving any of these subjects their due in 30 minutes per day.

When I hung up the phone and went back to cooking dinner, I found myself thinking about these strange things we call subjects and how we often treat them in schools. I’ve come to realize that we really like boxes. We love boxes. We like boxes that describe our roles and we like performing those roles inside more boxes. We like boxes for timetabling and boxes for drawing. We can’t get enough of them.

But is that reality? Does it give students a real sense of the scope of a subject or a domain when we point to something and say “Here, this is math… that is science… and that is Art. They are different. They don’t go together.”? I don’t think so. I think that not only does it do our students a disservice, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the work being done in those fields.

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I have observed an interesting phenomenon over many years of teaching and learning in the Arts. I’m going to call it the Beginners Paradox. Often when someone starts learning in an art form, they are very open, very curious and are willing to try almost anything. They don’t have a preconceived idea about what is and isn’t part of that form. As they become more advanced, however, their ideas narrow and their willingness to experiment with techniques or ideas that they perceive to be outside of their sphere dramatically declines. Only at the most advanced levels do people again become more willing to open up and, ironically, try to become more like beginners – to see their domain with fresh eyes so that they are able to innovate and push the work forward.

Yesterday, I was asked to create a question that would guide my work this year. We were working with Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question (put it on your reading list, it’s really good). I’m not sure that my question is all that beautiful but here it is:

How do I move teachers towards a more integrated model of Arts education that sees the arts less as discrete subjects (stop and teach) and more as languages of expression (ways of knowing) that are available all the time for all students?

I think that in most cases, in most schools, this is the way forward. If we want the arts to be central to education we need to integrate them into the curriculum, seeing them both as valuable subjects and as teaching tools that infuse the day with creation. However, I know that some artists and arts educators won’t agree with me. This model won’t produce as many technically skilled musicians and dancers as perhaps we’ve been accustomed to. High school music teachers will find that students don’t have the same knowledge and skill base as they have in years past because they’ve spent more time composing a body percussion opus describing the European settlement of North America and its effects on First Nations people (for instance) and less time learning how to read sheet music. That’s the trade-off.

In the introduction to his amazing little book, HearSing, R. Murray Schafer writes an indictment of music education. We could easily substitute any of the other arts (drama, dance, visual arts) and the indictment would still stand.

“This is the indictment I make against music education as currently taught:

  • That foreign music is valued above our own;
  • That music composed by others is valued above anything we could achieve ourselves;
  • That in trying to meet excessively high technical demands, many students become discouraged or are forced to forgo the pleasures of music-making;
  • That by insisting that music is an expensive subject, opportunities for inexpensive music-making are ignored;
  • That teachers (and parents and principals) fail to understand the value of music beyond the year-end concert or tour;
  • That music has been isolated from contact with other subjects (science, the other arts, the environment);
  • That teachers do not speak out strongly enough against the commodification of the music by the entertainment industry and the trash that it produces.

The music room is neither the beginning nor the end of music. Music is the whole sounding universe. We are simultaneously listeners and performers and composers of the universal symphony.”

Drama is the whole emotional universe.

Dance is the whole moving universe.

Visual Art is the whole seeing universe.

That’s how beginners see it. It’s how every 4-year-old I’ve ever met sees it. I think that’s how we need to teach it. Weave it into the day. Take away the boxes. Those subject divisions are illusions; we created them and we can make them disappear.