Once More, With Feeling

NMAEA Award 2014

The award on my office wall. I love it.

In November of 2014, the New Mexico Art Education Association bestowed on me a singular privilege and honor: the Max Coll and Catherine Joyce Coll Award for Arts Education.

The award stemmed from my participation in a group of dedicated rabble-rousers to support and eventually pass Rep. Max Coll’s Fine Arts Education Act. This law, passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2003, has resulted in arts experiences for thousands of children who would otherwise have had no access to the arts.

early award face

A cool award from 2004 that I also love.

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 6.27.03 PM

Text from that early award.

When I accepted this generous award in Las Cruces last November, I made some remarks that people have since said were worth repeating. I decided to repeat them here.

The text below is adapted from my notes for that speech.

NMAEA Dinner

NMAEA Dinner, Las Cruces, November 2014

There have been reform movements in education, including ones that claimed to “get back to the basics.” But we have done nothing more than tweak a badly-designed, factory-inspired system. What no one noticed, in the rush to rule an industrialized world, was that the arts have always been the first, best teachers.

The arts engage, inspire, provoke, encourage, and connect us. They invite us to see things that are not at first obvious. The arts enlist all our intelligences, all our modalities, and all our experiences in the mission of making sense of the world.

When we give learning back to children by giving away the secret to playfully creating meaningful art, we are helping our children become healthy, aware, and empathetic citizens of the 21st century. We are restoring their birthrights: to participate fully in life, to fail and try again, to fail again and try again, to succeed, and — most importantly of all — to feel deeply.

Arts experiences are aesthetic ones. “Aesthetic” means “suffused with feeling, sensation, or emotion.” What is the opposite of aesthetic experiences? Anesthetic ones. The kind our children have every day, all day, in school.

Let’s stop deadening our children in the name of educating them. Let’s instead show them how to wear their feelings on their sleeves. Let them think as dancers, scientists, musicians, mathematicians, poets, painters, engineers, playwrights, historians, filmmakers, and — most importantly of all — as whole beings.

An artist is not a different type of person. Each one of us is our own, unique artist. Let’s help each child make that discovery, and let us return to teaching and learning from each other with beauty and grace.

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Transformational Teaching

This post on Edutopia beautifully summarizes some crucial truths about teaching and learning:
“Big Things Transformational Teachers Do”

What strikes me in the context of arts integration is that teaching artists and teachers who faithfully follow that approach to teaching meet every aspect of this author’s description of transformational teachers.

Where teaching artists most often struggle is in learning and practicing what the author calls “the science of teaching.” Sometimes they see that aspect as drudgery or as limiting their creativity. Those of us who have dived into the deep end of that pool, however, find that it amplifies and enriches our creative fires, freeing us up to take students to dizzying heights because we are not afraid of crashing.

That structure, that knowledge of developmental stages and differentiated approaches to student engagement, is a gift we give to ourselves. It allows us to consciously design our lessons as creative acts. Teachers share a crucial common trait with artists: we are storytellers. And every good story has a powerful beginning, compelling events, and a satisfying conclusion.

Teachers and teaching artists are on a converging course that will indeed transform education. If the politicians will get out of the way and let them do it.

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Arts Integration on a Bumper Sticker


The first large-scale Learning Expedition we mounted in our young charter school for ecology and the arts in 2005 was, “In the Shadow of the Hermit,” an investigation into the life of a fascinating local Las Vegas, New Mexico historical figure. The picture above is from Río Gallinas School’s culminating event, which incorporated theater, dance, puppetry, music, and visual art into an incredible expression of the depth of their learning in all subjects.

I was working this week with the Río Gallinas staff on plans for next year’s learning expeditions when one of the senior staff members posed me a question: If you had to sum up arts integration on a bumper sticker, how would you do it?

My first impulse was to think, “It’s too complex to go on a bumper sticker,” but I promised to mull it over. Then, later that morning we were exploring the characteristics of arts integration. JT, the teacher who posed the question, said, “I think you just answered my question.”

As we tried to remember the exact language I had used that crystallized arts integration for JT (after years of exposure and training, by the way), JT was able to identify where his epiphany came from. It was the realization that the art form is not a helper, but THE crucial tool through which the student constructs understanding and makes meaning.

This brought home to me how much the marginalization of the arts in schools has broken down their value in a vicious downward spiral. If even the most seasoned, skilled, and sympathetic classroom teacher in the building didn’t get the central place of the art form in the learning process we call arts integration, I almost despair of getting the idea across to a generation of teachers conditioned to find the arts jettisoned in the slightest of belt-tightening efforts.

Art is essential to human understanding.

Think about it: art is essential to humanity. Without a vessel to pour our understanding into, we might become Jeopardy champs, but our knowledge doesn’t come together into a consistent, coherent, meaningful world view. Without art, we lead bland, unquestioning, subsistence lives of spiritual poverty. Without art, we will never become citizens of a sustainable world.

Therefore, every school, everywhere, should immediately put down their calculators and number 2 pencils. They should throw away all drugs they are currently putting into our children to counteract the effects of a deadly-boring and counterproductive factory education. They should invest their capital into studios and theaters and galleries where students can create and share their solutions to real problems. They should make art a daily occurrence, as natural as breathing. We should be like those primal cultures who have no word for art because it is part of everything.

By devaluing art, we devalue all that is human. We throw away the most powerful tool for human understanding, connections, celebration, and problem-solving. We have to stop teaching children NOT to be creative.

Art is the solution to everything that ails not only education, but all the challenges to humanity. Why? Well, maybe the answer is that bumper sticker we were looking for:

Artists always find a way.

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Restoring Dance to the Center of Life

Powerful blog by a socially conscious dancer and activist. Subscribe!

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A Teacher Apologizes for Testing

Along the lines of the continuing thread in this blog about how destructive testing has become, here is a blog post about a 3rd grade teacher’s heartfelt letter of apology to her students for taking time away from learning in order to prepare for and administer tests.

Those of you who scroll down to the comments will note that the first comment beyond “nicely said” once again confused Common Core standards with standardized testing. There is a link, but teaching to the standards does not automatically imply using a standardized test to assess student learning.

Then there is the confusion between assessment (of or for learning) and evaluation (of a program, a strategy, or a method of teaching). Standardized tests are not good for either one, but they are separate things.

The good news: if teachers really do teach to the Common Core literacy standards, a lot fewer people will be confused by the smokescreen the Tea Party, the Flat-Earthers, and the politicos are throwing up.

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Deliberate Confusion About the Common Core

Colorado has become the latest state to suffer a brouhaha over the Common Core State Standards, due primarily to a push by a group of people who don’t understand the Common Core. I suspect many of them have not even bothered to examine the standards and think through their objections. In an article in the Denver Post, educators who should know better are complaining that the standards will result in a “de facto curriculum” that must be taught.

It’s true that states are developing (or more often, purchasing) standardized tests based on the expectations of the Common Core. The educators and parents who are complaining about testing driving teaching are absolutely correct, but that is not the purpose of Common Core. They are conflating testing with standards, and it’s confusing everyone — especially reporters who understand little about education.

At their heart, taking out all the specifics about non-fiction text and “new approaches to math,” the Common Core Standards aim to help clarify the bigger picture of multiple literacies. Mathematical and verbal language literacies are the ostensible focus of the standards released so far, but what the writers have created is a system of thinking about literacy centered on higher thinking skills in all areas of study — including science, social studies, and the arts.

If the protesting, self-described “Moms” waving “No Common Core” placards at the Colorado state capitol took the time to actually examine the Anchor Standards that connect all grade levels, I doubt they would object so loudly. Why would they not want their children to be able to read various types of “text” (including dance, visual art, music, and multi-media)? Why would they not want them to acquire and use language with clarity and accuracy, and to be able to listen and speak knowledgeably and critically? Why would they not want their children to look for and be able to point out supporting details and evidence to back up their assertions?

The more cynical minds out there might suggest that many of these objectors are Tea Partiers, whose very last desire would be for their children to be able to see through their flimsy arguments in favor of discrimination, repression, and a “maker/taker” view of society. There may well be some of that going on. There is certainly a misplaced hysteria over what these folks claim is a “top-down” approach (none of the others have been?) and “governmental control of education.”

The people who made the decision to establish standardized testing as the measure for student success and teacher evaluations are not educators. They are politicians. They used to work for us. Now they work for the big textbook and test manufacturers. If you don’t like testing, don’t blame Common Core. Vote for someone else.

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A Relentless Defense of Ignorance

The Ignorati are coming — out of the wood work. On the heels of the infamous Coca-Cola “America the Beautiful” kerfuffle, which brought all the racists (“#Speak American?” …really???) out of their musty coffins, Bill Nye chose to debate a self-proclaimed “Creationist” who maintains the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

These knee-jerkers have learned very well the lessons of our current, fixed-mindset culture. They think small, possibly because large thoughts scare them. They see limits and scarcity everywhere, even though we have limitless possibilities and abundance if we only change the filter we are using to see the universe.

To me, this is the direct result of our hard-nosed, “feet-to-the-fire” insistence on holding teachers “accountable” for student learning by tying their evaluations and even their income to the chimera of test scores as a measure of “teacher performance.” What results in the classroom is a fear-based strategy of teaching directly to the tests, even when the tests are badly (or even maliciously) designed.

What I have seen in practice, from Ohio to Texas to Virginia to California (and increasingly in all 36 states I have visited as a teaching artist), is teachers who have to face a fundamental question every single day: “Do I teach what students need to learn, or do I teach them to pass the test?”

There are an incredible number of Ignorati who are willing to believe that success on a standardized test means children have “learned,” and that teachers have much if anything to do with how their students score on such tests.

The testing pathway for 3rd graders in Texas, for instance, requires them to study and learn measurement before they investigate geometry! Excuse me? What are they measuring, if not geometric shapes? How can you have a grasp of measurement before you understand geometry? What group of university idiots designed that sequence?

The problem with the system of curriculum and testing in Texas (and for much of the nation as a result) is that textbook manufacturers also create the tests, so they have a captive market of millions, with no checks or balances. They can do whatever they want. It is cheaper for other states to just buy the same books and tests than to have their own designed, so what goes in Texas goes for millions more children across the country.

And what goes in Texas is culturally and developmentally inappropriate curriculum that seems designed to separate the “high achievers” (read: white children from privileged backgrounds) from the “low achievers” (read: kids of color who are going to jail or the ghettos and poor barrios). Add in the prison-preparatory nature of schools these days, and you have a perfect recipe for continued stratification of society. Not to mention a whole new generation of Ignorati.

The Common Core State Standards, while not perfect, have done what none of the previous-generation curriculum standards could do: they emphasize higher-level thinking skills. They ask students to read not only for information but with a critical eye, searching texts for supporting details and summarizing them for their main ideas. This, of course, is very frightening to the Tea Party folks as well as to the skinheads, the survivalists, and the creationists. What if people stop believing they know what they are talking about? What if they start thinking for themselves?

If the average person starts being able to tell truth from lies, assertion from evidence, and logic from bombast, the policies the oligarchy has been putting into place may crumble. The country might become a true democracy. That scares the wealthy Ignorati to no end, and they are doing all they can to stifle true learning.

When half the US Congress is now millionaires, all of them more interested in winning re-election than in crafting legislation that will help real people, we cannot depend on lawmakers to right these wrongs. We must stand up and demand better. There are real, live, high-performing teachers out there, leading their students out of ignorance, and we need to give them the facilities and tools they need, and get the heck out of their way.

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