At times, living the life of itinerant teaching artist is like a cross between being a circus performer and a circuit rider.
The traveling road show can sometimes seem like a three-ring circus, with the teaching artist playing the roles of lion tamer, tightrope walker, and clown.
As the first, I must find ways to work with people who may have misconceptions about the arts (especially dance) without arousing anger or resentment — which shuts down any meaningful dialogue. I occasionally have to stick my head into the jaws of antithetical administrators who view the creative arts as nonsense at best. Father Puricelli, my high-school Latin teacher, summed up this viewpoint best: “Self-expression? Hah! I call it self-excretion.” So I soothe the beast with appeals to our common interest in helping students develop higher-order thinking skills, and whisper sweet somethings about brain research and instructional differentiation.
The tightrope analogy, come to think of it, might benefit from some slack-rope thinking. Like a high-wire act, we teaching artists are often working above our comfort zone and sometimes without much of a net. Often we are alone on the wire; sometimes we work with partners of varying levels of skill and experience. Always, it requires utter focus and stamina. (The slack-rope part is that things keep moving underneath you, and there’s a climb at the end.)
The balance we are striving for in this work is between giving primacy to the artistic side or to the educational side of our dual role. Artists who are new to this concept of being artistic educators sometimes get very angry about “diluting” their art forms by connecting them to education. Gradually, some come to realize that they are not giving up anything about their art when they learn how to share it with teachers and students in a way that integrates the art into classroom learning.
On the contrary, learning about how we learn and making connections between our art forms and the rest of the universe is tremendously stimulating, empowering, and engaging. I have learned a great deal about dance by figuring out how to connect it to language, mathematics, and science. In the process, I have learned new concepts and ways of thinking in those subjects that have given me beautiful new ways of making dances.
I desperately want children to learn that dancers are not a unique species of people, but that each and every one of them is her or his own unique dancer. I want them to discover dance as a tremendously malleable, pleasurable, and apt tool for thinking and communication, a sort of living Play-Doh that leaves no mess and never evaporates.
On the other side are the educators who fear that allowing children to create their own work will lead to chaos, “dumbing-down,” and wasting time. Many of these unfortunate souls are the victims of the same system they are now perpetrating on their children.
I actually had a teaching artist who is also a substitute teacher make the argument that students in Title I schools (translation: high-poverty) need “traditional” education methods (strict discipline, reward-and-punishment behavior modification, solitary and silent work, etc.) while the “gifted and talented” students are the only ones who thrive in arts-integrated settings. I’m afraid I nearly took her head off, metaphorically speaking, but I felt compelled to set the record straight. The evidence is overwhelming that it is precisely our most disadvantaged children who benefit the most from the chance to construct their own understandings through the creative arts. But that’s a subject for another post.
In my third role, as clown, I have to sense when there is a need for comic relief, and lighten the mood at my own expense. Knowing, of course, that when we don the mask of the clown we become a spirit, a kachina whose purpose is to make us laugh at the ludicrous aspects of our own humanity. We need to keep the mood light and playful, because play is essential to learning. In play, we challenge ourselves to go beyond what we already can do and to learn new skills or improve existing ones. As the famous Dr. Benjamin Spock said, “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”
As for the circuit rider aspect, that should be evident. We ride our various conveyances to places where people gather, and we spread the word of arts integration. As in the parable of the seeds, many times our words and workshops fall on deaf ears. At others, a few sprouts manage to emerge, but may die from lack of care and nourishment. But in some places, fertile ground has been prepared organically and with the beginnings of sustainability, and there arts integration begins to thrive and to transform schools into something entirely new.
On my most recent journeys I have had the privilege (and the challenge) of working with all three of my favorite audiences: students (a lovely group of 5th-grade bilingual children), teachers (middle school science and elementary general education), and teaching artists (thirty extraordinary individuals from a wide range of places and art forms). Combining both aspects means working in various formats and time frames from 45 minutes to 24 contact hours to put something in each “ring” that will inform and persuade, as well as engage and challenge, each unique community.
It is high-level play that can result in high-level results, and it always challenges me while it feeds my need to share a simple message with all who will listen:
Every child can learn.
Every child can create beauty.
Every child deserves the chance to do both.