At a recent dance and science integration workshop that I led in mid-Ohio, a participating teacher raised the sixty-four-dollar question that teachers always have when dipping into these waters: How are we going to have time to do this?
With the intense focus on teaching to the standardized test in every classroom, from preschool on up through high school, and with all the other roles that teachers must play in the classroom, how can they possibly add being an artist to the list?
I have a small answer to that, and a big one as well. Let’s start small.
A philosopher might respond that none of us ever “has” time, but that we exist (and disappear) in time, very much like dances do. But that isn’t the real question. It’s what we do with the time we have.
Teachers have been bearing the brunt of the blunt-force trauma inflicted by politicians’ general aversion to deep and searching thought and their preference for easy answers. Merit pay for “good” teachers and re-assignment or layoff for “bad” teachers, all based on how students do on those very few days a year when they are actually tested for how much retrievable information has been stuffed into them.
So it’s no wonder that teachers begin to feel as if they have no choices left, least of all in how they spend their instructional and planning time. Some districts even have scripted, timed curriculum that teachers must deliver like parrots to a dulled and uncomprehending audience of formerly curious children.
This is a clash of ideas that are by no means equal. The lesser idea, that of creating a system that produces learners of nothing more than knowledge, is the one that politicians are pushing. “Accountability” is a code word for measuring teacher effectiveness with an instrument that does not work and then punishing or rewarding people based on those flawed assessments.
The results of this “reform” initiative? Disaffection, plummeting morale, high turnover, student resistance, widespread cheating, and a pervading sense of failure. Setting impossible standards to achieve, in something that is ultimately not very important, is a horrible way to run an educational system.
A small answer to the question, then, “How are we going to find time?”: You stop doing some of the things that are not helping your students, and you use that time to move into an approach to teaching and learning that you know will be effective.
Stephen Covey says that there are four time quadrants:
- Urgent And Important – these tasks you need to do right away.
- Not Urgent But Important – these you must make time for, but not necessarily at the moment.
- Urgent But Not Important – these are tasks that other people think are urgent and want you to do right away, but are low on your list of priorities.
- Not Urgent And Not Important – also known as time-wasting. And by the way, these do not include Important things like wool-gathering, creative play, and satisfying hobbies or interests. Those go under Quadrant 2.
In general, Covey says, we want to concentrate our choices on the first two quadrants, knowing that some Quadrant 3 tasks are unavoidable if we want to work and live with others.
As guerrilla educators of a sort, teachers who want to engage their students in the processes of discovery and creation that arts integration brings must jettison something from their already-over-full daily schedules. I would suggest that many things district and school administrators demand from teachers fall within Quadrant 3: they want them done not only right now but yesterday, yet way too often they are things that are only related to classroom instruction by interfering with it.
In other words, teachers, Just Say No to Stupid Instructions.
Make the time in your planning day and your instructional day to help students uncover the universe, instead of “covering” curriculum by drill and by rote. My money is on the children. They will do just fine when testing rolls around, if they truly understand the world through the hands-on experience and meaning-making that comes from creative play.
Sound like a “big” answer instead of a small one? I’m thinking here that it’s small acts of civil disobedience that will add up to a huge wave of transformation. It doesn’t require a Herculean effort of will to take little steps toward a far-off goal. But it does take a sense of self-efficacy and a willingness to stick one’s neck out a bit. Personally, I’d rather go down fighting than to be worn into some sort of teaching Willy Loman. Every day is a series of choices, unless you trick yourself into thinking like a sheep.
By “big,” though, I mean that beginning to think like an artist actually opens up time like a flower. The teacher who begins to trust her or his own innate creativity, and that of the other learners in the room, also begins to bring life back into balance. Our American culture has narrowed our thinking down so much that we see everything in terms of competition, of win and loss. We have forgotten that we are part of an interdependent ecosystem that operates by laws we ignore at our literal peril.
The teacher who is willing to enter the world of arts integration with students is a teacher who finds that time is malleable. We learn that the shared joy of making meaning in the classroom is a way to begin reconnecting us with our birthrights of play, discovery, invention, and community. As students begin to construct their own unique and exciting understandings of the universe, they also build their own strong and unique characters, and grow to appreciate the the diverse strengths of others.
There are those in places of power and authority who do not want our children to know too much. They want to keep all of us ignorant, distracted and hopeless, so we don’t threaten their rapacious ways. But the rest of us, I believe, are strong enough to reverse the tide and find ways bring the secrets of happiness — purpose, autonomy, and mastery — back into the light for all who will come after. We can make the time. And that’s a truly big idea.