By Diane Wittner
A Session Report from the Community Arts Convening, March 2011
In March of 2011, I conducted a workshop at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) entitled "Arts and Democracy Bazaar: Challenging the School-to-prison Path. This workshop was part of MICA's 2011 Community Arts Convening and Research Project." Stephanie Tabrisky, physical therapist, choreographer and teacher, was my partner for the day.
I have taught art to youth and adults in a range of educational settings, from after school and parochial school to college and graduate school. My pedagogical perspective has evolved thanks to the creative problem-solving abilities demonstrated by all my students. At present, I work at the high school of a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed teen boys. Many of my students have already encountered restricted living arrangements that resemble detention in one form or another.
For this workshop, I utilized my experience in holistic arts education, arts integration, creative citizenship and character education (an education model that promotes social, emotional and ethical development). I wished to introduce workshop participants to an appealing vision of a possible future: a time of unparalleled opportunity and creative problem solving, combined with possible alternatives to the school-to-prison path. In our troubled times, every young person can play a useful role. This ambitious goal meant touching on seemingly disparate topics, such as: climate change, the emerging green economy, democratization of our political system, juvenile justice, affordable transport and human rights to healthcare, housing, quality education, cultural equity and a sustainable living wage. Due to our ambitious workshop goal, our brief timetable and people's need for liveliness and humor, we set up an interactive workshop.
As a human being and as an art teacher, I am keenly aware of the material and metaphoric importance of things. Thus, our focus was on stuff: items to touch, feel and smell, to make noise with, to play with, to wear, as well as edible treats, readable texts, materials to create with, and student art to look at.
The late Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky wrote about the importance of things in "New Life":
Imagine that war is over, that peace has resumed its reign. That you can still make a mirror. That it's a cuckoo or a magpie that chirps in the twigs again. That a window frames not a town's rubble but its rococo, palms, magnolias, pine trees, tenacious ivy, grass, laurel. That the cast-iron lace the moon used to shepherd clouds in, in the end endured the onslaught of mimosa, plus bursts of agave. That life must start from the very threshold. (Brodsky l. 1-8) Life starts anew indeed like this - with a painted view of a volcanic eruption, of a dinghy high waves beleaguer. (Brodsky l. 17-18) Each thing is vulnerable. The very thought about a thing gets quickly forgotten. Things are, in truth, the leeches of thought. Hence their shapes – each one is a brain's cutout – (Brodsky, l. 25-27)
Our 60-minute workshop consisted of participatory theater. In three 20-minute sessions, participants joined a lively "street market," viewed a power point of my students' artwork, and engaged in a structured large-group discussion. What follows is a description of each session:
To Market! To Market!
In homage to the emerging democracy movements in the Middle East — and the re-awakened democracy movements in state capitals across the U.S. — we created an indoor Arts and Democracy Bazaar, a kind of faux street theater. Our Bazaar was also a metaphor — a glorious cacophony of movement and sound — for how to have fun while addressing community needs.
We had supplies and tables for six themed market stalls: 1) Cultural Equity; 2) Democracy/Human Rights; 3) Green Economy; 4) Restorative Practices; 5) Solution Education and; 6) Written Word. With grace and wit, vendors draped themselves and displayed their goods in an appealing manner, and then began to noisily hawk their wares. Their job was to attract visitors to their tables, and then to haggle, or to barter, their tempting goods – in exchange for an agreement from the takers to participate in our final workshop session.
At the Cultural Equity Stall, one could find: musical instruments, movie DVDs, theater masks, hats, patterned scarves, colored pencils, a sketchbook and writing journal, a bilingual book of poems by Pablo Neruda, a Chinese calligraphy brush set, a pair of dancing shoes and a bright wooden coyote whose canine jaw was pointedly howling at the moon.
The vendor at the Democracy/Human Rights Stall offered mint tea to visitors. One could also find: confusing electronic-voting instructions, a bowl of almonds, my sons' baby clothes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an origami peace crane, the U.S. Constitution, a popsicle stick house, a Health Care is a Human Right! bumper sticker, a cartoon depicting money flooding and destroying a town hall during election time and a shiny new graduation cap.
A stroll over to the Green Economy Stall revealed: a blooming peace lily, a rusty trowel, fruit and vegetable seeds, native wildflowers, urban farming and rain garden brochures, The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, a New York City subway map, and a bike pump.
The Restorative Practices Stall held a shawl, an arts-integration/anger-management lesson plan, a wind-up toy, a candle, a colorful "anger meter" chart made by students, a stuffed teddy bear, a poster with comic faces displaying many emotions, a sparkly mirror and a troubled teen's eloquent diary entry about children as victims. A character-education key chain held 14 cards with the words: Humanity, Responsibility, Self Esteem, Patience, Courage, Perseverance, Caring, Service, Honesty, Integrity, Cooperation, Self Control, Respect and Goal Setting.
Our Solution Education Stall consisted of a small bird's nest, articles by Zoe Weill and Diane Ravitch and other progressive education leaders, a set of cushions, carpentry tools, recipe books, crochet and sewing needles, yarn, baseball and soccer balls, a visual/verbal teen project, a Safe Routes to School map and fifth-grade architectural models with edible yards, roof gardens, solar panels and windmills.
The Written Word Stall contained two dozen marvelous books and articles on the themes of our workshop, including a book of short stories and essays entitled Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.
Freedom Plus Responsibility ... in an Art Room?
"Ms. Wittner, I don't know how I'll survive without art class over spring break!" (Student lament, March 2011)
The second session of the workshop consisted of a slide show of my student's arts and craft projects, during which I described my approach to teaching art. My modified transcript follows:
My art room is set up for creative problem solving. It is also a place of humanity. We are a racially diverse group, but by practicing humanity, we move forward with dignity, together. My talented and experienced colleagues are my role models in practicing humanity. We also practice respect and responsibility, choice and negotiations, albeit with consequences for poor behavior, or lack of effort.
When a new student enters my class, I tell him that his worries can be left outside our door, that this is his chance for a break from his troubles. I explain that we give students privacy if they are having a bad day. (And my students sometimes do experience a temporary hiatus from fear, worry, anxiety, debilitating mental distress, each of which can be a kind of "psychological imprisonment.")
I then show the new student where the supplies can be found and I show him other kids' work. Then we discuss options in art. Much depends on his personal interests.
In deciding what to create, in terms of both medium and subject matter, students are often influenced by one another, by my colleagues and, if there's trust, by me. They often make gifts for friends, family or adult mentors. Popular subjects are animals, nature, sports, video games, and musicians. Some projects take months, while others are completed in twenty minutes. Students are encouraged to play with materials, and experiment with ideas and design. As long as the play is purposeful and focused, learning and healthy risk taking are happening.
Each student determines how he will pace himself, and I step in to provide skills and guidance. Sometimes other staff members offer assistance at an important turning point in a student's progress. Students also develop expertise on their own, or they coach one another, especially if they have a skill I lack (such as a complex braiding pattern in gimp), or if I am occupied with another student.
I play music every day; the right music nurtures creativity. We often have snacks and share jokes and stories. I praise students frequently, and we occasionally celebrate big accomplishments. Once or twice a year, we stop working and watch a cartoon or a good movie. All these things build trust, and pretty quickly, each class begins to function as a mini community.
In general, I adjust my style and method of teaching based on the learning environment and student population. As is evident, students choose what to create in my class. There may be a day where five different projects, in different mediums, are happening simultaneously. I recently learned that my approach has other proponents, and it even has a name: choice-based art education, or teaching for artistic behaviors. Not surprisingly, teaching for artistic behavior reinforces my schools' Restorative Practices agenda. This confluence of methods and desired outcomes merits further investigation.
Choice-based art education is the right fit for my students. Their academic and behavior profiles often mask their talents, intelligence, and their as-yet-untried ability to self regulate and self direct. Although this method involves teacher multitasking, student trial and error, and work stations in tight spaces, student self motivation, behavior and artistic achievements more than compensate."
As we looked at images of my students' brave projects — from decorated plant pots and textile and beadwork to posters, prints, drawings and paintings — I continued speaking about my teaching environment and practices.
I pointed out that I strive to create both a healthy competitive and cooperative environment. In fact, throughout our school, all staff members link artistic, athletic and academic accomplishments to behavior. In art class, I frequently urge my students to apply character-education traits that they demonstrate in art class to other parts of their lives; every art student is interested in his work, and he can, at some point, show measurable progress of which he can be proud. Some students even develop into artists. One student has become an expert acrylic painter who specializes in small scale and detailed iconic paintings. Another is a master poster designer our school depends on for event decoration.
As we viewed the final portion of the slide show, I explained that my students are relaxed because expectations for assessment are jointly determined. As it is likely that they'll succeed in their work at some level, they often get decent grades. It is my pleasure to offer good grades to deserving students who, in the past, might not have liked anything about school. In addition, so-called "not bright" students often display such real intelligence! And good grades build self esteem and confidence. Though I encourage students to challenge themselves, in the end, they are responsible for their learning and their grades.
Students have repeatedly told me how cathartic art class can be. One student calls my room "the place of magic." It is the only class in the school where he can settle down and focus, making one surprising and lovely creation after another after another.
We concluded the slide show with an understanding that my students' artwork symbolizes self and group empowerment. Like the coveted objects chosen from the market stalls, my students' work carries metaphoric significance. Then we turned to the third and final session of our workshop.
Talking It Out
Our third session consisted of a large group discussion. Tenderly holding up their bartered goods, participants explained why they chose their objects. They also shared insights about the role of the arts in schools and in communities.
One participant said that all this talk about physical objects made her want to throw out all the extraneous things in her life!
Citing recent articles, reports and books, we used the final 15 minutes of the workshop to connect our first two sessions — the Arts and Democracy Bazaar and my students' courageous art — with human rights-based policy changes that are needed to challenge the school-to-prison path.
We debunked the myth that has fooled so many. When children fail in school, teachers are often made to be the scapegoats. We looked at numerous recent articles by education experts, where study after study shows the culprit to be a tragic combination of lack of investment in schools, poverty at home and deplorable community conditions. We read aloud sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and noted that such conditions of poverty and lack of education are identifiable human rights violations. These violations should not be tolerated, because, as a graduate student pointed out to the group, the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948.
A gentlemen scholar from out of town suggested that schools would still need revamping, even if conditions that create poverty at home and in neighborhoods were alleviated. So we proposed a short list of ideas for education reform:
- Arts-integrated curriculum is necessary because studies show that arts integration improves the academic performances of all children, but especially students from poorer communities.
- Arts education results in cultural equity (also a human right). Comprehensive multi-arts education should be mandatory in all schools in every grade.
- Students of all ages stay healthy, and grow smarter faster, from project-based, hands/bodies/hearts-on learning. This means more recreation, exploration and sports (which also promote the right combination of competition and cooperation). No more passive listening and sitting at desks all day long. Brain studies have proven what many educators know intuitively.
- School projects should be relevant to student and society's needs. This means addressing climate change, green energy/economy needs. Educators must embrace their roles as coaches and hopeful role models in ways that suit them. The next generation's fears, sadness and worry about climate change and a livable planet should dramatically alter school curriculum and behavior nationwide — and not just in token ways. Students know tokenism when they see it. All students need positive outlets, a new set of skills, and hope for the future.
- Schools should be like cozy nests with well-paid and happy teachers, small classes, comfortable furniture and healthy food, and with two teachers for each classroom. Happy teacher teams can take good care of students and can give sustained individual attention when a student is struggling.
- Every community should construct a Safe Routes to Schools set of pathways so kids can walk and bike to school.
- Living wage green economy and vocational job training and higher education should be free of charge and available to all who are willing and able to work hard. These can be developed into service learning opportunities, such as a Green Jobs Corps or a Community Service Corps, where a living wage, health care, housing, food and transport are part of the package.
- Remedial academic learning should be available to all, and set up in convenient locations, free of charge.
When the topic of public policy and school funding came up, we concurred that, contrary to the hype in the media and in Washington, this country is not broke. We discussed the challenge of persuading "bought and sold" politicians from both dominant political parties to reclaim our squandered resources from far-away wars and from the corporate elite, in order to reinvest our money in desperate community and youth needs.
We touched briefly upon the Missouri model,ii a nationally renowned youth rehabilitation program.
Because more people are behind bars in the U.S. than in any other country in the world,iii we also spoke of the need for a dramatic policy shift to effectively address the root causes of this nation's shameful, profit-driven prison industry.
Our workshop concluded with a recap of the big ideas of the three sessions. We reflected on everyone's needs and rights to freedom and democracy, creativity, economic abundance, beauty, comforts, humor and joy. We agreed that troubled students, in particular, deserve alternatives to the tragic school-to-prison-path, and that adequate financial and personnel resources should be made available so their education can be re-structured nationwide, based on successful models that prioritize arts education.
Even into adolescence, children remain expert creative problem solvers. Instead of setting them up for failure, let's unleash our troubled youth's potential through widened community support. Let's implement best practices currently utilized by both successful education and juvenile-justice models. Student needs often match societal needs. All the best and brightest young minds of the next generation should jointly prepare for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
As Stephanie and I began to pack up supplies from the workshop, participants reluctantly returned their precious objects with a nostalgic smile.
Diane Wittner is an award winning teaching artist and activist. She can be reached at email@example.com. This article is dedicated to her family.
- Brodsky, Joseph. So Forth: Poems. New York, N.Y.: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996, 11. Print.
- Canfield, Jack, Mark Victor Hansen, Kimberley Kirberger and Mitch Claspy. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning. Deerfield Beach, Fla.: HCI Teens, 1997. Print.
- Constitution of the United States. The Charters of Freedom. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.
- Jones, Van. The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. New York, N.Y.: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
- United Nations. Human Rights Division. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1998. Web. 2 Nov. 2004
iTeaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is a nationally recognized choice-based art education approach to teaching art. Developed in Massachusetts classrooms over 35 years, and through courses and research at Massachusetts College of Art, the Teaching for Artistic Behavior concept enables students to experience the work of the artist through authentic learning opportunities and responsive teaching. See http://teachingforartisticbehavior.org/
iiiAdam Liptak. "U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations." New York Times 23 Apr. 2008. Print.