For three years I was the director of an organization whose mission is to make arts education and arts integration an integral part of the education of every child in an urban public school system. Our goal was to organize on a city-wide level to bring together the arts and cultural organizations and the school system, a la Big Thought in Dallas, our model. At the same time, we were working school by school to create systemic reform using arts integration.
It is very hard work, especially in times of economic uncertainty. We (schools, cultural organizations, teaching artists, parents, advocacy organizations) agree on the common cause, that all students in our city deserve access to quality arts education from specialists in the buildings, through trips to cultural organizations and by bringing artists into the school. But, we have different ideas as to how to achieve that goal, especially given our current existential crises.
A school system is like a giant cruise ship that moves with great difficulty and at an incredibly slow pace. Arts education advocacy feels like being part of a flotilla of little tiny tugboats trying to push the cruise ship back into port. (Sometimes, each tugboat is trying to push the cruise ship into a different port.) And, when you look at other parts of the cruise ship, you’ll find thousands of little tugboats flying different flags (phys ed, foreign language, business, etc.), working with all of their strength to push the ship in the direction of distant ports.
At the Americans for the Arts conference last year in Seattle, Daniel Windham, Director of Arts for the Wallace Foundation, asked us to think closely about the child that we want to have quality arts instruction in school. And, he didn’t mean in that sense of “let’s do this for the chiiiiiildren.” He meant, think about an individual child, maybe someone you know, maybe a composite. How can make sure that child has the education that we envision?
You can visualize the spheres of influence orbiting this child. Teachers and parents are in the first sphere deciding whether the child has direct instruction in the arts. Further spheres out are the principals and superintendents determining both policy and budget, governors and senators providing funding and more policy, arts organizations wanting to work with students, universities training teachers.
I belong in the first sphere around the child. I work with kids in classrooms. I train teachers in arts integration because through that work, I can reach hundreds of teachers, who will reach thousands of students. They become a tribe of advocates. I started the #artsed weekly chat on Twitter with Edutopia.com to see if we can create an international grassroots conversation on issues facing individuals involved in all aspects of arts education. Sir Ken Robinson joined our sixth chat. I feel hopeful that this hyper-micro-140-characters-length blog can build a tribe of micro-advocates.