It is always useful for me when starting a discussion about the arts as education to search for definitions that may help to bring participants closer together with the language we chose in our dialogues. In this case, I have asked myself: What do the words quality, engagement and partnership mean to each of us who work in different aspects of the field in different areas of the country?
In our field where there is so much diversity of philosophy, pedagogy, goals and objectives, and policy, I for one would welcome a starting point that serves as a “meet and greet” or “getting to know you” opportunity. I am game for sharing my own thoughts, and would be interested to hear others’.
Over the years, I have designed, implemented, researched, evaluated, and celebrated the idea of partnership as a critical strategy for uniting the arts and education worlds. One of my books (Beyond Enrichment: Building Effective Arts Partnerships with Schools and Your Community) deals with the value and challenges of collaboration in complex examples taken from schools, districts, and arts organizations across the country.
For me, arts education partnerships have flourished at the national, state, district, and local levels beginning in the 1960s, peaking nationally in the 70s and 80s, and then continuing sporadically in what I call “pockets of excellence.” The challenges for partnerships from the start have included their fragile sustainability. We are always faced with the difficulty of finding public, private and other resources to grow promising programs and practices, especially when politics, policy and availability of money have been unsteady or unreliable.
I continue to believe that a diminished but significant number of school and arts community partnerships at the district level are still worth designing, implementing and attempting to sustain.
Engagement has many connotations. To simplify, I need to see classrooms, stages, gyms, and outdoor play yards filled with students intently watching, listening, creating in many art forms. They are ardently immersed in discussions about the arts, their own lives, talking with their peers, teachers, visiting artists, parents and other members of the community.
A group of kids are furiously arguing how to stage one of the scenes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It; another group of early musicians are trying to agree on the tempo and dynamics of an early Mozart quartet; a student choreographer consults her boy and girl dancers about the best ways to interpret Alvin Ailey’s “Sinner Man” from his inimitable Revelations, and a classroom of young visual arts students are struggling with self-portraits, studying their classmates’ solutions, and then seriously addressing their arts teacher for help in capturing the exact angle of their face on paper. (Of course, there are family engagements, bridal engagements, dinner engagements, and so forth, but we needn’t go there for our current purpose.)
For me, what is quality teaching and learning in the arts is the most important and most difficult to answer. Many have tried, and my colleague Steve Seidel and his team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently produced a research study (The Quality of Qualities: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education) which deserves careful study.
Think of the variables! So much depends on the:
- Age of the student
- Effectiveness of the teacher, whether classroom, artist, or specialist (or all together)
- Amount of time devoted to teaching and learning in the art form(s)
- Clarity and public “list” of the indicators of excellence (Developed by the students? The instructor? Other?)
- Feedback to the students who are learning to self-assess
- Time devoted to reflection and returning to “edit” or refine the art work (whether visual, dance, theater, or music)
- Respect given to the students engaged in the arts, and the opportunities for them to “perform” or share with their parents and seek help for projects from them at home, and whether or not the arts are graded on report cards
- And, so forth…
One thing is certain: the three words, or themes, we are dealing with point to some of the important aspects of arts education.
I wonder whether we should try to deal with all three together at some point, or if not, how further study into each one might encourage opportunities for deeper community thought and promising practice.
I look forward to the conversation.