Depending on where you sit, a host of different words may have popped into your head to fill the blank in the title of this post—ranging from “exciting” to “difficult” to plain “weird.”
Based on my experience working with school district leaders in Los Angeles County, I fill in the blank with a simple “engaging.” If allowed to break my own rule and add a few more words, I would say, “necessary if we are serious about engaging new partners.”
During the 2009–10 school year, I worked on Arts for All’s Leadership Fellows Program, a professional development series meant to help school district leaders (namely superintendents, assistant superintendents, and district-level visual and performing arts leads) better advance arts education across their school districts.
Over the course of a school year, leadership teams from five districts in Los Angeles County met monthly to explore topics related to arts education. At the end, when asked to reflect on the elements of the series they found particularly useful, they kept bringing up a particular topic: quality.
Specifically, they enjoyed the session that focused on the four lenses of quality arts education as defined in Harvard Project Zero’s The Qualities of Quality. That session also delved into using the lenses as a tool to observe, assess, and discuss what was happening within their classrooms.
I should note that the school district leaders going through the Leadership Fellows Program were not all full-fledged arts education enthusiasts. When the series began several of them insisted they weren’t really “arts people.” Nevertheless, becoming familiar with the quality lenses and using them as a tool to guide observations and discussions resonated deeply with them.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that school district leaders would gravitate toward this topic. School district leaders are instructional leaders. They have devoted their careers to exploring how children learn and how great teachers teach. They live and breathe issues of quality in other disciplines every single day. Why should the arts be any different?
Yet I sense that for some reason, some within our field are squeamish about discussing what quality arts education looks like. They fear, perhaps, that doing so will expose some irrevocable divisions within the field, dooming us to persistent squabbling over labeling what is “good” and what is “bad.”
I have found the opposite to be true.
In the past nine months Arts for All has revisited what made that “quality session” in Leadership Fellows so useful, and developed a workshop that allows participants to unpack Qualities of Quality and practice using it as a tool in much the same way the Leadership Fellows did.
We’ve conducted the workshop with a range of audiences, ranging from funders to graduate students. We have found that—no surprise—people have very strong opinions about what they see in arts education settings.
When guided to look deeply at those settings without judgment, however, and given a common language to talk about what they see, they begin noticing things they hadn’t noticed before. The conversation becomes a vehicle for expanding understanding, rather than an argument that needs to be won.
Talking about quality can be a means to deepen and refine our practice, not confine it. It is also necessary to establish what exactly it is we want to see for all students. Done well, it requires that we strip away platitudes and focus on what is important to us and why, as well as how we articulate what we value and how we manifest that value. Clarity on the what and how are the backbone of any successful partnership.
So—have you established a common language to talk about the quality of your work with your current or potential partners?
Do you talk about quality at all?
If yes, what doors has it opened? If not, what keeps getting in the way?