Thursday, July 17, 2008

Empire State Partnerships: Art in Education

Literally, I didn’t sleep at all last Sunday night. I was anxious, my mind spinning and uncertain about the upcoming Summer Seminar being conducted by the Empire State Partnership. 350 teaching artists and teachers from all over New York meeting together to focus on art and creativity in education, complete strangers. A week away from home, from familiarity or anyone I knew. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.
I arrived Monday morning on the 6:30 AM train, bleary-eyed and clenching the anxiety in my gut, I didn’t know where to go, and it was raining.

This mentality lifted with the rain early in the day, when I realized I was spending a week in an arts education summer camp. Everyone was warm and welcoming, there was no judgment, and the focus was on the students. All the arts were represented, from dance and drama, to music, visual arts and poetry. Here are a few highlights from my experience, and how they will color the upcoming year in my classroom.

-First, the campus is beautiful. Something about getting out of the city and back into nature scoured a bitter layer of myself away to reveal a more open version of myself. I stayed in a dorm room, a throwback to my undergrad days…and it was a welcome nostalgia. Even the shower shoes. The air was fresher, the spaces both wide open and green, and also forested and shady. My pleasure was to walk under the leaves, and peruse the arboretum. How could I be uptight when the air was fresh and lush? The environment had no little effect on me this week.

-The people were real, open, and warm. One Monday morning I was freaking out because I couldn’t find my dorm, and I only had 15 minutes until they stopped serving breakfast. And yet everyone I passed wished me a good morning, made eye-contact. Like Dorothy I felt like I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I wasn’t in the New York land of hidden eye contact and subway silence. It unburdened me. I spent much of my meal times networking with teachers and artists from all over New York, I have a list of e-mails of people I know I can contact for support or a chat, not to mention new teachers I know in Brooklyn.

-There was an incredible keynote presentation by the activist artist Mel Chin. Art is political. Perhaps I’m a bit blind about art, seeing so much in New York…but I really feel like I got a rejuvenated grasp on what political art can mean to the world. I ask myself: how can I pass this idea of art with a message to my students? How can I facilitate their understanding, or open my students to art?

-I got to be an artist this week. I worked with “real” artists, but there was no hierarchy, my work was displayed seamlessly with their own during exhibition, and I didn’t feel self-conscious or judged for what I was or wasn’t. (I’ll post pictures of my art at a later date) In fact, I felt welcome to drum, dance, sing, act, create art with no pressure and no feelings that “I can’t do this because I’m not a “real” artist.” This I can definitely pass on to my students. Everyone , EVERYONE can participate in art, as long as the environment is welcoming and free.

-Tuesday night there were a set of student performers, student who performed hip hop, a meshed version of Richard the III that combined traditional Shakespeare with student written material, and dance from students in the National Dance Institute. This was the transitional moment, when I realized how desperately my students need to be exposed to more art for their own personal enrichment and self-confidence. After each performance, the students spoke about how powerful their art was, and I couldn’t stop thinking how MY children could get so much out of it, if given the chance. But how? No Child Left Behind legislature puts the emphasis on testing academics, how can I make time and allocate resources to give my students what I find to be just as important?

-Wednesday brought an answer, light at the end of the tunnel. And honestly, I feel slightly sheepish that I didn’t think about it before. Collaboration between resident teaching artists and classroom teachers and fulfill both the driving need to create as well as supplement student learning in multiple subject areas. It’s a crossover, a hybrid; art not just for art’s sake. Examples abounded, a model of a house built from only recycled materials to supplement ecology lesson plans. Drumming and percussion added to spoken word prose. Found material art based on history. Painting and dance tied in with math. If my students could dance in math class, they’d definitely have a different perception of arithmetic.

-My goal for next year: I am going to set aside time, either in school or out to collaborate closely with our resident artist in the RUSH Philanthropic Arts Foundation, and match the art with curriculum. I’m excited! My students, who are emotionally disturbed flock to art, love it. Many students struggle with academics, hate math, can’t stand English. The hatred stems from failure. After 10 years of struggling with a subject, the students are bitter. But they love art. The art can be the sugar for the medicinal subject matter. But not only can the art act as motivation, it’s a new way to see the same information.

If you are a teacher in New York State, I highly recommend you experience ESP for yourself. Your students will thank you.


Anonymous Kelly said...

hey there,

I'm organizing a little get-together of NYC teacher-bloggers... email me at if you're interested... :)

Friday, September 05, 2008 2:15:00 PM  

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