Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bury the Beret! Nurturing Artists in the Classroom

Is artistic talent inborn or can we cultivate it?  I have always of an artist as one who envisions what wasn't there before and, through knowledge and experience, makes it happen.  In an article I wrote years ago, The Poet as Patriot (Journal of Children's Literature, v23 n2 p42-46 Fall 1997), I bemoaned the fact that the art room had been moved down the hall, outside of our typical classroom.  Since then, the art room, along with recess, has been moved right out of the school.  Useless! Is the cry.  Not rigorous. And worst of all from a tap-every-potential-market stand point, Untestable.   

Our vocabulary is SO not up to date.  Go to google images and type in ARTIST and up pops a picture of a cartoon character in a beret.  We are apt to define an artist as not only a person with bad taste in hats, but also 
  1. Someone on the outskirts of society 
  2. A person who makes up stuff that may get a response out of others, but is really not productive in a societal sense and 
  3. Starving (see 2. re: non productive).    
Why doesn't an image search reveal a picture of Steve Jobs or Arianna Huffington?  How about plastic surgeons who construct intact smiles out of cleft palates or engineers who build skyscrapers out of glass and football fields out of old tires?  Are these people not artists?  What's worse than the perception adults hold of artists is the fact that we are teaching this same vocabulary to our kids.  I sometimes ask kids at school visits to go home and tell their parents that there was a poet and school and then suggest that now that they think about it, they would like to grow up to be a poet and watch the parental response.  It's a good laugh line.  A real knee slapper.  Even third graders know that their parents don't want them to grow up to be artists.

Michael and I just got home from an art show at the Geauga Nature Preserve where one end of the room was consumed by a big poster, "What if Art Ruled the world?"  My response?  It does!  Look around.  The people who come up with the new technologies and problem solving fixes wind up in charge.  The administrative types whose eyes are trained to look backward at precedent, only studying what has succeeded in the past, are doomed to fail.  I don't know if that is economics, poetry, or basic math, but it is true.  Ask the executives at General Motors who first laughed at the introduction of Honda cars in the U.S. and said, "let the kids buy those toy cars, when they need a real car, they'll come to us."  Ahem. 

Any profession taken to its highest level becomes an art form, a place where we take knowledge and experience to create something new.  The label has become so stigmatized over the years that we keep coming up with new names for artists.  We call them entrepreneurs, inventors, creative problem solvers.  Maybe if we started calling the artists in our midst by their true names, we wouldn't be so hesitant to spend some time nurturing artistry in our schools. Seth Godin in his article, 3 Essential Skills Every Entrepreneur Should Cultivate, cites three qualities to nurture: 1. Quiet the Lizard Brain, which means silence the resistant part of your brain that is responsible for fear and rage. 2. Think like an artist, where he notes that, "Art requires the artist to care, and to care enough to do something when he knows it might not work," and 3. Connect the disconnected, this he recommends as a route to problem solving.  I haven't read this guy's book, but I like his line of thinking in this article. It gives credit where credit is due -- to the artists and the risk takers.   

I hate when a well-meaning educator introduces me to a kid at a school as: This is our poet.  It discounts the other kids in the room or school who are also nurturing poetical observations and metaphorical connections they just haven't found the words for yet.  Or maybe they will never express themselves in words, maybe they will use mathematical equations, chemical formulas or organizational genius.  It implies that as long as we have one kid with a poetic eye in our midst, the rest of the kids can (should?) stand down, not risk their own self expression.  The fact is, every one of them will need the careful, observational skills of a poet at some point.  They will need to be artists, to draw on their creative abilities to problem solve. 

As Susan Ohanian points out so eloquently in her article: Against Obedience Critical Education, 3(9).,  "We need artists, bakers, lumberjacks, manicurists, welders, and yurt builders, as well as people who study math and science in college. Let's respect the variety of skills needed in our communities--and make sure everyone receives a decent wage." Of the wild flower bouquet of skills needed to make society function, we need an artist at the velvet heart of every blossom.

Enter uniform proficiency tests and standards that reward conformity and compliance and it becomes evident that our schools may not be preparing kids for all of their tomorrows.  Being able to black out little boxes with a number 2 pencil is not going to help students care for future families in a precarious world.  We are feeding these students a false narrative: If you fall in line and memorize what we ask you to, you will reap rewards.  Not true.  If you are creative and an evaluative risk taker who uses knowledge and experience to make stuff up, that's what is going to put food on your table and advance your pursuit of happiness.  In order to respond when the future asks, how do we position this product? How can we cure this malady or design this to be more efficient in terms of cost and resources. How can we expedite this procedure?  The adult, 2.0 versions of the kids sitting in classrooms today will most likely be collaborating and making up stuff like crazy, connecting all kinds of disconnected dots and inserting a few that weren't there before trying to service the needs of future generations and clean up the messes previous generations have created.  Successful adults are their own bosses, whether working inside of some institution or self-employed.  Kids will need to be so much more than compliant.  

We need to find a way to reward thoughtful risk taking in school. Eleanor Roosevelt advised, "do one thing every day that scares you."  We need an assessment rubric for that one, accomplished, showing signs of progress, or needs improvement. Or make this a criteria for assessment: Student applies logic in assessing risks.  How about: Student demonstrates an ability to discover and achieve as part of a team (not involving a ball)?  Or:  Shows unlikely but valid connections across content areas and is able to communicate ideas in a convincing manner using words, images, coding, mechanical devices or movement. Where is the assessment rubric for curiosity or tenacity? Most of all, schools need to stop buying programs that promise to help kids on tests and start looking for ways to foster creativity. Toss the fill in the blanks worksheets and bring back the crayons and blocks.

We need to bury the berets and bring out the true artist in every child, every day, in every academic discipline.