I was thinking this weekend about a conversation I had on Friday with Matt, a former student, now a senior I.B. student. We talked for two hours (he’s a brilliant kid and has fascinating thoughts about the world, comics and school). He was interviewing me for a class about art, including how and why I teach. We discussed challenges to the arts in schools and the need for the arts in public education.
It was during this conversation that it hit me. Everyone knows the public debate about standardized testing, student performance and so on, even if they don’t understand exactly why these tests are poor indicators of student success. They do not however understand what these tests have done to our teacher culture. As with all things the law of unexpected consequences is always lurking.
For years I have been thinking about teaching art. It dawned on me a couple of years ago that I do not teach art. I teach people. Art can’t learn. Neither can math, science, or any other subject. Teachers are in the business of teaching HUMANS. And in reality we teach people ONE thing, PROBLEM SOLVING!
I recently watched a video with a musicologist who quoted this old southern woman. He said she had an amazing amount of wisdom. She told him “Honey, if the mountains were smooth, you couldn’t climb them.” This really moved me. It is the struggle that defines us and that allows us to achieve greater heights in our lives. As such, teachers are teaching humans how to solve problems. Some use words, some numbers, and I use images and objects. The harsh reality is that life is struggle! We struggle to be born, to grow, to survive, to love, to raise kids, to work jobs, to keep our health and in the end we struggle in death. It is the nature of being alive. We are teaching kids how to persist when things are difficult. We are teaching them how to think, how to grow, how to be – HUMAN.
In the world of high stakes testing, we place value on some things and not on others. Art is not as valued as math, English is more important than social studies. This creates an environment where sometimes, teachers become insular or cliquish. They do not see that we are all teaching the same things in different ways. Like people carving a raw diamond where we all cut out own individual facet. This division at best causes a lack of understanding among staff and at worst a downright disrespect in the imposed hierarchy of the school.
I view teaching a little different then some. Paolo Friere wrote a book called “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. In it he talks about teaching poor, uneducated farmers how to read and write. He proposed a pedagogy of teachers who empower their students to have a role in their political process. By being literate it gives you power to understand what your leaders are doing to you.
This is what I believe about the arts. They are an empowering force to create revolution in the minds of my students. I want free thinkers who understand the visual language of the culture they live in. These kids are living in the most visual culture in human history but for the most part, they are visually illiterate. My job is to give them the skills to understand what they see. it is a 21st venture skill with it’s roots in our ancient past. If we only teach kids to think in 20th century ways we place them at a great disadvantage in the 21st century that they actually live in.
What I am advocating for is not just about art being more important in schools, although I DO think we need to do this. I am advocating for all subjects to be given the same importance. Each layer is folding curves and wrinkles in the child’s brain. When we talk about knowledge, the wrinklier the better. Each teacher is a revolutionary. Every one trying to raise up an army to overthrow the forces of ignorance, poverty, inequality and injustice.
These forces defeat us every time we bicker among ourselves about testing or whose subject is most important. So, teacher, yes you, the one reading this. it’s time. No longer can you sit idly by slumbering in your comfortable kingdom of content. It is time to see education as a whole, strong, unified force for good in the lives of your students. You are a part of that fight and so are your coworkers. Respect them, tested or not, funded or not. Because in the end, we are all teaching the same thing: students.
VIVA LA REVOLUTION!