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Looking Beyond The Frame

As schools cut back on arts programs, parents and district leaders embrace partnerships with outside cultural organizations. But are kids really learning anything about art?

The third-graders at P.S. 48 on Staten Island are elbow-deep in papier mâché, constructing buildings they designed on sketchpads. Earlier they watched slide shows of exhibits at the Guggenheim Museum to learn about the basic shapes combined in architecture from South Africa, Italy, China and Russia.

Their work is part of a 20-week collaboration between the school, which recently laid off its art teacher, and the Guggenheim’s Learning Through Art (LTA) program. The school’s Parent Association paid for the program, which focuses each year on a different skill that’s important in English, math and other subjects. This year the children are honing their compare-and-contrast skills — an area of weakness in P.S. 48 students’ test scores.

LTA has won plaudits both for providing a quality arts experience and as a creative means to help kids with other skills. Yet among some art educators, the role of such outside organizations at schools that no longer provide their own arts curricula raises broader issues.

“When [Teachers College Dean] James Earl Russell hired Arthur Wesley Dow in 1903 to establish the first fine arts education department at TC, it was to teach art as a unique form of thought and expression and not to advance other subjects,” says Judith Burton, Professor of Art and Art Education and Research.  “And when Georgia O’Keeffe came to TC to study under Dow, it was not because he could help her improve her compare-and-contrast skills.

“The arts are normative languages through which we speak, make sense of our world, and express the way we feel,” Burton says. “They help us make and preserve culture. The fact that we deny many of our children the arts is to deny to the human mind the development of its full potential, and I think that’s immoral.”

“You get these cycles,” says Hal Abeles, Professor of Music Education. “When the economy is down, there’s this overreaction that everybody needs to be a scientist, everybody needs to be a mathematician, so that we can make widgets, so we can sell more widgets to the Chinese than they sell to us.” Abeles understands that making a case for the arts as a skill builder is important. He coauthored an evaluation for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s
Early Strings Program, which provides music lessons for students in second through fourth grades along with opportunities to attend concerts. The evaluation showed a significant increase in New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) scores for the children participating in the program. Still, Abeles would like to see “an artistic bill of rights” that ensures deep artistic experiences for all children. “If every child has the right to be able to communicate effectively with language, both written and oral,” he asks, “doesn’t every child have the right to experience music and be engaged with music?”

Burton and Abeles reflect TC’s tradition of bringing together the physical, emotional and intellectual in arts education, combining scholarship with what Burton calls “reflective studio practice.” The field of dance education, for example, was born at TC in 1913 when Margaret H’Doubler, a doctoral student in philosophy and aesthetics on loan from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, developed a new method of teaching that called for dance students to lie on the floor to get away from the pull of gravity. (TC subsequently produced several famous dance educators, including Martha Hill, the first Director of Dance at the Juilliard School, and Beryl McBurnie, a Trinidadian dancer who called herself “La Belle Rosette.”)  In music education, TC was home to one of the first graduate-level courses in jazz, taught by Robert Pace, while Bert Konowitz, who taught at TC for 50 years, made improvisation a staple of the program. And the College’s Art and Art Education program, which claims, in addition to O’Keeffe, artists Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, William Daley, Charles Alston and Raphael Montañez Ortiz (see story on page 40) as alumni, remains unique in its balance of scholarship and studio practice.  The program is anchored by Macy Art Gallery, a public space that exhibits the work of children and students as well as those of major artists such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It also maintains studio spaces where community members come to take classes in ceramics, painting, drawing and printmaking.

In an ideal world, Abeles says, schools would have strong arts programs taught by arts specialists complemented by well-designed outside programs like the Guggenheim’s LTA. But in an era of budget cuts and high-stakes testing that emphasizes math and English at the expense of other subjects, the reality is that schools are cutting the arts curriculum and teachers, and outreach programs are the best hope for giving many children access to the arts.  The challenge facing arts advocates, then, is to ensure that such programs really do engage children in what Olga Hubard, Associate Professor of Art and Art Education, calls “artistic ways of knowing, which are much harder to assess, because they are fluid and multilayered and are flattened out when taught only in the service of other learning.” That challenge speaks to a deeper argument in arts education over the value of programs that emphasize learning about art versus those that incorporate doing art.

“John Dewey wrote in Construction and Criticism that ‘we live in a haphazard mixture of a museum and a laboratory,’” says Randall Allsup, Associate Professor of Music Education. “He was saying life is a combination of the funded resources from the past and opportunities to make something new from what we’ve been given from another generation. So, at least in music, you have museum institutions like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and Midori and Friends that are representing the museum side of life, and their interests are in preservation and in controlled and knowable fields of art.”

Classically oriented institutions have much to offer, Abeles says. He points to a former program of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra that ran all the way through elementary school. The musicians came in six times during the year to work with students prior to a concert at the school for children and their families. “So when they went to the orchestra they thought, ‘There’s my musician playing the viola on the stage,’” Abeles says. “The good programs have the teachers heavily involved in the delivery. They have someone come out for the arts organization and go out into the school, all in preparation for an intensive exposure like going to a performance.” While the weaker programs are one-offs, the successful programs run long and deep, Abeles says, and are well-integrated  into the classroom.

Achieving such integration, of course, depends on the teacher. At P.S. 58 in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, Stephen Cedermark (M.A. ’08) teaches his students to perform opera as well as to listen to it, often in costume and in other languages. He works with the Education Department at the Metropolitan Opera to bring the children to the Met, where they see dress rehearsals along with other students from around the city. The kids learn the stories, history and language behind the operas.

Of course, teachers like Cedermark, who has been featured on television and honored with a Blackboard Award, are rare. But as a growing number of educators at all levels work with arts organizations, the hope is that the organizations are learning how to do a better job. Lori Custodero, Associate Professor of Music Education, is actively involved with two such programs: WeBop at Lincoln Center and the Very Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic.

In the Very Young People’s Concerts, children ages three to five years old come with their families and experience the music prior to the performance. TC students set up stations where the children explore the theme for the concert and interact with the musicians from the Philharmonic. “It’s crucial to involve the child’s family,” as well as neighborhoods and schools, Custodero says. “As educators, we need to honor all those communities and consider the access that we provide children, being mindful of the myriad influences and opportunities that can be shared. The more their experiences are integrated and broadened and enlarged by sharing music with the constituencies who define their daily lives, the more it strengthens their experience.”

But when performances or museums require parents or caregivers to commit their own time to bring their children, those venues become out of reach for many families, even when there is no additional cost. Custodero says that’s why WeBop and the Philharmonic are both reaching out into the community in various ways, such as connecting with Head Start programs.

Some programs focus more on local communities. Hubard points to the Queens Museum of Art, for example, which works with communities to develop arts experiences that will resonate with families who live near the museum. Furthermore, the museum or the concert hall is in itself a place of learning, says Dwight Manning, a Senior Lecturer who taught a class in the spring semester called “The Concert as Learning Space.”

But Randall Allsup cautions that many museums and concert halls have their own agendas in working with children. In the music world, Allsup says, classical orchestras are seeking “to build audiences by creating a new generation of classical music aficionados.” As a classically trained musician himself, Allsup says he isn’t opposed to teaching children classical music. He takes issue, though, with “starting with what the institution needs and can provide rather than what kids need.” And what kids need, Allsup says, is “the laboratory” side of art, which is about experiencing and making music and paintings in forms that relate to their own lives, both culturally and generationally.
“The laboratory side of making music,” Allsup explains, “is one that’s much more multicultural and takes advantage of the diversity of people gathered together. So the explosion of music that’s going on in Brooklyn would be a kind of laboratory experiment that sits as a counterpoint to the Upper West Side music museums. Multicultural music classrooms could be spaces where, rather than saying ‘what music can I bring these diverse children?’ you would say, ‘wow, we’re a diverse group of people, what can we make together?’”

Hubard believes that art museums generally do a good job of embracing exploratory and creative approaches to viewing art, but she notes that “children’s lives are also touched by cultural institutions far removed from museums and concert halls.” For example, she points out that many Mexican immigrant homes have gorgeous pottery that is in everyday use. Children from those homes may not take field trips to the Museum of Modern Art, but it would be erroneous to assume that they are not getting an arts education. In addition, children outside the reach of cities may not be getting string instruction from an orchestra, but in smaller towns the high school band and the church choir often serve as important social and cultural institutions.

And then there are the cultural institutions that kids themselves create through cheap technologies, such as the apps on their smartphones.
“I’m absolutely amazed at the way kids can make and share music online nowadays,” Allsup says. “It’s a very, very different way of thinking about music. It’s shared, it’s open, it’s distributed. There’s a phrase called ‘copy-lefting.’ Copyrighting is ‘I wrote this, I own it, play it exactly the way I wrote it.’” In copy-lefting, on the other hand, “You have this ethos that is sort of breaking all the rules, where kids are sharing and distributing music through open sources.” Allsup believes that in order for music educators to be successful, they need to understand that this new idea of music is a cultural institution in the lives of their students. In addition to giving students access to the best that came before them – the museum side of art – he believes “the teacher’s role is then to create a kind of laboratory setting where experiments produce chain reactions that in turn produce certain or uncertain endings. Those are experimented with and followed through.”

Published Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013


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