Lesson for Educators: Practice What You Teach

Support teaching artists by listening to them, panelists suggest

by Nicky Penttila

June 1, 2007

In the way great teaching artists are good listeners, those educators who would create more great teaching artists should listen to the current ones. Ask what they need, what has helped them. Ask again in a decade, and keep asking.

That theme resonated throughout a daylong forum called “Transforming Arts Teaching: The Role of Higher Education,” held on May 11 at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. Some 150 arts leaders, heads of colleges and conservatories, and those who fund and support them listened to one another and to working teaching artists during the event, and found plenty to talk about during the breaks between panels.

The forum, on how teacher education colleges, conservatories, fine arts colleges and other higher education institutions can better prepare those who teach the arts to young people, was sponsored by the Dana Foundation. Weighing on the participants’ minds were several changes that have occurred in recent years in the teaching of all arts to youngsters.

Most prominent among these changes have been the loss of teaching time for the arts as schools focus on math and reading (so their students can show more progress on standardized tests), and the small percentage of students who receive arts instruction from arts specialists.

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, who played jazz to support himself during college, opened the session by describing the “creativity, teamwork, planning, improvisation, and joy” of producing art, and made his point by playing excerpts of music from classic jazz to a new composition by a Cornell student.

 “Music teaches in a way that we cannot replicate with words,” he said. One of the most primal of experiences, and among the most important means of communication, music “is increasingly recognized to be an important subject of inqury in modern cognitive neuroscience.”

There is growing evidence that arts education improves student learning and “thereby produces citizens
of a different sort,” Skorton added.

While research universities such as Cornell are often regarded as bastions of science, it is the arts and humanities that are their soul, Skorton said. He lamented that there is little funding and recognition for these disciplines, as well as little public discussion and appreciation of their worth. (See Transforming Arts Teaching: Keynote Remarks.)

Other participants shared their variety of perspectives.

 “I came into teaching piano having no training teaching piano,” said Tom Hall, who has taught music to elementary students in the Bronx for 23 years. His students pushed him to get the skills he needed. “My students—to keep ahead of them—sent me to books, sent me to classes.” He now is pursuing a Ph.D., in addition to teaching five classes a day, after-school rehearsals and touring with his students.

“I’m a practicing musician who has diversified,” said Robert Sirota, who now is president of the Manhattan School of Music. “But there was no model. How do we change the model for arts education to raise the next leaders of this community?”

New resources, new styles

Teaching artists learn from their students, both in how they craft their art and also in new ways of thinking
and seeing the world. Most also need to bridge a technology chasm.

Today’s kids are “digital natives,” said Milton Chen of the George Lucas Educational Foundation: they use
the Internet, wireless and other technologies to create communities and share experience. Their elders, including their teachers, are “digital immigrants,” he said: “We speak digital with an accent.”

It should come as no surprise that kids don’t always respond to classic—or even modern—styles of teaching,
he added; their ways are not ours.

“The underlying child-development part has not changed,” said Augusta Kappner of the Bank Street College of Education. “But we need to think about how all the technology affects it” even as hard research in the area is still rare. “We can’t change the curriculum fast enough.”

Rather than relying on a set syllabus, Kappner said, educators should help student teachers learn where to find the information they need to talk to kids in language that will reach them.

Academic institutions seeking to partner with public schools should take small steps in the beginning, suggested visual arts teacher Carol Sun, and seek out a school that matches their mission. “Start small, go on a date, find a school that matches your school’s mission,” Sun said.

She suggested having an open house on campus, inviting students to visit and meet with a professor.“Many of the students here [in New York] have never been on a college campus.”

If that “date” works well, colleges could consider doing a workshop or doing something else small before making larger commitments. “You have to fit each other’s style,” she said.

Learning the old and the new

Some institutions have changed their approach as students’ demands and interests have changed.
Michael O’Keefe, president of the Minneapolis School of Art and Design, said the school went in a new direction
because older alumni were upset.

“We did not equip them as artists and designers, we taught them how to think and talk about art,” O’Keefe said. So, 15 years ago, the school revamped its curriculum, bringing the skills and the thinking parts together. Now, in the past three or four years, school administrators have been spending more time on how musicians
can better market themselves and plan out careers.

Such changes are happening at Berklee College of Music, too, said Roger Brown, president of the Boston school. Artists still gig at night and work day jobs, including teaching “What’s changed is what the day jobs are,” he said.

Many students are performing, engineering and producing their own recordings, and working as engineers and producers on other people’s projects. Such skills can transfer into video and television engineering and producing. What the school needs to teach, he said, is these “deeper abilities that allow them to make that transfer.”

Teachers have always needed to be lifelong learners, said Robert Bucker of the Peck School of the Arts at University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, but now, as technology and the economics of making art change so quickly, it may be better to teach teachers how to learn and adapt quickly and where to find the new information they will need than to hew to a set curriculum. Such help should not end with the diploma, either, Bucker said. “Absolutely we need to engage alumni, support them. One of the biggest challenges 10 years out is technology. We need to find some way to help them retool” when recording systems and methods of marketing and promotion morph again.

The bigger picture

One challenge is how to give student teachers all the things they need in the one year—or six to twelve weeks, in some cases—they spend in teacher training, said Pedro Noguera of the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. Another is to make sure universities have a better understanding of what is happening in local schools, where the arts are too often seen as an expendable elective.

Panelists acknowledged that conservatories, universities and other teaching institutions can’t do everything needed to grow great teaching artists; parents, principals, politicians and others also have roles to play.

Only 12 percent of K-12 students are taught arts by arts specialists, said Derek Gordon of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge (La.); the rest, if they have arts instruction, receive it from general classroom teachers.

“ We need to make a much more clear and compelling case for the need of arts for everyone in schools,” said Michael Cohen of Achieve, a Washington, D.C.- based organization that works with states on academic standards. Then, he said, the push for educating teaching artists would come from parents, principals and politicians, as well as academics.

Advocating for arts—and artists—in schools may be a challenge, but it also is inspiring, Bucker said. “The future is exciting, but it will require guidance—and a proactivity [among educators and advocates that] we haven’t seen in some time.” Bucker said.