Teaching Artists Are Getting Web-connected

by Janet Eilber

August 31, 2009

In 2003, Nnenna Freelon, the jazz vocalist and teaching artist extraordinaire, was asked what she considered to be the essential ingredients for a successful arts residency in schools. The occasion was a symposium hosted by the Dana Foundation on the role of performing arts centers in education.

“Well, there are five essential things,” Freelon said, and held up five fingers. “Com-mun-i-ca-tion”—she counted off the five syllables of the word. She went on to make the case that communication was essential to success as a teaching artist—from planning lessons with the partner classroom teacher to consulting with the janitor to make sure your space for teaching is available and clean.

Fast forward to 2008. The field of teaching artistry had gained such momentum that the Americans for the Arts conference in June of that year offered a “Teaching Artist Strand” woven into the gathering. Communication was still at the heart of the matter: where to find and share resources, where to find colleagues, how to create or strengthen networks regionally and nationally, and how to keep the important conversations—from health care to certification—moving forward.

With a decade-long track record of supporting the art of teaching the arts, the Dana Foundation wanted to design a follow-up event that would have both national reach and local connections, one that would create an ongoing resource for the field. And we wanted the documentation of the event to be accessible and engaging, with a long shelf life, rather than relegated to a file somewhere.

With new methods of communication emerging via the Web faster than most of us can think, we decided to apply the medium to the message.

On June 19, 2009, the first webposium on the teaching artist profession—“Artists in the Classroom: What is the Role of the Teaching Artist?”—was webcast from the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The webposium streamed images of the panel discussion live online (unlike a webinar, which generally provides only live audio with a PowerPoint presentation). Almost 600 participants registered to view the free event, providing the desired national (even international) reach, while almost 100 people attended the event at the museum in person (think local connectivity).

Sandra Jackson, education director at the museum, and her staff embraced the idea of hosting the webposium to further their ongoing efforts to connect arts educators in the community. Following the webposium transmission, the on-site participants met to discuss regional issues and action steps.

What about the goal of launching a national Web site for teaching artists? The Association of Teaching Artists (ATA), originally formed to serve New York state, is poised to assume a larger role. The ATA agreed to archive this webposium and use it to expand the resources on the ATA site, positioning its site as the national “go-to” resource for teaching artists.

You can find the webposium at www.teachingartists.com. The online video lasts one hour (as did the event) and is packed with information— some of it basic, but much of it innovative and inspiring. The conversation is skillfully guided by moderator Russell Granet, founder of Arts Education Resource and organizer of the event.

Initial highlights include an eye-opening discourse on the definition of a teaching artist from Nick Rabkin, lead researcher of the Teaching Artists Research Project; a clear overview of methods that maximize school partnerships from Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in New York City; and advice for developing a school culture with creativity at the core of teaching and learning from Lisa Fitzhugh, founder of Arts Corps. But the ideas really begin to pop during the extended question-and-answer session.

The answers touched not only on the practical—how to get started as a teaching artist—but also on the more profound, such as how the language of love and learning can be used to influence the education technocracy, how the teaching artist builds an “organic democracy” in a classroom with natural connections to social justice, how to take race and ethnicity into account when working in community settings and how teaching artists can help drive systemic change in the arts-starved prison system.

The final questioner asked the panelists to look ahead to where we want to be in five to seven years and to suggest what we have to do to get there. “Get better at sharing what we know,” was Johnson’s immediate reply. Fitzhugh added, “Be bold and fearless about telling your stories in your own way, and trust those stories are making a difference.” Rabkin finished with a provocative, “Work to reframe the question so that arts are the answer.”

Communication will always be essential to arts education, but with the new tools of technology and inspirational thinking as demonstrated by Granet and this panel, connectivity has never been so engaging.