What Have We Got to Lose?

Posted by John Abodeely, Aug 07, 2007 2 comments

by Judith Tannenbaum 

Preserving the important qualities of the Teaching Artist profession, while still moving ahead with its professionalization.

Passing on the vision and practice of art-making is as old as culture itself: creation stories told during long winter evenings, women and young girls weaving baskets, men welcoming boys to their dances. One generation has always taught the next.

This history moves forward into the 21st century. Artists; arts program administrators; school, hospital, senior center, and prison administrators and staff; and professors in a variety of college departments are increasingly asking that the valuable work done for decades by teaching artists be recognized as a professional field. 

One repeated conversation is a fundamental one that questions the ways in which professionalization of the field strengthens or harms this work that we love. In the midst of these conversations, I often think of architect Chris Alexander. When brought to the site of a new project, Alexander is said to have asked community members not only what they wanted that they didn't have, but also what they presently had that they valued and did not want to lose.

That's the question I'd like now to ponder: What do we-teaching artists, students, program administrators, site partners, community activists”cherish about the work of art in other places, as Bill Cleveland calls it, as it has been practiced over the decades? What do we want not to lose as teaching artistry becomes a more formal field?

The full text of this Special Publication of the Arts Education Network follows below.

Passing on the vision and practice of art-making is as old as culture itself: creation stories told during long winter evenings, women and young girls weaving baskets, men welcoming boys to their dances. One generation has always taught the next.

So the work done now by teaching artists is not new work. In the 1960s and 70s, my generation's youthful enthusiasm and efforts encouraged art-making with others. We made and shared art in public schools and also in hospitals, neighborhood centers, housing projects, senior centers, and prisons.

This history, both ancient and modern, moves forward into the 21st century. Artists; arts program administrators; school, hospital, senior center, and prison administrators and staff; and professors in a variety of college departments are increasingly asking that the valuable work done for decades by teaching artists be recognized as a professional field. This development is multifaceted, sometimes focusing on educational practice, sometimes focusing on internal issues such as healthcare for artists.

The virtual Community Arts Network (CAN) has assembled a diverse and thorough inventory of articles, information, and resources. Since 2003, the peer-reviewed Teaching Artist Journal (TAJ) has offered another hugely important and useful resource. The subjects catalogued and discussed in CAN and TAJ include information about various art forms and the creative process' pedagogy, mentoring students, site partnerships, funding, and realities related to particular sites (for example, standards and testing in public schools, rules against overfamiliarity in prison).

Clearly these developments are cause for celebration. Jobs for teaching artists that offer decent pay, sensible working conditions, healthcare, and participation in a professional cohort evidenced by this website and journal all indicate positive growth. A similar rejoicing is called for as we note the increasing number of college classes, field internships, training programs, and university majors in community arts. Such programs exist at California College of the Arts and New York University, at Columbia College Chicago and Xavier University in New Orleans, in Canada, England, Scotland, and elsewhere.

What Not to Do

One repeated conversation on the CAN website, in the pages of TAJ, and among practitioners when we chat with each other is a fundamental one that questions the ways in which professionalization of the field strengthens or harms this work that we love. In the midst of these conversations, I often think of architect Chris Alexander. When brought to the site of a new project, Alexander is said to have asked community members not only what they wanted that they didn’t have, but also what they presently had that they valued and did not want to lose.

That's the question I'd like now to ponder: What do we teaching artists, students, program administrators, site partners, community activists cherish about the work of art in other places, as Bill Cleveland calls it, as it has been practiced over the decades? What do we want not to lose as teaching artistry becomes a more formal field?

This is a long conversation that won't end here. So I'll start it off by describing some of what I don't want to lose.

  • I cherish the field's insistence on a vision and practice of cultural democracy. I don't want to lose this foundation as we certify and integrate into institutions.
  • I don't want social justice to morph into serving the underprivileged. don' want us to lose our history. I want future teaching artists to know about the Settlement House Movement, the WPA, Highlander Center, Europe' Town Artist model, Alternate ROOTS, CETA, and the work these and other programs have done.
  • I don't want to lose the community arts work that is done in places other than formal institutions. I don't want to lose teaching artists who share art in the schools they themselves once attended, or create a play with their own rural neighbors. I don't want to lose those who haven't chosen, or who can't afford, to go to one of the few (mostly private) colleges that offers teaching art programs. I don't want college degrees to become a primary factor deciding who does this work.
  • I don't want to lose individual values and style. This work is not “one size fits all. I don't want a certification process that moves the field in that deadly direction.
  • I don't want teaching artists to lose the kind of learning that can only happen through trial and error. I don't want to lose the slow pace self-reflection requires. I'm certainly not arguing against training after all, my job title for the past nine years has been training coordinator. But I don't want to lose a training approach that is coupled with practice. I want training to be a lively and ongoing process among peers, and not become only some front-end, top-down dissemination. In WritersCorps, the program I currently work with, our teaching artists meet for formal trainings at the beginning, middle, and end of each program year, as well as biweekly meetings. We meet, then teaching artists go to their sites and come back to the group where they ask questions, share stories, and request information or specific skills. Our training includes the encouragement to look at oneself;, ones work, students, and site; the neighborhood that site is part of; ones art form; the political and social environment around us; and its impact on us and on our students. Our teachers talk with each other, and they also write in journals and in formal memoirs—about all they notice and wonder.
  • I don't want to lose opportunities such as the one I had at San Quentin in the 1980s. Jim Carlson ran a large Arts in Corrections program at the prison, and he or another teaching artist, was likely to be in the AIC office before my poetry class began or when I returned from cell-to-cell teaching. There was usually someone to whom I could pour out my feelings, express my concerns, ask questions, or request advice and guidance about this strange world of a maximum security prison. Arts in Corrections annual conferences gave teaching artists from prisons in lines the length of the state a chance to talk with, and learn from, each other. I don't want to lose the deep human sharing that was the gift of that time.
  • Most fundamentally, I don't want to lose the understanding that teaching artists are artists. I don't want to lose our proficiency in our own art forms, don’t want to lose our love for drawing, dancing, making music and plays. In schools, for example, I don't want mastering class management skills to be more important than a storyteller's ability to convey a rich understanding of voice. I don't want words such as simile and metaphor words highlighted on standardized tests to be more important than encouraging young people to have fun with, and build from, their natural use of comparative language.

Writing a poem, painting a portrait, composing a song is not only a creative way to fulfill a history assignment. I don't want students to lose the experience of wonder, awe, fear, and amazement when facing a blank page with their own imaginations. As we serve other goals, I don't want to lose the journey into the unknown that art-making often demands of me or of the students.

About the Author

tannenbaum.jpgJudith Tannenbaum has been a teaching artist for over thirty years, sharing poetry and writing in a wide variety of settings (including maximum security prisons, programs for gifted youngsters, rural junior college extension classes, and continuation high schools with at-severe-risk-youth). She has also created newsletters and manuals for artists working in prison, public schools, and community settings. Tannenbaum currently serves as training coordinator with San Francisco's WritersCorps program. Her books include Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin (Northeastern University Press), Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes: Writing in the Primary Grades. (Stenhouse Publishers), and Jump Write In! Creative Writing Exercises for Diverse Communities, Grades 6-12. (Jossey-Bass). She also writes for Teaching Artist Journal.

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2 responses for What Have We Got to Lose?

Comments

August 08, 2007 at 10:32 am

Really thoughtful and timely, as usual, Judith. Good work. I strongly agree that we cannot and should not resist professionalization --- it is in large part a result of our movement's success --- and that instead we need to exert influence over the values and processes of professionalization.

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Dr. Sheri Klein says
October 04, 2007 at 8:38 am

I think we need to see more real and positive stories about teaching artists (those who teach art and make art) in articles, in documentaries/films, and in the media. The images of K-16 artist/teachers found in Hollywood films and contemporary graphic novels point to artists who teach as being frustrated, incompetent and uncaring teachers, and sexual predators. Think of the recent films, such as, Notes on a Scandal (the main art teacher character was an a ceramic artist), and Art School Confidential where the art professors are examples of poor teachers and frustrated artists. It appears that there are many settings for artist/teachers or Teaching Artists: in community settings, in prisons and correctional centers, in health care settings, and in K-12 public and private schools, and in colleges and universities. Stories about teaching art in these settings, as well as how teaching artists navigate the world of art and pedagogy would enrich and expand our understanding of arts education.

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