What Will I Teach?
AT ITS BEST, teaching artist work is similar to art-making in that it is inventive, improvisational and flexible. To teach in such ways we need to know our medium and any other areas we wish to teach in combination with our medium. We also need to have an attitude of curiosity about both the areas with which we are familiar and areas we wish to know more about. This combination of knowledge and curiosity about what we teach is what enables teaching artists (and all good teachers) to engage students in dynamic and exciting learning and art-making and to encourage students to develop and pursue original ideas.
Teaching and art-making also share another characteristic: they are largely about identifying what is essential in a given context. An artist's power resides partly in the ability to identify what is essential to an idea, vision, association or functional characteristic so that it can be communicated, embodied or designed in a medium. Similarly a teaching artist, or any good teacher, must identify what techniques, concepts and processes in a discipline are essential to teach in a given context so that students can better make original work that successfully applies and extends past practice and knowledge.
What you decide to teach matters. It is the single most important decision that you can make as a teaching artist. It informs every other aspect of your teaching and is the place to begin, always, when you are heading into a new teaching situation. It is also worthwhile to return again and again to this question and reexamine what matters to you as you develop your practice as artist and teacher. Maintaining clarity on what you want to teach is essential to improving not only your own teaching practice but also the practice of others—students in your classroom, teachers and other artists and the field of arts education in general.
This chapter is about deciding what you want to teach through a process of discovering (or re-discovering) and naming the skills and concepts in your medium that you think are most important and interesting to teach and finding new areas that you'd like to investigate. Ultimately the question of what to teach is intertwined with that of how to teach, so you will find some overlap between this chapter and Chapter 2. You may even wish to flip back and forth between the chapters as you develop curriculum ideas and experiment with planning.
This chapter includes a critical essay that aims to place the question of what to teach in a larger context, as well as specific prompts and questions designed to help you think about your art form in very concrete ways. It also includes a series of exercises/tools and a range of examples to help you do the following:
* Identify your own expertise and experience in your discipline.
* Identify what skills and concepts you view as essential to teach in your discipline/medium.
* Identify areas you'd like to study more within your discipline.
* Identify areas of knowledge and experience outside your discipline that you would like to incorporate in your teaching.
Throughout this chapter we offer ideas and pose questions that we have found helpful in our practice. There is no single way to do this kind of inquiry; we want to share some useful entry points that have helped us and other teaching artists to begin.
We've divided the chapter into two parts: "Ideas and Context" and "Concrete Steps." If you are in the mood to consider some more general questions before getting to work on actual curriculum design, you may wish to keep reading. If you want to get right to work, you may want to skip to "Concrete Steps."
WHAT TO TEACH: IDEAS AND CONTEXT
Who are teaching artists?
Teaching in an art form makes you a teaching artist. Practicing artists can be teaching artists; arts specialists (visual arts, music, dance, theater, media arts, etc.) can be teaching artists. For the purposes of this book we are defining teachers, administrators and facilitators who introduce and contextualize art and artists for learners as arts educators—that is, people who can both understand an art form on a deep and meaningful level and break it down for learners. Arts educators usually understand how teaching artists work, and they often support the work of teaching artists in meaningful ways. But the focus of this book is on those who create work regularly in an artistic discipline and who also teach in that discipline.
In a sense, what distinguishes teaching artists as a type of artist and educator has mainly to do with how education is organized in the United States. Working in an art form and sharing one's knowledge, ways of thinking, and responses concerning art is often separated out as an experience distinct from educational experiences normally associated with schools and other institutions. This handbook is focused specifically on the concerns of the teaching artist, but any type of educator, from a Kindergarten teacher to a professor of mathematics at the college level, must teach from a deep well of knowledge and experience in one or more content areas in order to teach well. It is that knowledge and the confidence that springs from a strong grasp of one's discipline that allow a teacher to reach students effectively, to teach what is most essential, and to engage students as individual and unique thinkers and makers. One need not be an experienced teacher and pedagogue to be an effective teaching artist. One need only be entirely grounded in one's medium and be able to break it down in useful ways.
We also have a certain luxury as teaching artists that most educators do not. Although we are sometimes asked to engage existing curriculum and educational priorities and standards, our primary role is to teach from our own practice and experience as artists. This approach is what creates an art-making context in schools, community centers, prisons and other places that is different from what already exists there. This approach also potentially expands upon what people learn and ordinarily experience in such places. Most educators should design curriculum based on the question "What is currently known in the field I am teaching and how can I prepare students to use and extend that knowledge?" Teaching artists design curriculum based on the question "What do I know in my medium and how can I equip students to use that knowledge to make their own art?"
Closely examining the "what" of your teaching is an excellent and focused way to improve your practice as a teaching artist and is also potentially artistically liberating and enlightening. Thinking about your medium as a teaching artist can generate all kinds of new ideas for and about your own art-making. This is one reason why so many teaching artists find their teaching work such an integral and stimulating part of their life as artists. If you articulate what matters to you in your discipline, you are both creating curriculum and thinking as an artist. This first step in teaching artist work goes right to the heart of what makes the work so exciting—it is simultaneously teaching, learning, and making.
You are a teaching artist NOW
There are established methodologies in arts education, and arguably even in teaching artist work. One organization or group of teaching artists might teach according to a specific type of arts integration. Another might approach teaching from the point of view of a specific methodology or theory of art, like Aesthetic Education. The Reggio Emilia approach to arts teaching has been very influential in many American arts education circles in recent years. The pioneering work of the German Bauhaus and the Soviet Vkhutemas design and architecture schools of the 1920s through their practice developed some of the most important insights in modern arts education theory. Any of these approaches, philosophies or methodologies undoubtedly has useful insights to offer a teaching artist, even if in the form of negative examples or provocations to further research. Some of these approaches incorporate significant theoretical work and have important and interesting historical roots. All are potentially worthy of study. And it is useful and interesting to think theoretically and historically about teaching artist work. If you are looking for precedents and ideas as a teaching artist, why not investigate what has already been done?
However, a premise of this book and this series is that applying overly general methodologies and too formulaic an approach to teaching artist work is limiting. Teaching artist work is not a science; it is an art. It may have scientific elements to it, just as science has many artistic dimensions. But to attempt to reduce the great variety of teaching artists, contexts and students to a single methodology seems to work against two central strengths of the teaching artist field: variety and flexibility. Precedent and methodology are necessary in art-making; no art-making is completely "new." But too much deference to precedent and methodology inevitably leads to sterile and unoriginal art. The same goes for teaching artist work. You may have to translate what you do into the methodologies or rhetoric of an organization because the gig calls for it. That's fine. But translate what you do; don't paint by numbers. Not only will your students learn more, you'll have a lot more fun.
It makes no more sense to speak of "experts" or "masters" in teaching artist work than it does to speak of "expert" or "master" artists. Yes, there are artists who have tremendous mastery of the techniques of their medium. This does not guarantee that their art is original, interesting or compelling. Similarly there are teaching artists who are very good at many specific aspects of teaching, but this is not what guarantees that they will teach well, or that their students will do good work. The prerequisite for good teaching artist work is that one have some solid knowledge in one's discipline (have something to teach), and have some enthusiasm and ideas about how to bring this knowledge to students in ways that will encourage original work. Wherever you are in this work, however new or experienced, young or old, you can make great teaching and learning happen with your students and contribute important insights to the field—the rest of us—right now.
You can't "teach art" but you can help people make art
A defining characteristic of art is that it expresses, investigates and communicates ideas, emotions, associations and processes, and even solves creative and technical problems, that require the medium of an art form for their fullest expression. Many of these things are partly or wholly unconscious or intuitive in origin; others defy expression in language. Even in the case of literature, where language is the medium, the various forms of poetry and prose become the extra-linguistic dimensions that convey what cannot be conveyed in ordinary language.
It is therefore not possible to directly teach much of what is essential in art. Much, maybe even most, of the knowledge and experience necessary for effective expression in a medium can be assimilated only by working in the medium. It is through dynamic interaction with the medium—artmaking!—that any artist ("student" or otherwise) develops the ability to engage key elements of powerful and interesting art: specificity and efficiency.
All humans experience the same emotions and ultimately face the same basic dilemmas. What makes art original or compelling is specific and surprising expression of these emotions or dilemmas that derive from a particular artist's or group of artists' experience, context and vision. In a sense, art is the means by which humans simultaneously mediate between subjective and objective reality and also between what is universal experience and what is unique to each person. We cannot "teach" an artistic vision or viewpoint; we can only encourage and support students in honing it and extending it in their work. To have the privilege of observing firsthand the development and expression of such individual viewpoints is one of the most exciting and fulfilling things about teaching artist work. In order for such viewpoints to emerge we must put art-making at the center of our work, and we should see our role as creating and protecting time and space for work in a medium as perhaps the most important thing we have to offer as teaching artists.
Curriculum design as an artistic process
What do we actually mean by "curriculum"? And why bother with it? Curriculum is foremost identifying what you know and plan to teach, usually in a sequence (See Chapter 2 of this book for a suggested framework). It also can include naming what successful teaching and learning looks like to you and how you might determine the scope and depth of that success. One thing to keep in mind is that just as one develops and changes one's art-making over time, so too does one have the opportunity to develop and change one's curriculum over time. Curriculum is alive, and just because you document it in some way does not necessarily mean that you are obligated to implement it that way forever.
Some teaching artists go cold when someone suggests that they write down their curriculum. They might be protective of their practice—afraid of others' co-opting it and teaching them out of a gig. Others simply find the suggestion utterly incomprehensible. For still others such a task feels like a hoop that they must jump through in order to get a gig, a hoop that seems completely disconnected from making art and having students make art. To teaching artists who teach more intuitively, the idea of documenting curriculum can seem deadening, superfluous, boring, or worse. It's true that there are a lot of boring and superfluous arts education curricula out there—all the more reason to be inventing and writing curricula that reflect your own knowledge and ideas.
As you make new curriculum or make changes to existing curriculum as you adopt new ideas, you will be constantly considering how to make these ideas intelligible to others. The form, conventions, language and labels that educators use in writing curriculum may in some cases be relevant to teaching artist practice, although they can sometimes seem like a foreign language (What is an "essential question"? How is it different from a regular question? What is the difference between evaluation and assessment and simple testing? What is "inquiry-based learning"? How big should a Big Idea be?, etc.). But although this language is sometimes useful, it is also often vapid and faddish and it is not in itself curriculum. Curriculum writing must begin in your language, the language of your discipline and your experience in it.
Often teaching artists are able to describe what they plan to do (activities) when they meet with a teacher or administrator or even the students and learners themselves. The gap that we sometimes see is between what people talk about doing and what they actually are able to do—for instance, a gap between the stated outcomes ("I want everyone in this after-school group to participate in the play we are writing") and the level and depth of what happens in real time (Students helped write a play, memorized lines, worked on blocking and stage design, figured out how to stage a final performance for other after-school students, and so on.). If one never takes the time to write down what happened, and thus what could happen again, then it becomes hard to focus on what worked and why, and what could be better or just different next time. Also, the depth and rigor of what students are learning along the way in terms of essential concepts or techniques in a medium gets overlooked or is sometimes compressed into a superficial reflection on the final product or performance. Inattention to stated outcomes can also negatively affect learners who might be confused about why an artist is asking them to come up with a specific idea, or why they have to collaborate with a new partner each time, etc. Learners who do not know where things are headed, even in a general way, can sometimes be less motivated or even less creative in their work—that is, they might miss opportunities to reach the desired outcome in a new way or their own way because the teaching artist never clearly articulated the overall vision and goal at any point. Of course, there are many ways to teach one's curriculum, and how and when one chooses to explain where things are headed, for example, depends entirely on you, your teaching style and your aims. Even if you choose not to disclose your goals or even the structure of the lesson to students before you begin, you still need to have a firm grasp of what you are teaching and why it matters in order for effective art-making to happen.