Monday, August 27, 2012

When you just can't find the words

It might seem improbable that an English teacher would ever be at a loss for words.  But it happens more often than you might think.  When I'm so proud of my kiddos that I find myself repeating the same compliment over and over.  When I'm so nervous about an unpredictable event that I just speak in broken phrases with no apparent syntactical connection.  And when I'm so brokenhearted that I just don't know how to begin.

Since my spoken words are failing me right now, I'll try to write.  Sadly, I don't turn to prayer or scripture as easily as I should in these moments of silence.  Most often, I just sort of swim in my own thoughts for a while--pondering the "he said...she said...what if...then that..." possibilities a dozen more times.  But even in stunned silence, I still trust that I can find an opportunity to grow, so I am trying to turn to prayer more wholeheartedly tonight.  And ironically, I find that even my prayers are sort of lacking words right now.  All I can come up with is this:
Galatians 5:22

I guess this is a pretty good list to be stuck on.  I'll pray that I handle this situation with love, and that others will too, and that people might benefit from an environment that treats everyone in a better way.  I'll pray that the result of this situation will lead to joy for everyone involved, not just convenience or a temporary solution, but a chance to actually pursue joy.  I'll pray that I find peace in the midst of the turmoil, and that any decisions result in peace for everyone involved.  And I think that's as far as I will go for now.  I shouldn't rush through these; love, joy, and peace are powerful words to dwell on.  Just one more way that I can see--at least a little--encouragement in "the silence between the notes."

Monday, August 13, 2012

For the win!

Have you heard the saying, "like a fish out of water"? It could easily be re-cast as "like a teacher out of his classroom." Even the most confident teacher seems to wither a bit when faced with speaking or performing in front of other professionals rather than their students.

So it would't have surprised me at all if the teachers at the Arts Impact summer institutes were awkward, uncomfortable, or rebellious.  But they weren't!  In all three institutes, I was not only impressed by the perseverance and open-mindedness of these teachers, I was encouraged.

It can be hard enough to adapt to new ways of teaching, then to expose your own vulnerability by participating in dance, theatre, and visual arts, and finally to create a group performance piece with a dozen other teachers that you hardly know?  This seems like an impossible challenge.  Yet time after time, I saw skilled and dedicated teachers rise to that challenge.  Mind you, before these institutes, many  were trained only in teaching, not in the their collective creations and performances are even more impressive to me!  This not only goes to show how much they have learned through their arts exploration at our summer institutes, but it also shows that we have teachers out there raising the bar and doing everything they can to bless their students with the best education possible.

In the first two pieces, teachers chose a painting (projected onto the back of the stage) and interpreted its motifs, moods, and meanings through dance.  Last year, we danced to an oil on canvas: "Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast" by Albert Bierstadt in 1870.  I revisited this painting last week and was still overwhelmed with the emotion of the piece, and I am infinitely grateful for the chance to have danced our collective interpretation of such an amazing piece. This year, the dancers interpreted a Spinifex Men's Collaborative from Western Australia in 2003: a synthetic polymer on canvas called “Wati Kutjarra (Two Men Story)”. I was not a member of this year's dance group, so I found it exciting to look for connections in the projected painting as I watched the dance unfold.  I definitely recommend that curious viewers out there look up the story behind these paintings and see if you can find any more connections for yourselves!

In the next two videos, teachers sat down as writers first and created individual scripts to a given topic.  After the individual free-writing process, teachers shared their ideas, looked for points of connection, edited and refined their ideas, developed their own characters, and rehearsed their stories in a classroom before a quick run-through with lighting on the performance stage.  As an audience to last year's theatre piece, I seem to remember the title being referenced as "Anything." As a participant in this year's untitled theatre piece, I would suggest the title of "It's only math..." Our group process focused on the satire, solution, and eventual optimism of teaching math through theatre and through our new Common Core Standards.  But I think that's enough of an introduction to help our audience understand our purpose.  
I feel so privileged to have worked through the creative process with these Seattle-area teachers!  And rest assured, our Spokane-area teachers were equally as inspiring.  But I chose to only record and post videos of the institute where I was a participant, not a leader. I would be happy to post a link to a Spokane video if one of the participants has already published it though.  My sincerest thanks go out to all the teachers and leaders in all three of these institutes.  I'm sure their students will also have many thanks for the risk-taking, forward-thinking teaching artists who are leading the way into their 21st Century classrooms!

Eye of the beholder

After a week of studying arts-in-education with dozens of educators who share my excitement for the arts, my return to reality has already been bit disappointing.  During our 5-day Arts Impact summer institute, I heard story after story about the power of the arts; I saw clips of students describing the confidence, creativity, and collaboration skills they gained through various exploration in the arts; and I began to forget that many people in our society still do not consider the arts a viable school subject...or career...or hobby.

Heartbreaking.  So far, that word is all that I can say in response to the doubt and negativity I have already experienced when discussing my amazing week with friends and colleagues.  I have tried twice to write out my thoughts, but so far nothing else has been able to elaborate on my feelings effectively.  Just "heartbreaking." As my eyes well up with inspired tears for the reality I find portrayed in a painting, dance, or song, my loved ones look for grammatical errors or for examples of graffiti to show that these pieces aren't really so impressive.  I listen as people I respect tear down the artistic process of respected creators, arrogantly claiming, "Well even I could have done that" or "I can take better pictures with my smartphone."  People today will pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of jeans, or a fancy meal, or tickets to a football game, but we can't take 5 minutes of our time to consider the way our world looks or sounds or feels--to artists?--to ourselves?  And people certainly don't seem to think that artists deserve to be paid for what they do!  After all, they're only writing words, or splashing paint, or waving their arms around on stage. And "even I could do that." Therein lies another problem for me: why do people so quickly judge art by its product?

Sometimes I feel as if art is less about its product and more about the process, it's about what you experience or discover or give of yourself along the way.  Maybe that's where the teacher in me diverges from the artist in me? I think that judging an artist or a work of art only by its product is misleading and ill-informed. And I think that's precisely why our society has learned to devalue art: because they don't realize all that there is to gain IN ADDITION to the product itself.  They evaluate it according to its difficulty, its potential for gross income, its ability to win contests, or its likelihood of leading to fame. However, those lenses rarely lead to a happy life--in any career field!  Yet they hold art to standards which they willingly overlook for the careers or areas of life that appeal to them more.

My recent reflections have led me to three likely causes for such widespread criticism of the arts, and of course, they have also led me to consider my own opinion on the issues.
1. I believe that any industry can be gifted with geniuses and can be plagued by frauds, and I believe most industries are full of people who never "make it big" but who continue to love what they do, and continue to grow in their abilities while earning a respectable living. Unfortunately, many people question the viability of a career in the arts, as if a life in the arts is somehow wildly different from other careers.
2. I believe few other aspects of life can be experienced by all people in such a variety of ways, and I believe that few other subjects can inspire critical thinking and self-confidence the way that the arts can. Unfortunately, many people assume that since some artistic pieces look simply made, of course that must mean art as a whole must not require much thought, talent, or skill.
3. I believe that the arts can provide opportunity for people to work together to create something bigger than themselves, opportunity for people in our sometimes too-independent society to step outside of our comfort zone and work together as if we were a team or a family.  Most unfortunately, teams and families don't seem to earn much admiration in today's news; the rebel, the diva, the solo artist make for better magazine covers, and so even the collaborative benefits of the arts are too often overlooked.

The idealist in me would hope to enlighten these doubters to see more value in the creative arts, but the realist..maybe the nearly defeated me might just settle for this consolation: The people who can't afford 5 minutes to ponder a professionally created piece of art surely won't take the time to read the words of my silly little blog, but maybe my words can still encourage other art advocates who are fighting against similar obstacles.  If enough of us perservere in our goal to spread appreciation for the arts in our world, perhaps we can bring about change in our collective society.  Maybe one day, artists will write, paint, dance, or sing about the transformation of the arts in our world.