I am in Tampa Florida, sitting in the living room of my mother who is sleeping peacefully in the electric recliner that my brother and I gave her for her birthday earlier this year. I look over some of the unfinished blog posts on my computer each inspired by key moments in 2015. One that sticks out was the one I started on June 22nd a few days after the shooting and killing of 9 people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young man whose name I unsuccessfully try to forget. It seems so long ago, with all that has happened in my life and in the world since then. The emotional mix of sadness, anger, and anxiety comes rushing right back to me now. Like after watching the movie 12 Year’s a Slave, I still struggle with processing the images and finding uneasy connections to current society and to my work. With the reflection that tends to come at the end of a calendar year, I think about how the events of June 17th have shaken me out of my survival routine and forced me to take a deeper look, ask questions, and think more purposefully about how I might be able to make a difference.
Dylann Roof was not created in isolation. He is an extreme example of something that is deep in the psyche of American society. His beliefs were generated by many factors, including what he learned in school. From the limited perspectives of the social studies curriculum, to the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, to what elements of society are given value, to the different ways in which his teachers consciously or unconsciously treated the black students in his classes. All across the United States, children from all backgrounds are given clues into their ‘place in society’, from a confederate flag flying on a state building, to media portrayals of people along racial lines, to family and religious perspectives, to the legal system, to what is learned in the classroom and how it is taught. In learning to navigate the world I, like most children, took the cues from the adults in my life, I learned from them and believed what they believed in me.
In a January 12, 2012 Edutopia article by Danielle Moss Lee, she states that:
“Recent explorations of the role of civil rights in educational disparity by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that in one school district, there were 149 suspensions and expulsions for every 100 black students compared with 32 for every 100 white students. Educators in that school district were shocked to learn that black students were treated more harshly even when the infractions were identical.” http://www.edutopia.org/blog/anti-racist-classroom-danielle-moss-lee
The same can be said when it comes to racial disparities in the legal system. In addition, statistics have illustrated that when students have been suspended multiple times from school, they are at a much higher risk of not completing high school and of ending up in prison.
Having not grown up in the United States, it was in college that I encountered an educator whose perspective on me colored her ability to support my success as a learner. My advisor, Eva Grudin, who I had called to help me think through next steps in courses for my major, said abruptly without actually offering advice, that maybe I could not handle Williams. I told her I had been on the dean’s list 3 of the 4 semesters I had been there and promptly hung up the phone. Had she even looked at my transcript? Williams is not a very big college, so I can’t imagine that she was overwhelmed with too many advisees. Her response floored me. I was 20 years old, and at the time could not see and understand what was being done to me. I cried deeply and alone for a while and then withdrew from college. Without having the unwavering support of my family and my dance teacher Sandra Burton, at Williams, I don’t think I would have returned to finish. I never interacted with my advisor again and graduated with a Hubbard Hutchinson Fellowship award for excellence in the arts.
What then of the 11 year-old middle school boy, whose voice is changing and who does not have other supports to guide him through? He is building understanding at the same time that this ‘hidden curriculum’ has been happening to him since Kindergarten. In Lisa Delpit’s keynote address at the SPLC Teaching Tolerance Award Celebration in 2013 she said: “We must focus on who the children are and not what we assume them to be (at risk, learning disabled, unmotivated, defiant, behavior disordered, limited English proficient). If we focus on the limiting labels, we teach children to limit who they are and who they can be.” Lisa Delpit, Keynote address SPLC Teaching Tolerance Award Celebration 2013.
The current climate of teaching and learning in public school education focuses on high-stakes testing and teacher assessment. Allowing educators to start from or incorporate a curiosity and humility to learn from the students is present only in the classrooms where educators are taking the risk to bend the rules. Some educators already know that finding out who the students are and what they already know can help build a bridge to the knowledge and skills they are trying to help them acquire. This is a difficult task to accomplish in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act. As Valerie Strauss states in her Washington Post Article The Successor to No Child Left Behind has, it turns out, big problems of its own (12/7/2015), ‘In high-poverty areas were progress has been made in closing the achievement gaps, such as Union City, N.J. and Clarke County, GA, it wasn’t a focus on standardized testing that worked. It was a focus on kids’ actual needs, strong relationships among the teachers and administration and slow, high expectations and a realization that real progress is slow.”
For parents with means, and in private school settings, students are given the opportunity to explore, play, make choices, and imagine in order to build skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and dealing with ambiguity. Why then is this not also occurring as often in public school settings? As an arts educator, I do believe the arts are a way to help students explore, play, make choices and imagine; all critical in helping them prepare for ‘the work force and for college’, a now common expression in theories of public and arts education . However, I become wary of the approach to teaching the arts that does not start with the form itself and instead starts from language and/or literacy development, passing an exam, identifying criteria in the form initially, and so on. I agree with Jessica Nicoll that as arts educators, we may be more knowledgeable of the form, but the student is the expert in what they want to express’. (Nicoll, Dance Dialogues, 2010)
In the coming months, I want to reflect on thoughts I have and on the work of others to define an arts educational philosophy that truly allows students to be the experts in what they want to express. I believe it is starting from this place that we can support student development as artists, learners, thinkers, and human beings. I want to look more closely, among other things, at:
- Approaches to teaching and learning in special education classrooms, where learning about and working with each student, as an individual is tantamount to discovering successful ways to help the students build valuable communication and life skills.
- Jessica Nicoll’s ideas in Dance Dialogues, 2010, where she acknowledges that the teacher may have more experience in the form, but is not more experienced in what the student has to express.
- Engaged pedagogy as described by Bell Hooks in her book Teaching To Transgress, where she talks about moving the student away from being an object in the learning process.
- Nicoll’s is influences like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Hooks influences like by Freire’s Conscientizacao.
- Social and Emotional Learning strategies
- Culturally responsive curriculum development
- Restorative curriculum practices
If you have suggestions on things you think might be helpful in my exploration, please share them with me. I want to explore and discover what is informing my discomfort with the current state of arts education and how students are being asked to learn. I know I can learn from the work of others, but also know that there are new and different ways to approach this that I need to discover. I don’t want to be limited by the fact that everyone else has found their ‘best practice’, implying that there is no other option/approach.
I have a lot of thoughts that I want to explore in 2016 and have made a commitment to keep reading and writing monthly in order to formulate and articulate those thoughts.
I just saw this on my mom’s fridge:
“Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what ‘s going to happen next…delicious ambiguity…” Gilda Radner
Not sure when she said this, but I went ahead and ordered her book, It’s Always Something, and silently thanked my mom for giving me the go ahead to take the risk.
2016 begins that journey into ambiguity and discovery.
In memory of:
Susie Jackson, 87, who has long attended this church
Daniel Simmons Sr, 74, a Reverend and pastor
Ethel Lance, 70, who worked for the church for over 30 years
Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor
Cynthia Hurd, 54, a manager at the Charleston County Public Library
Depayne Middleton, 49, a former director of Charleston County Community Development
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach
Clementa Pinckney, 41, the Reverend of the church and a State Senator
Tywanza Sanders, 26, a recent graduate of Allen University
All from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina