Writing About the Arts

by Harmony Button

It’s Arts Week in the Middle and Upper Schools at Waterford! We take this week to celebrate our rich performing and visual arts programs through gallery openings, special assemblies and performances — and as always, we should prepare to be impressed. As a school, we invest a lot of time and energy into the arts: we require a significant number of performing and visual art credits as part of our path to graduation because we believe that training our students in the arts makes them better students in their academic classes… not to mention, better citizens and happier, more fulfilled people in general. The arts teach discipline, empathy and joy — and what more do you really need, to live a fulfilling kind of life?

The Thinking:

Now, as astounding and impressive as these artists’ showcases are, this is a week that can feel disruptive to other courses. Even when you know of the students who will be missing your classes (or need to leave early or come late), your classes can sometimes feel as if you’re sailing a ship with a skeleton crew for a few days. The adjusted daily schedule impacts typical lunch hours, which can also contribute to feeling that school life has accelerated to a frenetic pace. We do these things because we value and celebrate the performing and visual arts — and because it is important that the school at large get a sense of how these arts also cultivate community. But just because your students may come back to class in full dance-bun hair or wearing bow ties from their photo gallery openings doesn’t mean that you can’t also embrace the spirit of Arts Week in your own classes. That’s why I wanted to dedicate this WAC post to re-framing Arts Week as an invitation to all teachers to think about their own work as a kind of art.

Every discipline is an art in that it can be applied to create art, or appreciated through the eyes of an artist. Every teacher, then, is also a kind of artist. Now, I don’t want that to come across in a cheesy, “you are simply an artist of math!” kind of flat-souled pedantic rhetoric. But I’m pretty sure that anyone who can balance great idealism, optimism and ambition against a sense of purpose, practice, and application, is actually an artist. Dear teacher, does that sound anything like something you’ve been wrestling with, lately?

The Application:

Here are some ideas on how to bring Arts Week into your classroom in ways that might enrich and enliven your teaching:

1. Consider taking some time to appreciate the artistic elements of your own discipline. Find examples of times when your coursework has enabled an artist. Share your findings with your students and your colleagues in and out of your discipline. If you have a project that crosses over into art, ask about ways that you might share this with the greater community. Math classes doing origami? It’s happening. Architecture? Fractal prints? Poetry generated by mathematical formulas? Drone photography? Please share!

2. Look for resources that can be shared with students who miss your classes. Consider posting TED talks or online articles as events or assignments on your Canvas accounts. I have been really pleasantly surprised by the number of students who actually take a look at links that I share as optional “events” on their Canvas calendars. Never underestimate the power of a catchy tagline as educational click-bait.

3. Take a little time to reflect on the performances and assemblies that you attend with students. Invite them to draw connections or see parallels between artistic performances and your discipline. These connections could be figurative ones (see the post on the Power of Metaphor) or they might be more meta-cognitive: how does a student’s experience of music (playing it or listening to it) parallel their experience of lab work in science, or editing work in English?

4. Give yourself a few minutes to think about your own teaching as an artistic practice. If art is a manifestation of an intangible experience — if it’s meant to make us think or feel beyond ourselves, in some way — then how do you do that, in your classroom?

5. If you can’t arrange an artistic detour in your curriculum plans, think about spending some time with your advisees to debrief Arts Week. Invite them to participate in ekphrastic projects: can they write about what it feels like to watch dance? Can they dance about their memory of photo exhibits?

6. If you find the space or time, ask students to teach you something about an art you don’t know anything about. Not only is it great fun (and weirdly amusing) for students to try to teach things to their teachers, but it is also a really feel-good kind of thing to do.

7. Ask your students to reflect on the role of art in their lives by participating in the hashtag #WhatArtMeans on Twitter and social media. Let’s see what happens!

The Habit

Art lives inside of attitudes and perspectives, as well as practices. Remember that as a teacher, you don’t have to be an expert in everything you ask your students to do. In fact, it’s probably a good practice to hope to be out-grown: the master teacher is not the one who has mastered all material — instead, s/he’s the one who takes risks, and who opens doors to possibilities far beyond personal mastery. Let your students out-shine you. Let them show you what art means to them, inside your discipline.

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