Dec 29

We Still Need Arts Education

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

I know this post is not exactly espousing a radical notion, but it’s still worth putting words to the page.

Theo loves to draw. He’s got an amazing imagination that translates to the page in ways that astound his mom and me. And our house is rapidly becoming the Theo Gallery.

And we live four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As a dad, I’m incredibly fortunate to have the financial means to afford a family members to the museum so I can expose Theo to the world of art inside the museum’s walls.

But not every family can afford membership to their local art museum, and even fewer families live within walking distance of a world-class museum.  But every child can be exposed to the world of art – both creating and appreciating it – through school. And every child should be.

And yet, with all of the cuts to education and all of the time and energy expended on preparing for high-stakes tests, art education has been cut in many districts and many schools – and disproportionately in our neediest schools where parents may not have the money to afford a family membership. That’s criminal.

I was raised in a house with tons of artwork because of my mom’s love of art. My mom first fell in love with Leger on a school trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was in 6th grade. She grew up in Camden, NJ which wasn’t a well-funded district even then, but they had art education. No one ever took her out of art class to make sure she could pass some test. Presumably, no one ever told her teachers that field trips to a Philadelphia museum took the student away from “time on task.”

I want every child to have the opportunity to have a rich art education. As Gary Stager has said often, “We are the richest country in the world, our schools should be able to afford a cello and a computer.” I want kids to go to museums, I want them to sculpt and draw. I want them to listen to jazz and classical and play instruments and sing. Here in Philadelphia, private organizations are trying to fill the gap. The Philly Stamp Pass program does an excellent job of giving kids access to museums and Stanford Thompson and the folks at Play On, Philly are doing amazing work with music education in Philadelphia.

But we should never have to rely on private philanthropy to fund what should be publicly funded in our schools.

The exhibit Theo and I went to today was entitled “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” — it is just wrong that so few students in our metropolis were able to see it… or even had a class where they could have learned about it.

Jun 15

Co-Curating Our School

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Most classrooms have bulletin boards. It’s where teachers put up exemplary work – often ten or twenty versions of the same project. And many teachers hang up projects in the hallways. We do that too, but does it go far enough? What if students and teachers treated their school as a living gallery and made more deliberate attempts to curate the school?

We didn’t set out to do that at SLA, but it’s happened. Over the past few years, students had ideas about creating murals or taking over pieces of the school to display their work. Teachers have taken entire walls to do permanent installations, and we’ve even taken over the walls of the city outside our school for art installations.

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

The result is that our school is slowly transforming, wall by wall, to be a showcase of the work and planning and thoughtfulness of the people of SLA. It happened because of an overwhelming desire to say yes to good ideas, rather than a deliberate attempt to say, “Every teacher must take over a 20×20 space outside their classroom,” which probably would have led to disaster.

Instead, we now have a dedicated space for a rotating gallery of student art work. We have an original mosaic of a Philadelphia cityscape hanging on the third floor. The space outside the 5th floor math lab is now filled with equations and formulas.  Our hallways have original bio-wall-structures throughout them. Every year, masks from our Spanish 4 class take over the back wall of the second floor. Walls are being repurposed as canvasses. Ceiling tiles are being redesigned. It’s exciting. The school – always a colorful place – is now really becoming our own.

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

And now that it has happened organically, we are having to actually step back and think about what it might look like moving forward. A group of underclass students are going to take the art gallery over from the seniors who started it. Teachers and students are now beginning to collaborate on spaces more deliberately. And the school is becoming our gallery. It is exciting to watch.

And as with many things that have happened over the years, this has evolved out of a fundamental belief that students should do real things that matter and that our job, as the adults, is to support rather than to control. And as has happened in the past, we are reverse engineering some questions to ask ourselves about our public spaces as we move forward.

Nick Manton's capstone presentation of his photo project.

Nick Manton’s capstone presentation of his photo project.

  • What is the process by which the community changes our public spaces?
  • How does this enhance the way we live in our spaces?
  • Is this a permanent installation that will stay as is? Or will the space change?
  • If this installation changes or needs care, who cares for it? Who curates it?
  • How can we use the space as a teaching tool for ourselves? For others?

What would happen if all of us treated our schools as galleries to be co-curated by students and teachers? How might we transform the way we think about learning?

Aug 24

On Teaching and Being a Good Person

So… an SLA alum who is studying to be a teacher texted me this the other day (it took several texts):

I definitely think <SLA teacher> is the most gifted teacher technically speaking in the school. He has an ability to figure out how each student’s brain will best understand whatever he’s teaching and explain it accordingly. Do you know if he took some program to learn how to figure out the learning styles or just learned it on the job or if he was just born with it like some super power? Because I want to be able to do that.

Here was my response:

Here’s the Super Power: Listen and watch a lot. Be aware of who the kid in front of you IS, not who you want them to be.

Her response was that I made complex ideas sound simple. To which I replied:

Sometimes we make the world harder than it has to be. Be kind, listen deeply, care a lot, have enough strength in yourself not to get taken advantage of, but never let your own ego get in the way of seeing a kid in need. And always remember, you are never that far away from being idiot you were when you were sixteen, so honor the fact that people helped you survive that time and remember that the wisdom you have today comes from the doofus stuff you did then.

Oh yeah, and forgive other people their flaws in the hope that people will forgive you yours.

Astrophysics is hard. Being a good person is pretty easy. And the first step to being a great teacher is being a good person.

It was late at night, so you’ll forgive me for being a little preachy. But it’s not terrible advice for a young teacher or even an old teacher / principal, I think. The both good and bad thing about teaching is that who we are as people comes through in who we are as teachers. You can be a very good person, and not be a great teacher, of course, but I’m not sure you can be a great teacher without being a good person.