Traditional values, anyone? The arts enhance self-discipline, perseverance, and hard work! At Prairie High School in the Battle Ground school district, high school seniors have been directing one-act plays. Conference participant Sarah Lloid soberly assesses: "Communication is the most important skill. Without communication, nothing would fit together and the whole play would be a disaster." Reality bit back to Jon Davern: "Sometimes things don't always work out as planned, or take twice as long as you originally thought."
World peace, while we're at it? The arts promote tolerance, self-esteem, and cooperation. They easily cross cultural boundaries that language cannot. They reach students who are otherwise disempowered and disenfranchised by providing joyful and diverse means of self-expression and achievement.
Brief performances and workshops at the conference gave participants some direct encounters with ways in which artists are involving school children in the arts. Poet Judith Roche led a workshop demonstrating a variety of exercises which engage entire classrooms of children in processes of composition, group decision-making, and detailed discussion of the meanings of words and images.
Dr. Daniel Barry, jazz teacher, told us in reference to the shot heard 'round the world in the American Revolution, that instead of bullets, he wants to send "jazz licks that will be heard around the world." The WeeHah Theater (John Clancy and Kieffer Denning) demonstrated their way of combining storytelling and acting improv to tap into childrens' spontaneity and creativity. Their class is set up in a way that makes it impossible for any child to "fail," while emphasizing the value of teamwork. Visual artist Frederic Wong showed how Chinese pictograms originate in pictures of the objects they represent-the pictogram meaning "bright," for instance, consisting of pictures of the sun and moon. Students learn artistic styles and techniques from ancient China as a way to understand how people in ancient times lived and understood their world.
Artist Kali Bradford showed slides and videos of students creating giant sand sculptures-animals and mythic creatures up to 30 feet in length. Meredith Essex helps students paint murals on school buses. Ruth Hayes showed animated films created by children in her workshops.
Jody Patton, Executive Director of the "Experience Music Project" (Jimi Hendrix) reminded us that novelist Jules Verne portrayed a trip to the moon fully 100 years before it happened-and that Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio was common knowledge 50 years before cellular phones. The correlation between artistic achievement and technological progress is both obvious and overlooked. There is some aspect of art in many industrial and corporate careers such as graphic designer, architect, video producer, technical illustrator, and interior designer.
But the artist in our time who wants to prosper has a painfully persistent dilemma: trying to tell at what point creative fulfillment becomes "selling-out"? Usually what corporations offer artists is a devil's bargain: We'll let you do art and pay you handsomely if you promote our product. If Sony Inc. puts an ad in the classifieds for a graphic designer you can bet some hungry, talented, young painter will in a very short time be cranking out cover designs for video cassette boxes.
The whole idea of "education reform" has recently seen some redefining-or perhaps I should say "battering." In the 1960s and 1970s it meant leaving behind the rigid and frequently fear-inducing structures of conventional classrooms: authoritarian teachers, grading, tracking, and testing, textbook-centered learning, and toward open classrooms, innovative curriculums, and experience-centered learning. But in the late '70s along came lower test scores, and higher drop-out rates. Thanks in part to President Reagan's fiscal irresponsibility of catastrophic proportions, we had an epidemic of broken families, more crime, and drugs. Conservatives freaked. They promoted a "back-to-basics" movement in the '80s that threw out the entire humanistic agenda of schools and focused on drilling for skill and eliminating "frill." Reform, indeed.
Now that education is suffering from those cutbacks, "reform" in the '90s has become a hybrid value: maintain the rigid classroom dynamics and the obsession with accountability, but improve overall performance, and not just in the "basics."
I believe it is essential that progressives in education support this movement, flawed though it is. If we can succeed in reinvigorating the curriculums of our schools, then we'll have a foundation on which to change the format of education, still stuck in an industrial society model.
Until fairly recently, our nation's material prosperity has enabled a basic level of arts funding in the schools. Throughout the 20th century, most school districts have allocated funds for high school bands and glee clubs, drama programs, and arts teachers. But in a consumer-based economy, the arts can flourish only so long as the economic engine is roaring. Especially in these anxious times, when reactionaries throw into question the entire 220 year-old premise of tax dollars benefiting the public good, voters and their school boards defend only whatever seems to be economically productive (football stadiums, senior proms, algebra, physics, computers). Whatever is not is junked.
Now that educational reform - of a sort - is underway for the first time since the 1960s, defending the arts has become an urgent priority. We may not get another chance like this in a generation. Call the Washington State Arts Commission and ask to help! (206-753-3861)
Gregory Nissen is a composer, non-profit theater producer and pianist at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. He is a rostered Artist-In-Residence, a grant given by the Washington State Arts Commission
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