Sunday, September 18, 2011

National Arts in Education Week

The second annual National Arts in Education week just ended, with not even a ripple in the rushing river of mainstream culture. It was the brainchild of Californian Congresswoman Jackie Speier and approved last year by the U.S. House of Representatives. Hooray! A resolution passed! Now things will get moving! Now the thirty-plus years of damage wrought by Proposition 13 in California will be healed and the school hallways will once again buzz with the laughter and excitement of children given what they need.

I’m sure you can detect my bitter sarcasm bleeding through each word above. But I suppose we have to start somewhere and indeed, the week turned out to be meaningful for me. It began on Wednesday with a panel discussion on “The Collective Impact of the Arts” with six articulate, passionate and compassionate people—Chip O’Neal, Louise Music, Sarah Crowell, Richard Carranza, Donn Harris, Andi Wong— who have managed to swim upstream and make a difference in the lives of young people by creating opportunities for arts education. Story after story emerged about their struggles, their successes, their sadnesses that more is not available to more children, their determination to join forces to further this life-changing work. Individual action and initiative by dynamic committed leaders is how small things happen with big effects on people’s lives, one heart, mind and body at a time. Collective action is how bigger change gets set in motion and the panel was united in its determination to get together and launch their boats into the mainstream together.

On Thursday, an old college friend was in town for a parallel conference on Arts Education. She has worked as an artist-in-schools (drama) in Maine these past 30 years and now is doing arts administration work. Over dinner, she told me about a reunion with the folks who studied mime and drama in a barn in rural Maine. People who hadn’t seen each other in 20 or 30 years gathered again to share their stories of how that work had so deeply impacted their lives. Not that they went on to become professional actors (though some had), but that the work and spirit of that undertaking informed whatever they ended up doing. My friend talked about that place as one of various “epicenters of meaning” in her life and indeed, that’s what intensive arts studies and collaborations can be for people.

We need to weave arts into the fabric of daily life, but we also need these retreat settings or tours where a special magic is woven that holds throughout the years that follow. I think of the European tour I took with the Antioch Chorus, the summers at Cazadero Music Camp, the jug band field trip I organized and led with middle school students at The Arthur Morgan School in rural North Carolina, the Salzburg group from this last summer. Epicenters of lifelong meaning. (Credit Gretchen Berg if you steal that phrase!)

On Friday, I dropped in with the gang at the Old Folks Home to gather around the piano yet again and sing the songs that stitch together memory, pleasure, beauty and create the connections in our little community. And then off on the plane to Orange County to teach an all-day Saturday Orff workshop and enjoy the usual delight of watching folks from 20 to 70 play like they’re between 2 and 7 years old.

I mean, picture it. Try to imagine what it’s like for a professional development day to be spent dancing and singing Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me, playing the One Potato Two Potato clapping game, chanting Criss Cross Applesauce and rhythmically slapping bodies! Can you feel the energy in the room, the laughter, the pleasure of constant partner-switching, the bodies awake with exercise and elegance, the minds awake trying to understand what’s going on (no rules explained beforehand—just play and figure out how the game works), the imagination soaring (what else can we do here?), the hearts open and receptive with the sheer fun of it all?

The fun is the beginning and the end of the undertaking, but in-between, we also sat down and read over the 12 Brain Rules and reflected on how science supports art 100%. We learned the language to describe how what we do and the way we do it is aligned with the way our brains are designed to learn. We discussed how to plan classes so that they wrap themselves around the way children actually learn instead of trying to stuff their round personalities in the square holes of assembly line education.

At the end of the day, the folks got everything that people go to the gym, the bar, the movies, the lecture hall, to get—exercise, socialization, fun, stimulating ideas. On top of it all, these games and activities will find their way into the 60 teachers’ classrooms and touch the lives of a few thousand children. A perfect way to end National Arts in Education Week.

Well, what’s the point of describing all this? Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger and we are all, young and old, alike, hungry for the feast of dynamic Arts Education. If you’re in striking distance, come to my workshop on the topic on Oct. 15 in Sacramento. Or next weekend in San Antonio. Or come see our SF kids at the World Music Festival on October 30th, Body Music Festival on November 6th, my jazz trio concert on Oct. 23rd. Arts in Education is a yearlong holiday for me.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you go, I hope that you have had at least one artistic experience that was your “epicenter of meaning” and that you will do your part to make sure our children get the same. It’s the least you can do for National Arts in Education Week. 

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