Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pete Nelson: Keep Creativity in Adirondack Arts Education

If you are a parent, a teacher, a student, or were ever a student here in the Adirondacks, I’d like you to engage in a little visioning exercise with me. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit, maybe with a soothing beverage, do a little deep breathing and relaxation, close your eyes and let peace descend upon you.

When you’re good and ready, think about your own experiences with the arts in school. Whatever the nature and level of your involvement, from painting to music to drama, to even just doodling on your pad during calculus, remember what it was about the arts that mattered to you, how they felt and what memories will most strongly stay with you.

Try to distill your thoughts and feelings about the arts to the essential things that were most important in your schooling life: how they changed you as a person, how they contributed to your growth, the beautiful ways in which they made your education richer and more wonderful, how they were liberating and creative, how they touched other things you were learning, how they resonated deeply with your humanity.  In short, think about the essential meaning and power of the arts in your education. Then come back here.

Got a vision? Is it lovely and affirming? Good. Now try this paragraph on for size, from the geniuses who are responsible for “learning expectations for students in grades preK-12 in the disciplines of dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts” – in other words, who are responsible for the role that the arts play in the education of young people who have visions just like yours:

In this study, each of the eleven arts anchor standards were compared to each of the Common Core’s anchor standards for English Language Arts, as well as the Standards for Mathematical Practice, with the goal of highlighting any similarities in the types of habits, skills, and abilities that were described in each. This approach generated a total of 440 alignment decisions; the decisions and their rationale can all be found in the tables beginning on page 14 (from the 2014 report The Arts and the Common Core: a Comparison of the National Core Arts Standards and the Common Core State Standards, Phase II, by the College Board for the National Coalition on Arts Standards).

How did that paragraph feel to you? Did it have the slightest tonal or contextual relevance to the vision you brought forth in your head? Or was it jarring gobbledygook? You can accuse me of trying to make a point by taking some verbiage out of context, but trust me, if you read it in context it wouldn’t help. Bonus points if you can tell me what an “alignment decision” is and who the hell should possibly care.  It’s hard to imagine that the people who wrote that paragraph ever tried writing a ditty or drawing their pet gerbil in purple with that little water-color tray we all had when we were kids.

Let’s try another tack: imagine that 8th grader Camila and few of her classmates write some poems to share with their English class. Do you think it is helpful if the teacher pulls out a rubric and evaluates their output to make sure they:

  1. Generated and conceptualized artistic ideas and work?
  2. Organized and developed artistic ideas and work?
  3. Refined and completed artistic ideas and work?
  4. Analyzed, interpreted and selected artistic work for presentation?
  5. Developed and refined artistic techniques and work for presentation?
  6. Conveyed meaning through the presentation of artistic work?
  7. Perceived and analyzed artistic work?
  8. Interpreted intent and meaning in artistic work?
  9. Applied criteria to evaluate artistic work?
  10. Synthesized and related knowledge and personal experiences to make art?
  11. Related artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding?

Let the trumpets sound, ladies and gentlemen! These are the National Core Arts Anchor Standards! Aren’t they fabulous? Note that there are eleven of them, not ten or twelve. Ten would have been too few, twelve too many. Remember, these are real experts crafting this stuff.

Remember too that these “anchor” standards have to be designed to produce measurable outcomes, the holy grail of modern education theory (if such a dignified scientific word applies).  I certainly hope that Camila’s teacher measures whether Camila correctly “interpreted intent and meaning” in the other kids’ poems. That’s certainly measurable using standard outcomes!  And god forbid Camila failed to properly “apply criteria to evaluate artistic work”! I’m sure she did if she had access to the master list of correct criteria; there must be one of those.

Or maybe there’s an alternative, one which is blissfully unmeasurable: suppose the teacher, who is a writer and lover of English herself, reads the poems and then talks with the students about them? How about they have a discussion and read more poems, maybe from other correctly measured and interpreted bards, who were nothing if not followers of standards – Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickenson, e.e. cummings. I’m a musician. I’m so glad Beethoven played nice with standard, measurable compositional outcomes.

You get my point. But if the arts mean to you anything near what they meant to me, then you understand that this is serious business. Indeed, I mean to be outraged, not flippant.

This headlong rush to standardize and measure is anathema to learning – nothing less. As a college mathematics teacher I have lived and acted upon the belief every day that we should hold our students to a higher standard. But not these standards, not like this. Not with playbooks and jargon and rafts of standardized tests that measure little of value except teaching to tests and stress-response. The very idea that measuring students’ progress in mathematics requires an enumerated set of standards and certain tests scores is offensively stupid to the extreme. I can tell you how each and every one of my students is doing in their mathematics learning with far more authenticity than any assessment will ever tell. Any decent teacher can. We should stop devaluing, blaming and belittling teachers, shackling them to emperor-has-no-clothes measurement instruments and accountability reports. We should exalt them and set them free – and with that, their students too.

If all this is true of teaching mathematics or language arts, imagine how true it is for something like dance or sculpture.

This flood of nonsense around codified, formulaic standards has been going on for a while in education, courtesy of lots of applied thinking in education schools that are heavily influenced by what big business thinks is good preparation for the working world. But it has hit its zenith with Common Core, a tragically misguided policy if ever I’ve seen one. Now lots of educators, even the deans of arts education, are rushing to align, whatever that means.

My experience in the Adirondacks is that arts education here is alive and well, for the most part. Teachers and parents seem to be interested in the kind of creative, authentic arts experiences that I was lucky enough to have in my childhood. Administrators seem to support that approach, and largely refrain from burying their arts teachers in requirements and prescriptions. My wife Amy is a music teacher in the Park and her experiences so far bear out what I have learned at other schools.

I suspect that this healthy resistance to the standards trend is due in part to two things: the independent, rural, vibe in the Park that resists regulations and pro forma trends; and our beautiful environment which develops in all of us a deep love for the natural world. The arts are a high expression of nature, both human and wild.  On the other hand, the kind of approach exemplified by Common Core is anything but natural.

Still, teachers, parents, students: be on your guard. Fending off these kinds of policies takes vigilance and active resistance, lest they insinuate themselves in our arts education, as self-aggrandizing policies like these are wont to do. The arts are a vital part of education and growth.  Here, in this beautiful, natural environment, they find fertile ground. And so, suitably inspired by our surroundings, let us celebrate creativity and inspiration, even as we expect rigor and discipline and the work ethic that the arts require.

I think now of the great painter Harold Weston, whose collection of essays and personal reminiscences is titled Freedom in the Wilds: An Artist in the Adirondacks.


Photo: The Figureheads, a Hip Hop Education group, perform at Frank Allis Elementary School.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

11 Responses

  1. Curt Austin says:

    A fine rant, Pete. I’m relieved it has not quite reached a point where you might be referencing Stalin and Shostakovich.

    In my experience, if you put a bunch of people in a conference room with a flipboard and a professional facilitator, this is what you get. The squeaky felt marker dulls the senses.

    On the other hand, something is truly wrong, somewhere, everywhere. NYS Regents tests have been given for 150 years. My benchmark are the math tests; results have been in sharp decline. Perhaps we should move on, teach a little computer science. Excel, CNC machining, app development – students might find that more interesting and useful than trigonometry.

    I’ll be heading to Keene Valley today to rehearse with the Market Street Brass. My wife will be dropping off her latest work at the art center in town, created on her computer – a new thing for her. Later, I’ll bone up on the new stuff in Xcode so I can upgrade my bicycling app. I’m just saying that what you’re writing about here has been and remains very important to me.

    Gobbledygook is the sign of the devil.

    • Tim says:

      What have you got against Shostakovich, Curt?

      • Curt Austin says:

        I love Shostakovich, and I’ve even had the privilege of playing his 5th symphony right here in the Adirondacks. The cello concerto, too; the soloist summers in Schroon Lake. The horn represents the secret police on the latter. I could use a do-over on both, however.

        My reference was to one of the worst ever relationships between the state and the arts. Shostakovich would have been executed if Stalin had not liked the 5th. Some say Stalin was fooled, but Shostakovich survived.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Aye, Curt, and rant I did. I’m glad you called it for what it was. But it felt good, it was a purge.

      The flipboard phenomenon is not unusual to me, being a mainstay of the business world where it is equally as stupid, though not as injurious. Everybody does it now, in all contexts, proving what sheep we human beings are. And Information Technology industry is mostly to blame.

      if you really want to see a rant, then suggest to me as a math teacher that we should “move on” from trig or algebra or any of that stuff, the heart-wood of mathematics, on the grounds that it is not interesting enough for the modern student with their entitlement, their smart phones, their short attention spans and all those goddamned buttons to push. We need the opposite, a full-scale effort to immerse students in the beauties and depth of mathematics, in its intrinsic elegance and power. We should teach it as we teach art or music, and let our students light up. The idea that students from disadvantaged worlds with disadvantaged educations can’t do it is discrimination at its worst. The idea that “girls can’t do it.” an unsaid tenet that still holds strong in schools and in the heads of too many young women, is sexist nonsense. The idea that some people are math types and some aren’t, is a penurious lie. Trig? I had students figure out the path of cannon balls to rain down on the LaChute River in Ticonderoga, following history. They were running around with a primitive sextant, tape and notebook paper, arguing and trying to position themselves in sensible ways against the undulating landscape. They didn’t even know they were doing trig. Now when they do get to trig they’ll really get it, deep, in their sense of the world, right where it belongs.

      Simply, my rant could apply to math just as well as the arts. Math is an art. And the stakes are no different. English too, of course.

      Finally, Curt, I’m envious that you are playing brass chamber music. My chops will never allow that again. Even as I performed mostly as a jazz musician, my favorite brass playing was in a choir (8 trumpets, 21 brass altogether and a raft of percussion in a cathedral doing Copland’s Fanfare was the number one musical rush of my life). And Shostakovich, who of course was no communist, gets my vote for greatest composer of the 20th Century.

      • Curt Austin says:

        You need education for the things that make life worth living, but also those things that allow you to live life. (Do I hear a felt pen squeaking?)

        It’s not a simple calculation to figure out how much of each an individual needs. It may be easier to figure how much a society needs, if we want people to develop such marvels as Chevy Volts (hey! we need an update on yours). But when I suggest something that very slightly realigns education to the modern world – teaching computer science – the pushback is always remarkably strong.

        I happen to find deep beauty in such things as design patterns for object oriented programming, which is discussed passionately in abstract terms by computer scientists, just like mathematical concepts. In polite conversation, however, I’ve found it better to highlight my other interests in art.

        What were we talking about? Oh, yes. Gobbledygook and the creative arts. I have a board meeting tomorrow with a group that puts on a student and adult band festival in Lake Placid. They’re all music educators; I’ll print out your article for them.

  2. Bill Joplin says:

    Tim, I believe that what Curt is referring to is Stalin’s suppression of any Soviet composers who, like Shostakovich, usually did not write in a simple, non-modernist style that, from Stalin’s point of view, would please and motivate the masses. Some of these composers lost their performing and teaching privileges and even feared for their lives. From 1936 until Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich kept a suitcase of clothing in the hallway outside his apartment, so that if there were a knock on the door in the middle of the night, he could let them take him away without waking up his family. –Bill Joplin

    • Tim says:

      That makes more sense, Bill. But, Shostakovich’s relationship with the regime was both complicated and controversial and he joined the Communist Party in 1960.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    When it comes to the Arts, what works works and what doesn’t doesn’t. But here is the rub. What works for one person does’t necessarily work for another person. And herein too is the beauty of art. We can try to codify it but it simply cannot be done.
    I have read books, listened to music, watched movies and TV programs, looked at paintings, watched dance and viewed other works of art, and come away sometimes liking what others liked and other times come away liking what others didn’t like.
    All arts are personal. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes it doesn’t seem so obvious.
    I would hope everyone would have the courage to enjoy producing and consuming whatever they like in any of that broad category we call the Arts, and never feel the need to conform to what the “Experts” might tell them.

  4. Pete,

    As a veteran of 31 years of teaching art in a small rural school district north of the Adirondack Park, I can tell you that developing standards for art education and building a vocabulary for evaluating and discussing the arts was extremely important to education. I won’t argue that the education bureaucracy went too far and made it overly complicated, which often is the case, but for a while it was nice to have the arts viewed as equals to mathematics and science and literature. All too often the arts are poorly regarded and underfunded with classes full of too many students who don’t care and teachers who don’t have skills. There were a lot of elementary teachers who thought handing out a coloring sheet with a picture of Pilgrim was a great Thanksgiving art lesson. Or, the teachers might be very skilled artists and for the students who were interested, provided great opportunities, even if they didn’t know how to teach – but the majority of the class learned nothing.

    There never was a rush to standardize art, but by defining standards for evaluating the arts, it gave all of us who were teachers a better way to measure our students success. Too often both educators and students were allowed to get by with assessing art as “I really like it” or “I don’t like it”. Or having someone else tell you “this is good art” and “that is not art”. Being that the fine and performing arts are primarily visual or aural, the vocabulary of art was sometimes left out of the picture, pun intended.

    I’ve been out of the classroom now, concentrating on creating my own art, for 15 years. While I was teaching, I also worked part-time for St Lawrence University, teaching their Art Methods course and supervising student teachers. I insisted my student teachers understood and used the arts standards when developing their lesson plans. It’s no longer good enough to just say “we’re going to have fun today and use tempera paints – just paint what you want”. That happened too much in art classrooms, with teachers and administrators both accepting that’s what art was. Use art materials and have fun! No, art classrooms need to be places where there is rigorous instruction. Where students will learn how to look at and analyze art, how to use vocabulary to talk about the arts, how to create art using the visual elements and principles of design, now to apply art skills and knowledge to real world applications, what the richness of art history can tell us, how the arts fit into the modern world of technology, and more.

    You taught mathematics, where it’s pretty obvious what is wrong and what is right. The arts have never been that clear. Establishing state and national standards were very important to art education.

    I will agree with you that things have gone too far, with too much regulation and the demands on teachers and students are horrendous. There needs to be more common sense in education.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Thanks for the great comment.

      I agree with your points and I especially appreciate the paragraph where you describe expectations of art students. I could not be in greater accord. I’m an elitist: I don’t think art is simply a matter of opinion. I think value judgments matter, that they are in fact of fundamental importance. That’s because I think that there are essential things in art, and music as well… and mathematics as well (where, yes, “right” and “wrong” is generally more apparent, but often no less rich).

      I think art should be taught with passion and creativity, certainly, but it is vital that it also be taught with expertise, rigor, knowledge, discipline, history and an exploration of what greatness looks and feels like. Where I differ with you – if at all – is in what I think “standards” mean: what they look like and who are the arbiters. We both agree the current nonsense has gone too far.

      I have no interest in state and national standards – save for obvious ones, but obvious standards are so common-sense that I claim they don’t need all the faux-intellectual garments and jargon, nor the process-driven faux-industrial measurement structure. Should there be a one or two page list of national standards? I neither object nor particularly care.

      What I’m interested in instead is exactly what you described: you with your student teachers. I’m a strong advocate of a guild model: masters, apprentices and an educational tradition that develops teachers even as it passes along knowledge, tradition, standards, and all the rest. If I wanted to understand what standards of analysis, vocabulary, visual elements and principles of design ought to be applied to the teaching of art, I’d sit rapt at your feet, Sandra, or at the feet of teachers you helped to develop and instill with your knowledge and values. I’d have zero interest in the national or state standards.


  5. M.P. Heller says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece Pete. Hopefully we can get our education system fixed someday. I think it’s important to note that things like common core and the development of standards for certain subjects, like your example with the arts, is indicative of a recognition that improvement needs to be made. It’s the resultant policy that always seems to fall way short. At least we have the recognition that something needs to be done. If only we could come up with a sensible way to implement change. It seems we still have a lot of work to do with that bit.

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