Attending Arts Integration + California: A Convening at the Getty Center last week reminded me of the discovery and discomfort of existing in an “in-between space”—straddling different professional worlds, for example, or examining connections between discrete disciplines. I was well aware of my professional “in-betweenness” before I arrived on Monday morning; it had been more than 12 months since I’d engaged deeply with the arts education sector, having transitioned within the LA County Arts Commission from the education division to the grants division. I was eager to learn what new issues had emerged since I’d stepped outside of the field, and which remained unchanged.
Then there was the matter of the boundary between the personal and the professional, between the outside world and the museum walls. I arrived at the conference with a heavy heart, the tragedy in Orlando casting long shadows over my thoughts. Nerdy conversations that would typically leave me giddy and inspired didn’t manage to quell my sadness and confusion. I wasn’t alone; in her opening keynote, Danielle Brazell movingly acknowledged the impossibility of tuning out our broader context—something students remind us of every day. “You can’t think if your belly is empty,” she said, “and you can’t think if your heart is broken.” And yet what field is better suited to leaning into such challenges than the one already emphasizing intersection, connection, and evolution? After all, arts integration—in the Kennedy Center’s definition—is:
“…an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”
It was with this sense of in-betweenness that I experienced the conference—and noticed it as a theme throughout.
1. Respecting Teachers vs. Trying to Change How They Work
Most of the case studies focused on projects that aimed to support teachers in changing their habits, mindset, and/or comfort level to more fully embrace the arts, or to shift how they approach teaching in general.
One such partnership between Santa Clara County and the District of Columbia used a blended learning platform and digital “badges” to examine, among other things, “how [to inspire] teachers to see themselves as creative professionals.” Sandy Rodriguez of the Getty Museum asked a similar question of teachers when describing the art@thecore partnership with Leo Politi Elementary School: “What does it take to change [their] practice?”
These questions are well-intentioned, obviously, but raise the issue of the limits of external influence—and what happens when trying to change someone else’s behavior is seen as patronizing or unwelcome. Throughout the convening I heard people lament working with teachers who were “forced” to attend professional development in the arts rather than eagerly choosing to attend. Nadine Rambeau of CalArts made note of this in discussing the challenge of shifting school culture. “Defense mechanisms are triggered when you ask people to change practices,” she said. Such requests, moreover, can be perceived as elitist and out-of-touch.
2. The Need for Time vs. The Reality of Constraints
The art@thecore team from the Getty and Leo Politi Elementary emphasized that teachers must have time and opportunities to practice the strategies they are learning, ideally with a teaching artist on hand to provide feedback and support. They also stressed how difficult it can be for teachers to learn new arts strategies while simultaneously adjusting to new expectations under the Common Core. Their own collaboration, for example, began with weekly meetings between the teachers and teaching artists in year one, and tapered down to quarterly meetings in year three. While the pullback partly reflected teachers’ increased confidence, it was also a necessary adjustment to provide the school more breathing room.
How does the lack of practice time impact the ultimate sustainability of the project? After three years of partnership, teacher Lorenza Yarnes expressed anxiety about continuing on her own. “I don’t know if I can do this without you next year!” she confessed to Brooke Sauer, the Getty’s teaching artist. “But I’ll try! I may call you.”
3. Pragmatism vs. Scale
Taken together, the case studies struck a lovely balance between showcasing thoughtful, small-scale projects and student work samples (exemplified by North Coast Arts Integration Project’s mask and sculpture work with middle school students) and bigger, more ambitious efforts that span an entire region (such as Technology Enhanced Arts Learning, or TEAL, which targets in-service and pre-service teachers across 60+ school districts with blended learning opportunities).
Denise Grande of Arts for All challenged the audience to aim for scale, urging bold action to “take our full place at the education table.” In the smaller discussion groups scheduled throughout the convening, however, I heard participants stress that baby steps may not only be useful but also necessary in certain contexts. To a seasoned arts integration advocate, a simple interdisciplinary connection may seem tired, one participant argued. That connection, however, may be a big step for that particular teacher—and profound to his or her students.
4. Change vs. Stasis
All of these themes were familiar to me. In many ways, it seems that very little has changed. And yet the landscape is not static. “Change is the only constant,” stated Sam Gelinas, program director of the LA Fund for Public Education, noting he has worked with three LAUSD superintendents in the same number of years. Beyond perennial administrative turnover, we have the implementation of Common Core and a digital revolution that’s left the entire education sector struggling to keep up.
Even James Catterall, a thought leader in the field for decades, acknowledged he does not have a firm handle on how technology will influence arts education. Yet it is already upending the broader art world as people begin to create and consume creative content in vastly different ways.
While not an arts education report, the Irvine Foundation’s provocative The Cultural Lives of Californians sheds light on how technology dominates our daily creative habits and may require a big shift in perception of what does or does not “count” as creative work. While the figure below illustrates habits among California adults, we can only assume public school students are engaging in digital media at similar if not higher rates.
Arts Integration for All Citizens
It was in pondering this final space of in-betweenness that I thought the most about what we might consider doing differently. What might happen, for example, if we embraced Irvine’s approach and surveyed students on how they were already engaging in creative practice both inside and outside of school, and took their responses to heart when we think about how to measure creative infrastructure—even if we have to rethink our traditional definitions? How might such an approach upend the “deficit mindset” of arts education I heard bemoaned throughout the conference?
While maintaining our focus on the K–12 school day, we could also think more boldly about how our work extends outside of school walls. The most inspiring talk of the convening came not from a K–12 arts educator, but from the provost of CalArts. Drawing a firm conceptual link between the potential outcomes of arts integration and the aims of creative placemaking, Jeannene Przyblyski suggested that arts integration can only be fully achieved within the broader context of healthy, vibrant communities.
Inspired by this idea, I leave you with a provocation that I’ve been tending in my mind in the days since the convening. What would happen if arts integration were no longer defined as “an approach to teaching,” but rather embraced wholesale as an approach to public policy? What possible new collaborations and challenges might that create? How might pursuing a broader agenda shift our understanding of the role of the traditional K–12 school day? I offer a draft definition below.
Arts integration is an approach to public policy that allows citizens to experience and engage with their communities as creative consumers, producers, and teachers. Citizens have opportunities to engage with creative processes, traditions, and products in public and private spaces, advancing cultural understanding, civic dialogue, and social justice.
I look forward, as always, to continuing the conversation.
Text of this post © Talia Gibas. All rights reserved.