Friday, November 26, 2010

On Being A Teaching Artist

My dad reads this blog; he's been following it from the start.  It's something you'd expect from a dad, I suppose, but my father is also an artist.  He grew up with his parents and two older brothers in the back of little grocery store in Chicago in the 1930's.  This little room, where they all lived, was the subject of some of his first paintings.  In the 1950's he went to the Art Institute of Chicago to focus on oil painting, and later he moved to graphic design when that still meant lots of brown paper, dial-a-type, darkrooms, and wax rollers.  Ah, the toys of my childhood!  Now he's put his away his brushes and instead works with fabric, making quilts that are his paintings. 

He recently e-mailed. "I read your blog," he said "and really don't pretend to understand half of it since I base my art on intuition and instinct, allowing the sub-conscious to take over when faced with a visual problem." 

I love his description of his creative process because it is exactly what art is about!  Giving way and letting the mysterious parts of your brain mull something over until one day, the solution seems to come to you out of the blue.  Art and creativity (no matter the form) are about deep thinking with parts of yourself that have no words, just images, feelings, urges, emotions.  Even some writers, I bet, are not thinking entirely in words but possibly visually as well when they imagine the stories and ideas they are trying to put on paper. 

My father probably knows more about his own creative process than he thinks, but he brings up a good point.  He's an artistic person so why doesn't what I have to say here in this blog make sense to him? 

Maybe it's because I am engaging in a second creative pursuit called 'being a teaching artist'.  Not only do I pursue my own artistic and creative visions, but I also focus on how to teach my art in all it's complexities, in a way that I hope makes sense to young learners in academic settings.  I am an interpreter and a guide, using words to make my process clear to others. 

Being a guide to my art form requires me to have perspective on percussive dance as a whole (different styles and traditions, technique, and history) and at the same time be able to articulate to others about the specifics of my creative process as well as my intent as an artist.  For example, clogging is often taught in schools with the focus of teaching a traditional American art form.  Often, traditional artists will tell stories about someones grandfather who passed down a step to his granddaughter, or tales of which step came from whom, or how so-and-so took that step and turned it into something else, or an old square dance that is from a certain part of Kentucky that is still done today.  I did not grow up within a traditional dance and music community. I came to these wonderful traditions as an outsider; those stories are not my stories and  I don't feel like my teaching would be authentic if I brought clogging or step dance to kids that way.  So, I've decided to teach clogging a little differently.  The stories I tell kids through my teaching are more about how I hear the music, how I make choices about what sounds to make with my feet or how I go about making up my steps, and the thrill of taking part in music made by people who are in the same room, playing together.

That is my voice.  The beauty of any and all kinds of art is that there are an infinite number of ways to find a space for yourself and your individual voice.  But if you're a teaching artist you really must step back and reflect about how you use your voice, you must reflect on your own process, because not only are you are teaching about your art you are teaching about yourself as well.  The most important aspect of my job may very well be to ask the questions: Who am I?  What do I believe?  How do I see my art form?  What is my approach?  What is important about my work?  And then, take those answers into the classroom.

Not everyone wants to do this kind of work to make their process visible to others.  I'll admit, it is difficult to switch back and forth between multiple mind-spaces.  The artist part of me is the non-verbal, sensing part that experiences, creates, questions, experiments, listens, responds -- all of this in the moment.  The teaching artist part of me is the interpreter, picking just the right words to frame my work and create lessons that build skill, understanding and connections.  I also have a third role to fill -- the teacher as an artist.  In the end, I have young souls in front of me, many of them unsure of what we're about to do.  I know there is value and relevance in my work in relation their lives, but they don't know it...yet.  Every group of kids I work with is different in their temperament, interest, and school culture.  To really reach them I have to use, as my dad said, "...intuition and instinct, allowing the sub-conscious to take over" when faced with the challenge of real kids in real time.  It seems that what I do in the process of teaching dance is similar to my father's efforts to solve a 'visual problem' and that means he and I have more in common than he thinks. 

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. I love this. I definitely use lots of intuition when I'm teaching, and wish I were better at accessing that sometimes.

    I think many mathematicians would identify with this passage, actually:
    "Not everyone wants to do this kind of work to make their process visible to others. I'll admit, it is difficult to switch back and forth between multiple mind-spaces. The artist part of me is the non-verbal, sensing part that experiences, creates, questions, experiments, listens, responds -- all of this in the moment."

    But math students don't often get a chance to see that.

  2. Love the blog. Working on dance and math in Ohio.


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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