Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Harvard Recap

Last week I attended a three day institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) called The Arts and Passion-Driven Learning led by Steve Seidel and members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.  I signed up after receiving a very generous invitation-only grant award that encouraged me to attend one of HGSE's summer professional learning programs with Project Zero staff. 

Before I went, I wrote a post about my workshop choices for the institute and was feeling quite hopeful about the potential of the overall experience - I mean, it's Harvard, right?!  In this post I want to outline some of my personal highlights, but also raise some questions about what it means to teach and learn in the arts, especially within a professional learning context.

Personal Highlight

My very favorite thing was the Scratch workshop led by Karen Brennan who conceived of and runs the Scratch Ed initiative.  Scratch is an online visual (and very creative) programming environment, developed by the brilliant folks in the Lifelong Kindergarten Lab at MIT.  We spent the WHOLE time working on our own projects, totally engrossed – Scratch is a miracle. Truly brilliant.  I also got a personal tour of the MIT Media Lab from Amos Blanton, who supports the Scratch online community, before the Harvard institute started.  

Another fabulous workshop I attended was about ‘powerful partnerships’ led by the program director of KID smART in New Orleans, a really sharp, interesting, organized woman named Elise Galinot Goldman.  She gave us a very useful experience with some of the tools they've developed to address the inevitable conflicts/issues that arise when an artist comes into a school to teach in collaboration with classroom teachers.  In their model, an artist is placed for a full year of work in a school (amazing!) so the need to build and maintain strong partnerships/collaborations with the school team is paramount. I won't go into detail here, but it was a very interactive and productive few hours of exploring ideas and discussion which I really appreciated.

I also loved having a chance to talk with other artists who teach. Normally, when asked what it is I do, I often have to first provide an explanation about the teaching artist profession.  Not here!  Being able to talk to and hear more about the kind of arts activities/learning people are doing in their own schools and communities was time well-spent.  On the whole, the people I met and talked to were really interesting, smart, thoughtful educators and/or artists and I really enjoyed those conversations.   

I’m happy to have taken away some wonderful moments like these, but I do still have some big questions about the institute as a whole…
The institute was organized around a very broad theme of passion in learning and, ostensibly, around the Silk Road Connect project in New York City schools.  The theme of passion-driven learning, plus the slightly more detailed group of Overarching Questions, were the frame placed around our large and small group sessions which made up the bulk of our experience at the institute.  The questions included:

Engagement: How can we use the arts to engage students in passion-driven learning? [This was much too broad a question to be useful in focusing our inquiry.]
Connection: How can the arts lead to deeper learning in other subjects? [Great question, never really explored at all.]
Community: How does experience in the arts support students in becoming more engaged, empathetic, and responsible participants in their communities? […again, too broad.]
Collaboration: What supports strong and productive collaborations among educators, artists, and other community members? [Probably the most well –realized of these four.]

My biggest criticism is that many people working at the intersection of arts and learning know that to learn about the arts you have to actually make art.  This truism did not appear to influence the institute's design nor were we presented with or given any chances to examine robust examples of what it looks like to learn in and through the arts.  There were a couple nice videos, but it seemed like much of the work presented there was somewhat adult-centric and product, not process, oriented. 

On the whole, we spent large amounts of time sitting and listening to others talk to us about very broad ideas of passion, empathy and various other emotions as they related to art making. I am not anti-emotion in learning (just walk into any of my classes and you’ll see a plethora of emotional states – from frustration to joy and celebration) but I do not frame or develop my curriculum using emotional language as a starting point. Instead, I focus on what is important to me as an artist about my art form and the best ways to turn those ideas into active, hands-on making and learning experiences for my students.

Nearing the end of the institute I finally clarified for myself the critical conversations and experiences absent from the institute as a whole.  Specifically, there were no formal opportunities to discuss or experience:

- pedagogy in the arts
- finding honest connections between disciplines
- the process of arts integration in school-based settings
- what artists really do when they teach

This is probably my biggest disappointment. If you are going to offer an institute (high profile or not) focused on arts and learning I believe it is essential to actively engage participants in strong models of arts pedagogy, across multiple disciplines.  Coupled with that, you need to provide opportunities for participants to make meaningful connections between those concrete experiences and their own teaching practices. We had plenty of reflection time using the HGSE protocols but, unfortunately, I ended up reflecting on an opportunity missed.


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