Cycle 2: Losing the Big Picture

This week I spent two days working on the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project known as MAEIA. I co-represent the discipline of dance in the creation of three products: a blueprint of what the “gold standard” dance program would look like for Michigan, the assessment development, and the audit tool districts will be able to use to self-assess. I am honored to be part of the project and excited to offer my two cents. It isn’t going to be simple, but I dare say it will be rewarding.

That said, between this endeavor and the readings for my MSU course, my mind has been churning ideas about curriculum in multiple yet related contexts. Namely, as the title of Cycle 2 suggests: What should schools teach? How should they be held accountable?

The Buy-In
Understandably, many of the discussions around curriculum come back to student involvement and prolonged engagement. As “theme” schools are introduced, reinvented, and redirected the intention appears always to be the same- get kids hooked on learning and they’ll become life-long learners.

In my own career, I have taught at such “theme” institutions, first as a dance specialist in a visual and performing arts magnet high school, and then a 4 year private liberal arts college. Each had philosophies that I deeply believe(d) in yet I was overcome with the obstacles that also stood in the way.

For the magnet school, it was adult buy-in. The kids were ready, able, and mostly fired up to have an identity beyond that of a typical high school experience. When I was hired, the magnet philosophy was hot and the publicity surrounding the school’s new persona was striking. As an arts team- consisting of faculty and students- we felt special. We worked hard. We all succeeded. The community took notice and supported us.

The magnet focus seemed to do the job of drawing students into the school district rather than out, yet once there, the greater goal in our building of using the arts to engage students in other subject areas was spotty at best. Frankly, there were only a handful of non-arts instructors willing to shift their lesson plans to accommodate what felt to many teachers as the latest fad. The notion had been that the math classes could relate to the arts through such things as budgets, the English classes with such things as press releases and critiques, science classes could consider arts based injuries or the concepts relating to light and sound…. It was a great notion but one hard to sell and even harder to maintain.

Due to varying circumstances and personal goals, I left the high school to direct the dance minor program at a liberal arts college but returned to the VAPA magnet school a few years later.

Much had changed- administration, district and building commitment to the magnet philosophy, and morale. While still “magnet” in name, the thrill was gone and I felt it through-out the whole day. The school had returned to functioning nearly as any other high school, with the exception of having dance and technical theatre courses. Students enjoyed performances but commitment to even those dropped drastically. Students needed to be convinced to participate in class in ways that had been ironed out previously….it was no longer a privilege to be there. There were families that didn’t even realize the school had an arts focus.

In three years, the momentum had halted and as far as I could see the only substantial change (after all, kids are kids) were the attitudes of the adults in charge and their lack of interest in rallying the forces.
I whole-heartedly embrace the idea that one’s “gotta get a gimmick”. As a professional dancer it was essential that I separate myself from the rest at every audition. Schools need to do the same. Yet, the movement can’t move if people refuse to budge and refuse to join in. Leaders can only lead if people are willing to follow. Imagine how the kids could lead if they knew the educational guides were willing to accompany, sometimes even to follow.
The Test
I firmly believe that traditional assessment- the boring old bubble sheets and nods to rote learning- slowed the momentum garnered in my first time around at the VAPA high school and darn near stopped it before my return.

Now, as my MAEIA colleague and I plan our description of the “gold standard” dance programming, we anticipate the needs of our field and our students. I begin to think that the test does not determine the success but in fact the success should help determine the test.

If we focus on project based learning, with performance/presentation components, not only does the effort improve on behalf of the performer, but the interest improves on behalf of the audience. Rather than looking at performance standards as opportunities to fail and therefore judge, we remember to support and uplift, to be constructive as we are critical, and to engage as we communicate. The greater community responds.

The performing arts, as described in multiple sources, are the pinnacle of high stakes testing and in the most public of ways. In recent years, I have had many conversations with colleagues concerned that test scores might be printed in the local paper and how that would impact teacher evaluation and reputation. I simply said that I understood- it is how I feel before every student concert.

But the value of performance/project based learning is the depth and the process. The making and the learning involved in connecting ideas between subjects, disciplines, methods and people stand the test of time and the test of versatility. Learning, at once, becomes practical as well as abstract. Multiple processes are engaged and the learning is embodied. It might not be the type of education best measured in bubble sheets but it will endure. Ultimately, shouldn’t that be the test?
The Outcome
I conclude this post echoing my thoughts at the end of Cycle 1. Our biggest assessment, and most important, is determining that our youth are prepared for an ever-evolving work force, ever-developing technology, and ever-shifting determination of success.
What we are teaching needs to be relevant, reasoned, and real. Our assessment practices need to be the same.

We will need to move away from some of the traditions of American education not because the traditions are not valuable but because they may not be best suited for American life as we know it now or in the future. And who, then, knows what the future will be like? Well, those that will craft it…the kids.

I don’t propose that we let the children rule the school. We can, however, let them in on how and why to learn. We can also admit that fun is fun and learning that is fun is enduring.

With all of the invention they will be bring, the best preparation and therefore education that we can offer, is to let them create.