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.

2 thoughts on “Cycle 2: Losing the Big Picture

  1. Heather,

    I think it is amazing that you get to be a part of the MAEIA project. It sounds like a great opportunity to be a part of the very thing that we are learning about and discussing in this class. Especially the assessment piece. I agree that the form of testing that has been chosen for our students is not the best. Its impact on the way that we are told to teach decreases the ability to let kids today be creative, as well as decreasing their engagement in learning and school. I am hoping that these ideas change soon.
    It was interesting for me to read about the schools that allow students to learn the main subjects of school in different ways. Such as the Quest to Learn school and from the sounds of it, the magnet school you worked at the first time around. I think it is great that there are people who are encouraging students to learn in ways that interest them. It is a different take to teach reading, writing, and math through video games or performing arts, but I bet it works for students who learn best while being creative in those ways. I talked about in my blog post this week that the key to engaging our students and encouraging them to learn is finding their learning style and relating it to their interests. I teach elementary school. It is harder for my students to have these things figured out, but I try to teach them in many different ways. This way I am working to reach each of my students as an individual. This idea for teaching can only be successful if it is supported. You talked about returning to the magnet school and the ideals for curriculum being changed. I agree that the community and administrations worries about testing most likely were to blame for this change. I used to work for a school district in Texas that focused so much on state testing that they encouraged teachers to spend all of their time teaching to the test. They would even go as far as asking teachers to stop teaching science and social studies to give more time to teaching reading, math, and writing as the tests got closer. Students in these classrooms would sit at their desks taking practice tests all day long. They would spend their time hiding behind privacy folders. I was lucky because my principal was not one that encouraged our teaching to be this way, but for many that was not the case. In order for curriculum to be able to allow for differentiation and creativity, the assessments need to allow for the same. Otherwise teachers will continue to be pushed to teach students behind privacy folders while using only paper and pencils. Thank you for sharing your ideas.


  2. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for your work here!

    It’s so cool that you are working on MAEIA. Can you give me any more background on this? Why did the state not decide to test these subjects in more traditional ways? Thank goodness they didn’t, but what are the conversations and processes that led us to the current moment as the state seeks to provide accountability standards for the arts?

    Two things really stuck with me in your post this time.

    First, the notion that when teachers talk about the worry they feel when they realize their student test scores could be published, you talk about the worry performing arts teacher feel before a performance. Great connection to the Siskin article, and a great validation of your own experiences.

    Simply put, am I crazy for thinking that these performance standards that are connected to publics (their needs and enjoyments) are the gold standard for all schools–for all intellectual work? I used to take kids to do competitive mock trial, as a social studies teacher. I certainly felt the nerves, and the sense that their performance was a reflection on my teaching. When I took them to the state capitol and they interacted with legislators and docents, it was definitely a reflection on me.

    I always hung up student posters and the other types of work they did–good or bad. That notion of “going public,” and finding an audience for your work (as we do, to some small degree, in this class), seem like a new way for teachers to think about what type of work they can and should be doing in their classrooms.

    Second, shtick. We all need one. The second point relates to the first, of course. We find our shtick as we discover not only our own greatest loves and talents, but the world’s greatest needs. We can excel by doing the same thing as everyone else, and doing it better; or we can excel by identifying new ways to meet social needs. I think schools like Quest to Learn are right to have their shtick. Of course, they still need to find, it seems, their own form of accountability.

    Thanks again for your work!


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