Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Authentic Audiences for Visual Arts

One of the most unfair struggles I see in education is the struggle that visual arts teachers have to show relevance of their curriculum. Not that they should have a struggle, mind you; both creativity and visual literacy are essential skills for today's learner, and its hard to find a subject area that better directs both. But as the art teachers I've known in past districts will attest, visual art is marginalized for not being "core content", seen as a luxury, and one of the easiest targets for program cuts in poor budgets.

Unfortunately, I don't see the Iowa Core helping this in any way. Progressive schools should see that "viewing" is now one of the 5 literacies, and that the visual arts classroom is the perfect place to delve deep into that content. Moreover, visual arts teachers should be schoolwide leaders at how to infuse creativity across the curriculum, and how to ensure that the school graduates creative students.

Visual arts, I feel has it even harder than even drama, vocal music, or band music. Those three, while still facing the "why do students need that?" criticism, have the advantage of concerts and plays. Productions not only make fierce advocates from arts supporters, but also a general positive feeling from an otherwise disinterested community member. At Grinnell, we had many in the community who would oppose any cuts whatsoever to music and drama because they enjoyed tremendously the musical and the spring concerts.

It's this notion of an authentic audience that is tremendously essential for the arts, and visual arts teachers have learned this as well. Schools are getting better (and more prominent) display cases. Teachers are using websites such as Flickr or Artsonia to give their students a bigger audience. They are connecting with local artists, community colleges, the chamber of commerce, any community group they can to try to get their students' work displayed.

And note to principals, your art teachers are good at this. Real good. An example of an art teacher I knew, who was working with her students on graphical design. The class was creating visual brochures, using both Photoshop as well as (at the time) Microsoft Word (they have since upgraded to InDesign). And, she was talented at getting the students to learn the finer details of graphical design.

Then came the hubbub of the Rigor/Relevance quadrant, and not just the "higher-order thinking" axis, but also the relevance axis, which moves from knowledge of just "art for art sake" to "how art applies in math and science" to "how can I use my art skills to handle this task I've never seen before".
The teacher was inspired; this gave her a new look on her assignment. She visited with the local chamber of commerce, who connected her with several small businesses in town that had advertising "divisions" (or a person who spent some time out of their day on this). Then, she contacted those businesses, who in return, provided a one-page summary of a brochure that they would like to see... no images or specifics like "needs to have a blue banner", but rather interpretive, like "needs to show we're part of the community", or "that we're trustworthy".

The students then selected which tasks they would work on, and the teacher worked with the student to do their best, incorporating the elements of art they had discussed prior, and helping them think meta-cognitively about how they would complete this task.

What was best, of course, was that the businesses came in and gave the students feedback on what they liked about their work. These were authentic audiences that students were working with. They took much more care and pride in their work. And when one business was so impressed that they paid the student $500 to use that brochure with the logo the student developed, you can imagine the students' attitude towards their own art skills. They were very earnest in wanting to develop them, immediately.

That's not to say that all visual arts teachers are embracing authentic audiences in this way, but it has my experience that that group of teachers as a whole is ahead of the curve. Maybe because they have to, or maybe because of professional push. But the lesson is that this type of gathering authentic audiences for students doesn't have to stop at the arts classroom door. It can go to the math classroom as well. And principals would be wise to tap into the expertise of arts teachers in this regard.

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