Walking The Oregon High School Arts Beat

Oregon Public Broadcasting recently had an episode their show Arts Beat where they directly addressed the value of arts education in schools. There is also a “sidebar” video of three people talking about how they integrate creativity into their jobs and invite people to talk about what their lives would be like had they not had arts in school.

The science teacher in the main video, Michael Giesen, was the 2008 National Teacher of the Year and you can easily see why based on the way he gets his students acting, moving, drawing/model making and interacting in the process of learning about science. (In case you think music is left out, Giesen and his guitar figure prominently in the lessons.)

There seems to be a disconnect present though. Giesen is rewarded for his creativity up to the national level, but I suspect a teacher trying to initiate such a process from scratch might be told the activities they had the student engaged in were extraneous and consuming time best spent trying to master basic competencies for testing. (Though perhaps not in his school or district.) I am sure Giesen’s students do just fine on the testing because he creates so many powerful associations to the material through all the activities he employs. I just wonder how much latitude a teacher working toward that goal would be provided as they made missteps in the process of refining their approach.

It is the competency requirements that John Baker, the choir director in the second segment of the video feels erodes his program. At one time he had 90 people in his girls choir, now he has 14. He says his principal thinks it is because kids don’t want to sing, but he believes it is that there are so many requirements the students need to fulfill, they have little opportunity to take his class.

His students learn music theory, sight reading, sing in four languages and need to develop critical thinking skills. But all this aside, the video shows the students performing some very interesting looking and sounding pieces. I can’t think but that many students would be at least a little intrigued by the classes. The first reaction I had to the snippet at the beginning of the video was that I didn’t know they had choral pieces like that. There were a few more seconds like it later in the video.

Baker’s fear is that because his program is so strong and winning competitions, no one is paying close attention to how much it is diminishing. He fears that when he retires and people notice the inevitable differences between the new person and the institution of 3 decades, they will attribute the weakness of the program to the unsuitability of his replacement. In fact, Baker seems to believe his position will become part time before he retires.

The last part of the video deals with the lack of funding and time allocated to arts experience in schools. This is a common theme nationwide. What was most interesting about John Baker’s segment was that he didn’t attribute his problems to either of these things. He didn’t talk about his funding being cut or say that the administration was necessarily undermining him.

His problem seems mostly to be due to a shift in values. Either his principal is right and kids don’t want to sing or he is right and required focus of students’ education is moving them away from his program. It is rare to hear of a school arts program in distress due to a philosophical rather than financial shift in priorities. Perhaps it happens more frequently than I realize and it is just the budget cuts getting all the press.

No Ketchup Arts Outreaches!

I have been thinking about how my theatre can serve our constituencies. Since the assistant theatre manager has been involved in developing curriculum for studies of Filipino history in the state, I thought he might be dealing with the state fine arts content standards and could advise me a little bit about them. He isn’t really, but that is okay because the standards are pretty readily available.

My main thought was to help some of the schools we have relationships with by providing them with a list of the content standards our outreach performances might fulfill. I have seen arts organizations and artists provide this sort of information in study packets for events. I figure it will be easier for the busy teacher to say yes if we provide information to show how the artist can benefit them.

I looked at the state standards today and began to wonder how an assembly program could ever suffice to fulfill the standards. All the requirements involve a fair bit of action by the students. For example, one of the 6-8 grade general music benchmarks (non-orchestra or choral, which have their own standards) is “Improvise a short pattern or melody to be performed with a rhythmic and/or melodic accompaniment.” The sample performance assessment they offer is “The student: Completes the last phrase of a given melody or improvises a short melody to be performed with a selected rhythmic accompaniment.” The most general benchmark I found that might be applied to an assembly program would be to “Evaluate the effectiveness of a musical performance or composition.”

We mostly offer more one on one experiences to schools, master classes and small group programs, so there is an opportunity to provide information to a teacher in advance so he/she can instruct the students to pay attention to certain aspects in preparation for an assignment that will extend the concepts of the activity they will be involved in. It made me wonder if that was why we often had people turn down services we could provide for free in their classroom spaces. In schools where there are so many other testable standards to strive for, it can be difficult to find the time to prepare and implement an additional lesson for an outside activity. We aren’t just taking an hour out of the class. If the teacher wants to exploit the opportunity to meet a standard, the students need to be prepared in advance and then time needs to be taken later to produce some measurable result connected to the outreach experience. In some cases, if the student are up demonstrating what they have learned by the end of the outreach, then perhaps additional time to evaluate won’t be necessary.

Really, while there is a double-edged sword element to having a standard that requires so much work to meet, this is the way we want it. We don’t want a standard that is easily ticked off a list by sitting quietly in a dark room for an hour while something happens. We actually had this conversation today and referenced the fact that at one time ketchup was considered a vegetable when determining if a school lunch provided balanced nutrition. (Though I am afraid it still might be.) We don’t want an arts standard to be met with a ketchup experience!

Many artists have good study guides that provide suggested activities, explanations of technical words, instruments and equipment that will be used in the outreach. The problem is, many artists don’t reinforce what is in the study guide, nor are they often asked to touch on specific subjects that may be pertinent to the activities the teacher has planned. There are a few artists that are sending out study guides created for them by places like the Kennedy Center and Michigan’s University Musical Society. They are nicely put together, but the school performances the artists present often don’t connect back to them in a way that facilitates the student learning. In part it might be due to not having been involved in the study guide’s creation, which admittedly can be a tough thing to coordinate.

The study guides will tell you to “watch for…” but the artists often don’t follow up by referencing those elements in what they are about to play or just played. This is not to say we want artists to look at their study guides and deliver a rote performance that corresponds to the material therein. Looking at the standards, it made me realize that a little more communication can go a long way. Either passing on what the artist has decide to cover to the schools so they can prepare or asking the artists to touch upon topics that are related to what students are learning in school.

Many of the artists we work with seem to be open to that sort of thing and ask if there is anything we want covered. It occurs to me that we haven’t been doing a good job of asking the schools we are working with if there is anything it would be helpful to cover.

Farming The Arts

A couple weeks ago on the Americans for the Arts blog, Joshua Russell suggested a farm system for arts leadership similar to what professional sports teams use. I got to thinking about that concept in the context of arts organizations in general.

My first thought was that there is already a farm team feeder set up for so many segments of the performing arts, going something like: high school —>college/conservatory —> professional. Depending on the discipline, then you might get into different strata for theatre companies, symphonies, dance companies where performing with one is more prestigious than another.

Farm League Actors?
Then I started thinking about whether some sort of system like this might be possible in theatre since that is the area whose training and performance system I am most familiar. There are, in fact, a number of college/conservatory theatre training programs with very close associations to LORT theatres that provide actors, stage managers and technicians with practical experience (and the theatres with less expensive labor.) But there is a lot of room for expansion. Given a huge infusion of money and a shift in funding structures, could Broadway and the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) create a feeder system? Done right, it could shift the focus away from NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago as the ultimate career goal and strengthen theatre regionally. Of course, it would take about 25-30 years for attitudes to shift sufficiently away from the holy trinity as a career destination.

Toledo Tyrones, Guthrie Triple A Team
There is already a tacit acknowledgment of stature, but I imagine some people, as a matter of ego, and there is plenty of that in the arts, might not like to have their local theatre overtly regarded as substandard to the organizations they feed into. On the other hand, a lot of people find minor league baseball games and the parks that house them to be a lot more fun and family friendly than the majors. Presumably, there would be some sort of investment of funds and resources from up the chain to sustain the system of cultivation. That might improve quality on many fronts for the single A to triple A level theatres.

Setting Down Roots

I think it would also go a long way to solve some of the concerns Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin have about the careers theatre training programs are preparing students for if there were viable career opportunities that allowed people to maintain a long term regional residency. It might not stem the tide of too many people pursuing too few opportunities, but it might keep creative people closer to home where they could apply that skill in ways that would bolster the local economy.

The Wise Farmer Plans Long Term
Ultimately, short of an immense shift in thousands of elements, I don’t anticipate this happening any time soon. At least not on a national scale. I think a single regional theatre could make a commitment to sourcing locally. They could go to a couple of training programs and commit to employing their students with an eye to keeping them around for a long time. Every college program I have been associated with has a pretty good idea what high schools feed them. The colleges and the theatre could go to them and say they look forward to seeing their students on their stages and they hope the schools continue to maintain strong arts programs. The theatre could also go around to other theatres throughout the region looking for up and coming talent.

Then the theatre could employ their board connections directly and indirectly to create a program where artists could secure good rents and mortgages and get other incentives to stay locally. In turn some of those who are attracted/retained to the area can target the feeder schools as teachers and visiting artists to help cultivate that resource–and eventually expand to other schools.

By the way, this is partially how the whole regional theatre system was supposed to work. Instead, they turned to NYC to do most of their casting. This hypothetical theatre would be looking to lure people back or give them an incentive to never go. To some degree, it would actually be healthy for the theatre to have people go away to work with other actors and organizations and then return. While Broadway may always be the gold standard in many respects, it might be best to have people going away to work in places that served regional communities because those are the audiences the theatre wants its people to learn to serve.

Shifting The Conversation
But in terms of a national movement, I think there is a better chance of Walters and Loughlin succeeding in changing the way students are trained and the way their expectations are shaped than having most theatres change how they source their talent.

Sports and Theatre
In that context, my mind turned to a comparison of the athletics and farm system for professional sports. The systems aren’t completely analogous, but there are enough similarities to speculate a little. The problem area that Walters and Loughlin identify is the college/conservatory stage where people choose to major in theatre hoping to make a career of it.

For college sports, a lot of athletes are offered scholarships to play for the school. There is a fair amount of controversy about this because there is a lot of money invested in non-academic pursuits at educational institutions. Victories bring prestige and increased donations from alumni. There is also criticism made of the fact that these students generate a lot of money for the school, but often don’t get a good education out of the deal because of low expectations of them or even lack of time to excel in both sports and academics.

Practical Professional Expectations
But the thing is, despite all the investment into the athletic programs and the players, you pretty much know that not everyone is going to get to play professionally. There are far fewer professional teams than there are college programs that can feed them. There are 32 NFL teams and about 120 college football teams in Division I alone. There are only a select few who can successfully operate at the level required by professional sports.

You occasionally hear about athletes getting short shrift on their education or having irrational expectations of being recruited to play pro right out of high school. But how many people will complain if all of Alabama’s defensive tackles didn’t get drafted to the NFL even though the school finished first in the football standings last year?

Status Enumerated
Statistically, every defensive tackle that graduates each year may have a better chance of going pro than every acting student that graduates, but for all practical purposes, the chances are the same. So what is the difference? Why aren’t more athletes taking temporary jobs, biding their time until their opportunity comes?

Well, for one thing, I think its partially that numbers help define your place in sports. You know how fast you can run, how many times you have completed an action successfully and how many times you didn’t. Personality and passion also contribute to whether someone wants you for their team, but the statistics provide a baseline comparison between you and everyone else and you know what teams value. You may think you weren’t used to your greatest potential, but you probably have few illusions about an athletics career going forward.

What Are Ian McKellen’s Stats?
In the arts, things are much more subjective. Assessment is as much about how you have improved and demonstrated you have started to grasp concepts as it is about your overall talent. Just like there are only a few people who have the ability to hit a 90 mph fastball and solve complicated physics problems, there are only a very few with magnificent acting talent. Except that personality and good looks can be just as important at the end of the day as skill. Trying harder won’t get most of us any closer to hitting that fast ball, but with such subjectivity muddying the evaluative waters, it is easy to believe success is just a matter of patience and trying hard.

In an earlier time, I think those who instructed would have had an easier time trying to disabuse their students of this notion. Now that we can watch people try out for American Idol at the mall and make it to the final rounds based heavily on charisma inspired voting, I think it is harder to convince people that the odds are greatly against them period, much less based on lack of ability.

I Didn’t Go To Class Because I Was Practicing Being A Lizard*
One of the great similarities between theatre students and athletes in Division I colleges is that grades often suffer as a result of their pursuits. (Though there is far more pressure on instructors to grade athletes more leniently.) Because of their great emotional investment in theatre, those students often neglect to complete assignments or even attend classes in favor of theatre related activities.

A number of theatre departments threaten dire consequences for students who let this happen by commission or omission. But as I have mentioned before, I think Tom Loughlin’s idea that students need to be trained to employ their abilities more widely becomes more apt. If students are going to cut class and neglect studies to do arts related stuff, you might as well have them channeling their passion toward doing something that will develop skills with wide applications.

*I didn’t skip class, but I did spend a lot of time practicing being a lizard for my scene work in Edward Albee’s Seascape

Stuff You Can Use: Free Classes!

Okay, very short entry today so that no one thinks tl;dnr from just a glance.

Fractured Atlas, which is doing a pretty great job gluing the artistic world together, is offering FREE online classes which you can start, pause and continue at your leisure.

From their blog announcement making the courses free (my emphasis so nothing is overlooked.)

Currently, there are six courses (on marketing, fundraising, professional identity, social media marketing, working with agents, and getting your sh*t together) and two video workshops (on independent contractors vs. employees, and wellness programs for dancers). We will be launching four to six more courses during April and May (on audio description for performances, presentation venues, board development, fundraising letters, financial planning, and producing) and more video workshops are in the works.

You have to sign up to be a member, but the Community Membership is free and that is all you need to access the classes. You may, however, be interested in the insurance and other benefits they offer with a paid membership so it can be beneficial to look around a little.

I just signed up myself after years of reading their blog. While I am pretty sure I have my sh*t together, you just can’t pass up the opportunity to check that out. (And I strongly suspect there may be people I am going to encourage to take the class.)