Artists take creativity to school

TO anyone familiar with public schools today, some of these anecdotes may seem like classroom miracles: Spontaneous applause from a sixth-grade class when a poet arrives for his weekly writing workshop.

Fourth-graders who choose art work over recess in order to make drawings and cutouts for their animation project. Some 5,400 drawings or manipulations, and 16,000 frames of film were taken, shot by shot, to make a 15-minute animated film.

Black and white students in a racially troubled suburban high school overcoming their personal conflicts to produce a 70-foot wall mural.

Such success stories are offered again and again by artists, educators, and arts administrators to describe the Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program in their public schools. The AIR concept involves bringing working artists into classrooms for an extended period to communicate both the craft and the passion behind their art. In the two decades of its existence, the program has grown from a small, radical experiment to a standard feature of arts programming in all 50 states.

The AIR model began with the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York City, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The collaborative crystalized the concept of a three-way learning partnership between artists, teachers, and students designed to explore the creative process and discover a personal connection to an art form. Begun as the Poets-in-the-Schools program, the focus has since broadened to include a wide range of artistic disciplines. The model was quickly emulated by state arts councils across the country and has been consistently supported by federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). But because of a recent philosophical shift at the NEA, there has been speculation about the future of the AIR program in public education.

Nancy Larson Shapiro, the current director of Teachers & Writers, calls her writers ``individuals who are joyfully literate'' and says they couldn't help but become positive role models for the students. ``The artists who work in the field now have developed a wide range of techniques to help explore the sense of experiment and personal discovery behind the creative act.''

``There is very little room within the school day - or in our daily lives as adults, in fact - where the nature of feeling is examined,'' says Richard Lewis, author and director of the Touchstone Foundation in New York and a writer working in the schools.

``The artist personalizes the shaping and articulation of feeling. But here, the child is a responder, not just a receiver,'' Mr. Lewis says. ``This is vital if education is to be valid.''

The artists also combine a seriousness toward the creative experiment with a sense of playful exuberance. Poet Judy Steinberg, a 17-year veteran of the AIR program, believes ``playfulness engenders a real love of language'' and is a catalyst in producing the risk-taking involved in ``writing from your soul. Every other aspect of learning is logical and sequential,'' she goes on to explain. ``For most students, the arts provide the rare opportunity for surprising leaps of the imagination, for being open to all things at once.''

More than one teacher has voiced a special satisfaction that the students most excited by the artists' visits weren't always the ``best and the brightest who easily excel.''

Sidney Brien of the Cultural Education Collaborative has managed the Massachusetts AIR program for nearly a decade. For him, the artist's work is ``an open-ended research on the world'' that can provide ``the special energy to motivate students and faculty to broaden their vision and demand more of themselves.''

Almost from the outset, the NEA has adopted the residency format as the focus of its educational program. But now, according to chairman Frank Hodsoll, the NEA is shifting its emphasis from artists to the art curriculum in the schools. His feeling is that, too often, the short-term presence of artists has been used ``as a replacement for art specialists or any sort of art curriculum whatsoever.'' Under a new special projects grant, he is hoping to stimulate a collaboration between the state arts and education agencies that will produce a unified kindergarten through 12th-grade arts program that is a ``basic'' in the school curriculum on par with math or science.

``I'd like to see that, at the end of high school, every student has a basic sense of the vocabulary of the arts in the same way he hopefully has a basic sense of the English language,'' says Mr. Hodsoll.

While Hodsoll's goals have been praised, a debate is currently under way among educators and arts administrators about the best methods for achieving them. Artists like Richard Lewis fear that ``in housecleaning art to such a degree to make it fit a fixed curriculum, you necessarily rule out some of the intensity, the risk taking, and the sense of joyful exploration that is central to the art experience.'' Others worry that classroom teachers with minimum training will be responsible for teaching this new arts program, as a prominent discipline-based model has proposed.

The one concern unanimously expressed is that the arts no longer be treated as an educational frill but as a set of skills and understandings vital to the well-rounded development of an individual. In the end, this debate may also determine the nature of future partnerships between educational and cultural institutions and artists in their communities.

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