This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. Each teacher participant signed up for a studio-intensive workshop from a choice of five artistic media; we met in our studio groups for 90 minutes of direct and guided instruction each day. We could return to the studio for independent work at other times during the day/evening. We signed up for single-session classes in a medium we might not have tried before, or in something that piqued our interest, but that we would not normally spend a full week studying. All sessions were taught by professional, working artists from the state of Idaho who, in addition to their professional practice, work in collaboration with the Idaho Commission on the Arts as artist-educators. We also attend whole-group sessions dedicated to the practical side of integrating the arts, artistic process, and artistic expression into our existing literacy curriculum. All this work is centered on a single theme each year.
This year, the theme focused on Home, and the process of going home. I participated in the theatre studio intensive, and we generated and performed our own content. I’ll come back to this in a moment because it is important, but in this self-generation process (which we can take into our classrooms and use with our students), our instructor explored a full range of images and emotions with us. We used our five senses and talked a lot about kinesthetic response. We tuned into our own bodies and watched the physical responses of our peers. When there was a collective gasp, or a moment of stunned silence, we held that. At one point, one teacher (who had never considered herself a writer or an actor) had the whole room in tears. We honored that.
Side trip: Two weeks after APS, I drove home to visit my family for two weeks. It was an important trip. For one, since I moved out in 2003, I always go home over the 4th of July because my grandparents’ anniversary was the 5th. Grandpa died last April, and since I’d been home for the funeral and was in a play at the end of the summer, I missed my July trip home. For two, this would be my first time doing the road trip alone, without any driving companions.
My second day of driving shuttled me home. My second day of driving was 13 hours between Missoula, MT, to my parents’ farm in rural North Dakota. Confession: I have not always got along well with my mom. And she did not always get along well with her mom. And we make each other a little frazzled, frustrated, and other emotions that sometimes invoke a “throwing things” response. But “home” is still overwhelmingly positive, in the grand scheme of things. The closer I got to home, the stronger the pull felt. As I got close to the driveway, I cued up “Home” by Ingrid Michaelson and let all the driving tension from the previous 13 hours out. I pulled up in front of the house at midnight, the porch light on, and I wept. I was so glad to be home. (And for the record, mom and I got along swimmingly while I was there!)
Back to APS: in every one-off session I attended–creative writing, storytelling–and in the whole-group, arts-in-literacy sessions, the tone was overwhelmingly positive. No where, except in my theatre studio, were we given the opportunity or the space to dig into the negative aspects of home. In one workshop, we were explicitly instructed to stick with positive images or memories of our childhood homes. One teacher sitting across from me sighed: I don’t want to go back there. They keep sending me back there. Not only were we not permitted to choose our preferred incarnation of home, but we were limited to a narrow range of emotional language. No where were we equipped with tools or strategies for working with a student whose artistic process dredged up unhappy, unsafe, or unpretty images.
How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students?
Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.
If reading is about making meaning, we spend far too much time teaching children that the text is king. All this focus on “close reading” in the Common Core concerns me. The text is important, yes. The author’s intent is also a text. What isn’t written is a text! The illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are contribute to the text as much as the words themselves. But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.
Not everyone at APS cries when they pull into the driveway of their childhood home. Not all my students are excited to go home on Thursdays to spend the weekend with their families. If I censor those emotions, I sever an important piece of my students’ life experiences. I lose an important opportunity for human connection and critical instruction.
For a theme so central to our identities, we barely scratched the surface. We need to go deeper.
All of us need to go deeper. Language. Reading. Art. Our students deserve more.