Sam’s fiddle, from circa 1920

This old fiddle belonged to my father-in-law, Sam. He got it in about 1920, when he was a student in Boyle Heights. Sammy was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. His family initially struggled with poverty, but he and his siblings had regular music instruction in school and he learned to play the violin. EVERY child in Los Angeles had that opportunity back then! Up until the early 80s, every school in Los Angeles had full-time music and arts teachers. When I began teaching in East Los Angeles 1969, my students had a music class and a visual arts class every week and orchestral music was offered in the upper grades. Up until the early 80s, that was just the way it was done—not just in Los Angeles, but all across the state.

Today schools with hundreds of students are guaranteed only one day of vocal or (“or” not “and”) instrumental music per week, offering lessons to a fraction of the classrooms, and there are instrumental programs in fewer than one third of the elementary schools. Even that pittance was not revived until the early 90s. The Elementary Arts Program, which I am proud to have helped design 20 years ago, offers weekly visual arts, dance, and drama lessons in 9 week rotations to an even smaller fraction. Dozens of excellent community arts programs offered by the Music Center, the LA Opera, local art museums, and dance companies are available, but limited in time and scope and must be included in a school’s ever-stretched budget. Arts classes in secondary schools are electives. Despite all of our efforts, it is still perfectly possible for a child to go through thirteen years of public education in Los Angeles and never receive a single arts class!

And yet everything we have learned from brain research tells us that the arts are crucial to cognition. The arts teach us how to learn. True educators have know this for hundreds of years. To quote Plato again, “The patterns in music and the arts are the keys to learning.”

How did we forget this? What happened?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, where I try to answer that that question. It begins with my interview in 1968 for my first teaching job, in an impoverished school in Romoland, in the high desert near Riverside, where my husband was a student:

* * *

“To start with, the evening I drove out there to be interviewed by their board of education, a group of three farmers and the principal, I can recall only one question. They wanted to know if I could play the piano. They wanted their sons and daughters to sing! It was what they were used to from their own formative years, when every classroom had a piano and every teacher had to know how to play it. I told them I could not play piano, but I could play guitar, and that satisfied them. I sang with the children every day after lunch, before story time. That was the only peaceful half hour of the day.

“But once a week, two angels would arrive from the county office: a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. That was happy Tuesday. It was standard practice back then. All over Riverside County, and all over California, every child received a music lesson and a visual arts lesson every week. The teachers were fantastic. I learned all about Orff technique in the music classes—the pentatonic scale—and I learned arts strategies and activities that I used for the rest of my career.

“That was long before I dared to use drama activities in my teaching, but we did make an eight-millimeter movie one day with the help of my husband and an actor friend, and I do remember that being the most enjoyable day I ever had with them.

“I was offered a contract there for the following year, but my husband had finished at UCR and we moved to Los Angeles. There I was able to enroll in an intern program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and get a second chance at teaching, this time with some training and support. And there, too, in 1969, every elementary school in the district had full-time music and visual arts teachers, and every classroom got a lesson in each, once a week. In addition, in order to get my credential I was required by state code to take a class in elementary music instruction and one additional class in the arts, with the choices being visual arts, theatre, or dance.

“I taught for many more years, first in elementary and then in secondary, in private schools and public, and will share some of my accumulated insights in later chapters, but I’m glad I started long enough ago to have those memories. 1968 was before A Nation at Risk, before Proposition 13, and before No Child Left Behind and the romance with “accountability,” which was pretty much the nail in the coffin of arts education for every child in California.”

* * *

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was the report published in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history, but it was tragically misguided in its conclusions. A Nation at Risk was the beginning of our obsession with data and with raising test scores in a narrowly focused interpretation of literacy and numeracy. Authentic literacy (story telling, story listening, story reading, story writing) and numeracy (measurement, time, space, value) are embedded in every aspect of the art-making process. How did we miss that?

Well, we did. And from A Nation at Risk on, starting with Proposition 13, every time there has been a budget squeeze (which has somehow managed to be just about every year) the arts have been squeezed first. Time to change that, folks. Wake up.

 

 

 

 

Bravo New Jersey!!! They’ve accomplished something which, to our shame, we can only dream of in California: a return to arts education in EVERY SCHOOL IN THE STATE!

Several years ago my colleagues and I in the LAUSD Arts Branch were involved in a national effort to develop an evaluation (e.g. “test”) to provide hard data to support our arts education efforts. The national conversation at the time was obsessed with data, data, data, and every growth effort was put on hold until we had it. It was the time of “Data-Based Decision Making,” which, roughly translated, means, “No Data=No Decisions.” The mantra was, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it” (which in many states has turned out to be catastrophically true), so we naively dived in and did our best to come up with something authentic. At the time, we were working with a partner in the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Last June I wrote a post about our efforts in which I explained the irony of standardized testing in the context of arts education and described all of our obstacles. Basically: all we could come up with was an elegant and sophisticated single-answer vocabulary test. True evaluation in arts education involves embedded rubrics that serve the creative process but cannot provide hard “data” without astronomical expense.

I’m so sorry that, in my calcified old brain, that I cannot call up the name of the gentleman we partnered with in New Jersey!!  Since then he and/or his colleagues, have been busy. Apparently they didn’t wait for the elusive data. They understood the role of the arts in social and emotional health and in cognition—learning skills! They went ahead with their determination to get the arts back into the role they have held historically, at the core of eduction. (Now, finally, I suspect we will watch their test scores rise!)

If you go to their website https://artsednow.org, you will see many of the same standards-based elements and tools that we developed, but there’s something else. They did what I knew we had to do but never could. They got imperatives from the top: from the state level. They held school leadership at the district level and at the site level to account. Every superintendent and every principal in New Jersey must account for her/his stewardship of the arts offerings in their schools.

That’s the way to get it done!

 

So far there are only a few of you that I know of who have delved into our largely unexplored history. Ultimately that history is what this site is all about. I love that people are reading my posts and I love the comments and the feedback. It feels like a community is building. But I’m greedy and I want more. I want others to join me in the research! Those of us who are advocates for more quality instruction in the arts for every student, every day, at every age NEED this history. Advocacy can take us only so far. We need to step back and take the long look, back to the ancients, when education began with the arts.

Just to clarify: theatre incorporates all of the arts. When Shakespeare was in school, during the heyday of the humanist education designed by Erasmus, theatre was not considered an arts discipline distinct from its components: artful language, dramatic acting, dance, music, and visual spectacle. Theatre then was like film is today. It embraced all of the arts. Just look at today’s categories for the Oscars: best score, best song, best costumes, best special effects, best script, and dance numbers highlighting everything. Only a small minority of the awards are for acting or directing. Theatre, historically was the same. When we are looking at the history of theatre education, we are looking at the history of all of arts education.

This is still a new site with a small but growing number of followers, and so far it hasn’t gained much traction in its main purpose, but I am ever hopeful. The field so far is barren, especially for dance and theatre. Music in education has

Drama Class

ancient roots, all the way back to the Quadrivium, where it shared equal status with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. As for visual arts: there are entire Arts History Departments in every university that document the history of conservatory training. Dance was usually taught in partnership with music. But nothing like that exists for the long history of theatre in education. Unless I am mistaken (and I’ve searched and searched) this rich story remains largely undocumented.

My upcoming book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, is a small step taken to help fill the void. It looks at one moment at the turn of the 17th century where there is substantial evidence of a lively presence in schools of music and dance, physical rhetoric or “actio” applied to memorization of the classics, boys’ theatre companies at court, school performances to entertain villagers, and the use of dramatic colloquies in the teaching of conversational Latin. It is obviously a part of a profound tradition, but perhaps because it was always taken for granted and not part of the formal curriculum, historians haven’t woven together the threads.

Right now I’m focusing my own exploration on the 20th century and will be posting soon about arts education in Settlement Houses and the Federal Theatre Project. Some other areas I’m hoping to pursue myself or welcome others to explore:

The Greeks: Epicurus (the Garden), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes

The Romans: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian

The Humanists: Dante, Vittorino da Fletre (La Giocosa – “The Pleasure House”), Guarino da Verona, Aeneas Sylvius, Sturmius, Bembo, Erasmus, Guido Camillo (Theatre/Memory), Ascham, Vives, Mulcaster, Elyot, Montaigne, Comenius

19th Century: Sloyd, the Kindergarten (“child garden”) Movement, Horace Mann

20th Century: John Dewey  (note guest post by Dain Olsen), Settlement Houses, Federal Theatre Project

If you have any information about any of the above or have other topics to explore, pitch in! This is the place!

A great article about how important the arts are for the development of cognition. Richard Mulcaster said it 500 years ago. Plato said it more than 2000 years ago. Here it is again.

‘Arts teaching could become more important than maths in tech-based future’ – education expert, Andreas Schleicher

Go To Article.

Yesterday a former colleague of mine, Dain Olsen, came by to help me get this site going, and we had a fascinating conversation about the diminished role of aesthetics in the conceptual underpinnings of western culture.  Dain is a media arts teacher and has agreed to write something for this site.  His thinking is dense and complex, but essentially, if I understand it, his argument is that ever since Plato, aesthetics – the processing of experience and knowledge through the senses rather than through pure reason – has been undervalued.  John Dewey addresses this in his writings, and Dain also recommended a book called The Meaning of the Body, by  Mark Thompson.  Re-visioning the role of aesthetics would require a radical re-thinking of our educational systems and would greatly increase the role of arts engagement.  Dain sees media arts as a potential catalyst for this needed transformation.

One connection I made as he explained this was a passage that Barbara Kingsolver wrote as an addendum to her novel The Lacuna.  She points out that in Mexican culture (and in many world cultures) the arts play a much more significant role, even in politics.

Dain is hoping to write a book but struggling to carve out the time in his life.  My hope is that this site will eventually be a place where people can post their exploratory thinking for feedback from others in the field.  We need to keep each other inspired.