Pleased to announce!

Now that the pandemic is subsiding and schools are reopening, I’m moving forward with the publication of my book. The working title now is Learning the Way Shakespeare Learned: Classroom Dramatics, Physical Rhetoric, and a Generation of Genius. I’m working with Susan Shankin, the publisher of Precocity Press, and the book will be illustrated by my brother. We hope to have it out by the fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to feature some of the truly amazing drama teachers I’ve worked with over the course of my career. I have a deep and abiding love for them all. They teach so much more than drama. Just as drama is an art form that incorporates all other art forms, teachers of drama incorporate everything that every student brings to the class.

To get us going, here is “Jenny, Drama Teacher” from Zadie Smith’s Intimations. The book is her profound and insightful reflection on the pandemic, definitely worth the read in its entirety, but what I want to share here is from her appendix: “Debts and Lessons.” There she credits 26 individuals with escorting her on her voyage into wisdom, with a brief and lovely homage to each one.

(I’ve loved reading Zadie Smith ever since my mom handed me a copy of White Teeth some twenty-five years ago and I read a book that exploded in my mind. I couldn’t fathom that an author so young could produce such an epic! Presumably her experience with Jenny was a spark for her genius.)

13. Jenny, Drama Teacher

A task is in front of you. It is not as glorious as you had imagined or hoped. (In this case, it is not the West End, it is not Broadway, it is a small black box stapled to an ugly comprehensive school.) But it is a task in front of you. Delight in it. The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves. Large, sensible projects require far less belief. People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders that are placed around the important world. They might see teenagers as people. They will make themselves absurd to the important world. Mistakes will be made. Appropriate measures will be pursued. The border between the important and the unimportant will be painfully reestablished. But the magic to be found in the black box will never be forgotten by any who entered it.

 

 

“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills”

I need to gush a bit about this book! It is wise and witty, and it says much of what I say in my book, but from a completely different angle. My book is from the point of view of a practitioner who has spent many years teaching children and adolescents, so it’s very hands-on, with an emphasis on the formative role of drama, dance, and music in the Elizabethan classroom. Newstok looks at thinking from a much more theoretical and academic perspective, and he does it with delightful charm, humor, and insight. I’ve already read it three times, partly because it is dense with information, but mostly because it is fun. And of course it helps that his opinions, like mine, forcefully counter the prevailing gobblety-gook of current educational theory.

Actually, this may be the first of two or three posts because Newstok covers a lot of territory in fourteen brief chapters focusing on fourteen areas of cognition. This post will look at the first three: “Of Thinking,” “Of Ends,” and “Of Craft.”

What, he asks, are the ends of education? In Shakespeare’s day it was the training of capable and critical citizens  able to function “for the benefit of the commonwealth.” Today it seems to  be test scores. He tells a poignant story about his seven-year-old daughter who, upon being asked if she had learned any new words at school responded, coldly, in a whisper, “Assessment!” He goes on to say, “The reflexive call for educational ‘targets’ in current jargon makes me feel as if we adults have become like William Tell, cruelly aiming arrows at our own children. Our means (passing the test) have overtaken our ends (human flourishing).”  That is to say that if you take the long view of current trends in education, we are, in fact, participating in child abuse.

Here is Newstok on thinking:

“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

“Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline. I stand with the contrarian view that to be a political progressive, one needs to be an educational conservative. Preserving the seeds of time enriches the present—call this heirloom education.”

And more:

“I’m not against testing as a way for teachers to gauge progress within the domain of their own classrooms. But our fixation on tests as target, as the end of education itself—that shoots an arrow right through the heart of thinking, for when the measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

And a final quote, there’s that nasty fact about the cost of testing real, substantive, intrinsic, and individualized achievement:  “Rather than measure what matters, assessment measures what’s easy to measure.”

The chapter “Of Craft” I would compare to the current theory of practice devoted to developing “habits of mind.” One develops craft through practice. There are practices, or habits, that value critical thinking, creativity, exploration, reflection, and collaboration. I want to highlight one example, for what should be obvious reasons. Newstok highlights “the scope of collective practices that suffused skilled labor in Shakespeare’s world, where craft was not merely a mechanical process, but also communal, intellectual, physical, emotional. Craft required discipline, enforced by people as well as the object itself. Its practitioners habituated themselves to ever-evolving patterns. While playmaking was never formalized as a recognized London guild, key features of the theater aligned with craft’s dynamic thinking practices.”

My take on much of the above, from my book: “Maybe I’m a bit like Erasmus. I like old ideas.” We have so much we can learn from Elizabethan pedagogy. Strip away the fact that it was only for propertied boys, that it could not be accessed without fluency in Latin, and that it was  excessively punitive (I would argue that one, but not here), and there is a wealth of knowledge about how to train better makers and thinkers.

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read a translation of “Abattis et eruditae,” a colloquy written to teach Elizabethan schoolboys conversational Latin

It was in my favorite biography of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate’s “Soul of the Age,” that I first read about the use of colloquies to teach Latin conversation in Elizabethan schools. He mentioned that those by Desiderius Erasmus were especially popular, and he noted that they were funny.

I looked on the Internet and found a couple of old translations. I ordered them both, and eventually they arrived—dusty old books, falling apart with age. I read them, and wow! They were hilarious! To me they were clearly the source of so many of Shakespeare’s clowns, gossips, bar flies, corrupt clerics, comical town folk, and, especially, his sassy women! These were the colloquials who were my favorite characters in the plays I saw growing up. Had nobody else ever noticed that they came from Erasmus!?

Colloquies were short, scripted conversations, like little plays, to be performed by school children to practice conversational Latin. You can see one here read by my brother and Susan Angelo for a workshop I did last year at the home of the Susan Cambigue Tracy, teacher trainer from the Music Center’s education division.  Shakespeare would have performed”Abattis et eruditae,” or “The Abbot and the Learned Woman,” and many others in school when he was about ten or eleven years old.

Colloquies go back hundreds of years, to a time when the lack of printed books meant that education was mostly oral. They were still very much in use in Shakespeare’s day, and there were several collections commonly used in schools. Most of them were a bit moralizing and preachy. They were supposed to be educational, after all. But the “Colloquia familiaria” by Erasmus were something else all together! They were hilarious! Erasmus was a great believer that there should be delight and laughter in education, and he made sure that he provided it in exercises he designed to teach fluency.

My dad produced the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in the fifties, at the Antioch Shakespeare Festival in Ohio. I saw them all, from the audience and from back stage, all the way through the rehearsal process to the finished performance. Lucky me! I was only a kid, and the poetry, the history, and the literary significance of the plays went right over my head—but oh! the comedy! Christopher Slye, Grumio, Gobbo, Touchstone, Feste, Peter Quince, Mistress Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff! What fantastic company I kept. And then there were the brilliant women! For me, growing up a girl in the fifties, Shakespeare’s bold, opinionated women empowered my imagination. Reading the colloquies of Erasmus, I felt like I was back with my old friends.

It was the discovery of the colloquies that set me off on the research that led to the writing of “Good Behavior and Audacity.” Realizing that as a schoolboy Shakespeare and his entire generation attended schools where elevated language, recitation of passages from the classics, and the performance of light hearted colloquies were a part of every single day in their schooling made me wonder. Is that what made them so smart? Is there something to be learned from that rusty old pedagogy? Is there something missing from schools today that we could bring back, to light up the genius of a new generation? For me the answer is obvious.

Pesha Rudnick’s TedXTalk: Live Theater is Dangerous

Is anyone out there missing audiences as much as I am? I don’t miss being in front of an audience: I miss being in an audience. I miss sitting in the dark with total strangers and sharing intense delight or catharsis with scores of people I don’t know and will never see again. I miss standing up after the applause and looking around and feeling a moment of intimate recognition with anonymous individuals from all walks and worlds. Live theater is nearly a religion for me, and I never realized how vital it is to my well-being until it was taken away for an entire year! Theaters gone dark, concert halls silent, museums empty. Wow. It’s been hard!! The flu pandemic in 1918 took my dad’s father and two siblings, but he was too small to be aware of its impact on theater. His entire life was spent as an actor and director, so it seems odd that we never discussed what that pandemic must have meant for those in theater or for those in the audience who can’t (or at least don’t want to) live without it.

This blog, too, has gone dark for awhile. Like many of us, I’ve been kind of frozen in time since the pandemic began, trying to figure out what role theater and drama in education might play in the new world that emerges from it. I’m wondering how my as-yet-unpublished book might need to be adapted to a new reality. The teachers I hired and trained for the elementary theater program in LA Schools have continue to teach on-line, and, being extraordinarily creative, have developed captivating lessons; but take the communal experience out of theater and what is lasting? What endures? What cognitive benefit is there, interacting in the world of Zoom?

Most of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits enjoyed by students participating in dramatic activity, linking Shakespeare and his generation’s dramatic performance in school to the brilliance of the age. But Shakespeare’s audience—the Elizabethan audience— was also extraordinary. It was likely the most sophisticated and critical audience in history,  and I believe that too was a product of the humanist curriculum in the Latin grammar schools of the time. You will hardly ever talk to a theater teacher who does not have a story to tell of a student’s life being turned around, even saved, by a drama class. They could fill a book! But look at the other side of the curtain: the audience side. There you’ll find yet another compelling story of the growth of emotional intelligence.

Because I had such a conviction that my own experience as a child growing up in a theater family was responsible for my love of learning, I connived to get my own children to see lots and lots of plays. Of course they loved them, and you can watch my daughter’s TED talk at the University of Colorado where she connects her childhood of theater-going to the development of empathy. I wanted the same experience for my students. For much of my career I taught English in a small span school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with many students bussed in from the inner city. Many of them had never seen live theater, so I took my classes to as many plays as possible, building a curriculum around each of our trips. The Music Center, the Los Angeles Theater Center, Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum, and UCLA’s excellent theater department offered student matinee programs to schools, and because I taught in a span school and had students in more than one grade, my students had the opportunity to see as many as eight fine, classical and/or modern productions by the time they graduated. They loved the trips and would chase me down in the hallways whenever there was a rumor of another one planned, begging to be included. Whenever possible, I would also wangle low-priced tickets to offer students and their families to go to evening performances. Honestly, it felt like feeding students pure joy, and it had the added benefit of lighting up their curiosity, their focus, their agency, and their caring.

Theater (and all the arts) will survive the pandemic, of course, because they satisfy a profound human need. I for one can’t wait to see what theater artists make of what we have been through—once we can all share our experience together again, as a living audience .

I’m back.  This pandemic shut me down for awhile.  I mean, what could be more antithetical to ‘social distancing’ in education than drama?!  On both sides of the curtain!

I haven’t stopped completely.  I’ve been reading great stuff and monkeying around with my book.  When the world shut down I was right on the brink of a possible deal with a one of couple of wonderful, small publishers.  Since then….silence.  No surprise.

But I have a several subjects for posts, so I’m going to get back to it.

But just for starters: here’s a podcast I was invited to contribute to: Jacke Wilson’s “The History of Literature.”  Jacke is a delightful interviewer and he edited a lot of my babble into quite a fun listening experience.  If you’ve been following my blog, you know my book is about the huge amount of highly skilled performance required in the classroom experience of Elizabethan schoolboys, and my belief that that contributed to the cognitive brilliance of the Age.

Click on the picture and enjoy:

 

 

This from the Washington Post yesterday: Leading public education advocates write open letter to Joe Biden: Your ‘statements encourage us’

If Biden stands by what Diane Ravitch quotes him as saying in her letter, every public educator needs to get out and work for his election.

When “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was published in 2009 I devoured it in one sitting. It was a palpable relief to have  such a credible authority give voice to the frustrations of an entire generation of veteran educators. I found an email address for Diane Ravitch at NYU and sent her a thank you, and, remarkably, she responded. Since then, with “Reign of Error,” published a few years later, and her daily blogs posted relentlessly over the past decade, I have watched her almost single handedly succeed in what ten years ago seemed impossible: pushing back against the tide of the delusional reform ideas funded by corporate privatizers. For that she joins my short list of truly courageous heroes.

A half century ago, after my first disastrous and ego-shattering semester teaching first graders, with an emergency credential that required no training, and having no legitimacy besides what was (at least in that situation) a worthless BA from an ivy league school, I fled to San Francisco. It was the summer of love and I just desperately needed to dance in the streets with the hippies. One evening I found myself sitting with friends in a coffee shop, in a booth next to a group of policemen. Their caps were hanging from the rack above me and I could see little John Birch Society pins stuck into the inner rims. I had heard of the Birch Society and had a vague idea that it was a megaphone for the right-wing, but I had never actually spoken to a member or paid any attention to their doctrine.

When the policemen left, they left a booklet on the table. Out of curiosity I took it home and read it. I was astounded. The first page, the first chapter, in fact the entire booklet was about doing away with public education. The arguments had the resonance of outrage: “Why should people with no children pay taxes to pay for other people’s children to be educated?” “If people want children they should pay for their education themselves!” “Parents of children in private schools should not have to pay for education the children of the poor,” etc.

At the time I just wrote it off as crazy talk. What about the bedrock of democracy? What about the benefit to the commonwealth? What about humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment? Did these guys actually want to throw us back into the middle ages? I wrote it off as the work of lunatics and tossed the booklet in the garbage.

How I wish I had kept it!

Within a year I had entered the Los Angeles school district’s new intern program and began training and teaching with support and guidance. I got a job at a school with an exuberant principal named Kathy Henry, who would come into my chaotic classroom and shout over the noise, “Oh, you lucky children! Your teacher is so creative!!” and I would think, what???? I’m dying here! But I didn’t die, I got better and over the years I think I became a pretty good teacher, at least some of the time. (And don’t let anyone tell you great teachers are great all the time and were born that way.) Kathy Henry gave me the courage to stay in a profession I grew to love, and I will always be grateful.

But I was in the classroom and then in administration for long enough to see wave after wave of educational “reform” sweep through. I sat through one in-service after another, and countless men and women in suits sold us products and programs designed to improve our practice. I and most of my experienced colleagues just watched each wave go by, taking the good parts and discarding the rest with an “uh huh, been there, done that” attitude. But I couldn’t help watching the upheavals they caused through the lens of that booklet. I was too busy teaching and raising my own kids to dig deeper into what was happening around me. I had never heard of the Koch brothers (whose father was a founder of the Birch Society) or the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was busy pushing bill after bill through legislative pipelines designed to undermine the work we teachers were patiently and expertly doing in our classrooms.

When I started teaching, most every school in Los Angeles had a full-time music teacher and a full-time visual arts teacher. My second graders had a music class and a visual arts class every week. To finish my credential I had to take two classes in teaching the arts: one in music and one chosen from dance, theater, or visual arts. That was 1970. Within ten years that was ancient history. Within another twenty years I had started teaching high school English and Drama, and the entire focus of education had shifted to “accountability” e.g. test scores. We teachers were expected to teach to the test, the arts were seen as extra curricular electives, not core, and the crucial role of the arts in education had become a footnote.

So when Diane Ravitch came along and explained clearly and brilliantly exactly why and how this travesty had happened, starting with the free market champion Milton Friedman in the 50s, everything became clear. Why had I not seen it?

Initially, at the administrative level in the district, “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was well received in LAUSD. Our instructional leadership welcomed it. I remember that Jim Morris, who was the fine head of instruction at the time, purchased copies for every one of the administrators reporting to him. But Morris soon moved on and was replaced by leaders who bowed to the pervasive pressure (and the money behind it), and for a painful era test scores ruled.

And then there came the charters and yet another flood of money. After I retired I worked on the agonizing campaign to re-elect our visionary board president, Steve Zimmer, and watched as the charter schools association poured over twelve million dollars into the coffers of his opponent: a young man in his early thirties who never attended public schools himself but had one disillusioning year teaching with Teach for America in one of the district’s most challenging middle schools. They won. Zimmer was defeated, and we lost a true champion for our students. It was the same year Trump was elected and I think I was more horrified by Zimmer’s loss than Clinton’s, only because I watched it happen from the inside—watched their strategy—watched them field four opponents in the general election to drain away just enough votes to force a runoff, and then flood the field with expensive, negative, and dishonest ads targeting Westside voters. Very few voters come out for a runoff elections, and they must have spent hundreds of dollars per vote to pull of that scam.

But now I think that was the nadir, and Ravitch’s new book, “Slaying Goliath,” is full of examples of hope. Here in Los Angeles and across the country, new public school advocates are being elected to school boards, teachers unions are making a powerful resurgence. When our schools finally reopen and, we have new leadership at the national level, I hope we will see a flood of new and better policies, and the arts will be back in full.

Fingers crossed!

I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do. 

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Tolstoy’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

One of the experts I worked with in the Multi-cultural Office explained it to me this way. “In Mexico,” he said, “We have the phrase ‘flores y canciones’ (flowers and song) deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture.” The arts not only entertain, explain, soothe, and edify: they contextualize and they teach.

Just as the poet Euripides had to write the story of Medea, a poet had to write the story of El Salvador. If you are not convinced, read the book.

Plato said that children should be exposed from a very young age to the best of what our language has to offer them. We need to teach them the power and the beauty of language: listening to it, speaking it, reading it, and writing it with skill and truth.

 

Photo by Anna Earl, of unsplash

The week before we vote in the California primaries, I’m thinking a lot about that gigantic block of non-voting citizens in our midst: kids.

The question I’m exploring in my book and in this blog is why, when the benefits are so obvious, there is so little documentation of the rich history of the use of the arts to engage and educate children? Is it because the arts have been so embedded in instruction that nobody has thought it necessary to tease them out? Is it because the history of pedagogy itself is so incomplete and sketchy? Or is it because influencers in education and policy funding are just not focused on actual living, breathing, but disenfranchised children!?

Regarding the last of these possible reasons: Like so many of us I was devastated by the last presidential election; but what also shocked me was how little the mainstream media focused on its impact on children. So many teachers, administrators, and counselors I’ve spoken to since then have described shattering stories of sobbing, frightened students, but aside from a few back page stories, there has been almost total silence from our news stream. A Southern Poverty Law Center publication was one of the few exceptions. Was nobody interested in the fact that school districts all over the country had to gear up to get counselors into classrooms the very next day, to help terrified kids process the trauma? That signs went up in front of public schools everywhere with varying versions of the message that “All children, of all races, ethnicities, and immigrant status, are safe and welcome here”? That letters went home to parents that week in many languages advising parents of their rights and counseling them on how to address fears with their families?

And is that lack of critical media attention what emboldened the cruelty our government has displayed in our name—separating thousands of children from their parents at the border.

I have already written one screed on the misguided cultural of “accountability” in our schools based on the deceptive evidence of standardized test scores, as if our students and teachers do not already have enough to worry about facing their unsure future on our planet. I have also written plenty of posts on the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of arts education. This post is just to ask my readers to reflect on the comfort and solace offered by participation in the arts—comfort and solace our children need now more than ever.

I don’t have a certain answer to the question posed above, but I do know it is not our current president or anyone in his party.

Students at Westminster Elementary drama class explore a Mexican trickster story, “The Rabbit and the Coyote”

My greatest joy during the years I was with the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles schools was observing our theatre and dance teachers light up the minds of children. It drove me to distraction, to see what I saw, knowing that access to regular instruction in the performing arts is not available to every child, every day. During my tenure with the Arts Branch I went to dozens of state and national conferences and symposia on arts education where the enthusiasm among arts teachers was palpable; but in the broader field of educators, the general malaise about the performing arts in pedagogy grated on my mind. That is what compelled me to write my book.

Theatre teacher Afsaneh Boutorabi with third grade students

This is the twentieth year of the Elementary Arts Program that my colleagues and I started in 1999, adding dance, theatre, and visual arts to the existing music programs in the schools. It’s incredibly gratifying, today, that both my granddaughter and my great niece are kindergarteners in LAUSD schools that embraced the arts program early on and are receiving drama lessons from fabulous teachers that I hired twenty years ago. But that is just the luck of the draw. My delightful, expressive, creative grandchildren and their peers in other cities in other states are in fine public schools with great teachers, but they don’t get regular instruction in drama or creative movement, and that breaks my heart.

There is a massive amount of research that proves beyond any doubt that the performing arts do much to foster cognitive skills: curiosity, inquiry, and reflection. The researcher James Catterall often said he would stake his life on the bet that daily incorporation of drama into the classroom would increase verbal skills and those test scores that, sadly and misguidedly, are the holy grail of every district. (I’ve expressed my personal view of our testing culture vs. arts education in a previous post.) When used by skillful teachers they are also roads into deeper and more lasting learning in subject matter content across the curriculum.

Students planning possible solutions to the trickster story

Here’s the problem I’ve found with research: As time consuming and effortful it is to complete and publish credible research, it is even more difficult to get anyone to pay attention to it! (Unless, of course, there is a significant economic benefit to be proven. Thus the tsunami of testing that school children are experiencing now.)

Students create beginning, middle, and ending tableaux of the story

Here I’ll just summarize a couple of my favorite research stories. First, the REAP Report that came out of Harvard’s Project Zero about twenty years ago. REAP stands for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project. This study did not conduct its own investigations, but instead analyzed the results of hundreds of research studies carried out over the past half century, hoping to find irrefutable links between classroom arts and academic scores. In the executive summary the editors caution the reader, pointing out that 1.) It is difficult to establish irrefutable links because of the infinity of variables in education and 2.) It is a shallow task. It is shallow because it implies that academic achievement in the three Rs is the only reason that the arts should be taught. In fact they needed this caveat because in some ways the project was a disappointment. They were only able to find irrefutable links in two of the ten areas they had identified. However, significantly, they did find a strong link between classroom drama and verbal test scores. Again, statistically, it was an irrefutable link, and, what was even more important, the increase in achievement was transferable from subject to subject. So theatre was the winner in that particular study.

Student “sculptor” creates a frozen statue for his tableau

I’m not sure if the other report was ever published, but I’m looking into it. The brilliant linguist Shirley Brice Heath, at Stanford, became interested in arts education because of her observations of verbal development in children. Several years ago she was a speaker at a symposium on arts education that we presented at the Getty to school administrators. She described a study that was ongoing at the time. She told us that she had research assistants who went into classrooms covering subject areas across the curriculum, and that all they did was clock the seconds that students in each class made direct eye contact with the lesson—either with the instructor or with the task assigned. Obviously, eye contact is not the only indicator of attention, but it is one that is easily observable and measurable. In eye contact alone, attention in arts classes far exceeded that in any other subject. Indeed, student attention was “off the charts” in comparison. Students were attentive and engaged, and engaged learners are open to new ideas that mesh with the patterns of knowledge they already have inside of themselves. Their learning is thus enhanced and enduring.

Research in the impact of the arts in learning is limited by the fact that funders, so far at least, are mainly interested in accountability as measured by test scores. Research investigations looking for “soft data,” such as school attendance, teacher retention, and evidence of improved school morale (e.g. joy) definitely show positive results but get far less attention. Another perhaps more fertile area of research is the booming field of neuroscience and cognition, but I will save that for a later post.

 

 

 

      A Sloyd Woodworking Class

When I was in elementary school a zillion years ago, we had wood shop for one afternoon every week. ALL afternoon. An old garage on the campus was fitted out as a complete workshop, with big wooden tables and all the tools and lumber we needed. I made a boat, a book shelf, and a soapbox car for our soapbox derby. I also carved a wooden spoon that my mom used in the kitchen for the rest of her life. Entire classes at the school took on projects like building playground equipment and lunch tables and a covered wagon. I learned how to use a ruler, a tape measure, a compass and protractor, and I learned all the mathematics of measurement. I learned to use hand tools: the saws, the drills, the vise, the rasp, and the sander. I learned that you have to see a project through to the end and not do a slapdash job of it. Pretty good lessons!

         Children working at sloyd benches

My school, Antioch Elementary, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still exists. It was founded in 1923 on the educational theories being developed at the time by the education philosopher John Dewey, and today it is the longest uninterrupted Dewey-based school in America. I had always thought that the educational justification for such a luxurious use of my school time was Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing. I had absolutely no idea that it was based on a nineteenth century pedagogy from Finland.

Once when I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch, our staff took a little field trip to the LAUSD archives to visit our curator. She was preparing a trunk of artifacts to take around to schools as a local history lesson. One of the items was a second grade report card from the year 1900 on which there were grades for five subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and sloyd. We were baffled. What the heck was “sloyd,” and why was it so important that it actually had to be graded?! Back then iPhones were brand new and only one person present had one. He whipped it out and within seconds we learned that sloyd means “handicrafts,” and it was a Finnish pedagogy started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865 and refined by the Swedish educator Otto Salomon (who, like Richard Mulcaster, who trained Shakespeare’s teachers in the 16th century, worried about the fact that elementary school is too boring for children, and solved the problem by giving them something to DO!). The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was introduced in the United States in the 1890s by Meri Toppelius. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of my theatre teachers is married to a man from Finland, and she tells me that he still proudly displays embroidery he did in his sloyd class in school when he was a child.

The Antioch School is affiliated with the college, and my peers there, in the 50s, were mostly the children of professors—a fairly rarified community. Dewey’s educational philosophy was certainly studied and admired back then: it influenced education in public schools but was never fully implemented. After Sputnik and A Nation at Risk it fell out of favor almost completely and we seldom hear of it now. But sloyd pre-dated Dewey, and there in the archives of the Los Angeles schools was rock solid evidence that the project-based learning Dewey promoted was alive and well and mandatory at the turn of the century, in at least one major school district in the United States, a generation before Dewey began writing about education.

It turns out it was more than just Los Angeles. Toppelius and her sister Sigrid were invited first to Boston, where they set up training programs. Sigrid stayed in Boston while Meri went on to Chicago where she started a sloyd department in Chicago’s Agassiz school. They also trained teachers as in Bay View Michigan as part of a Chautauqua summer program. So by the end of the century, at least three major cities in the United States were employing sloyd in at least some of their schools, and there were major training programs in sloyd attracting teachers and administrators from across the country. (I’ll keep researching this. If any of my readers know anything more about it, please share!)

If you’re interested in learning more about sloyd, here is link to a PBS program called “Who Wrote the Book of Sloyd” that’s pretty entertaining. It features the very old book on the left, which was re-issued in 2013: “The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slöjd” by Otto Salomon. Sloyd is really about all of the handicrafts, including sewing, weaving, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and paper folding, all of which we learned at the Antioch School, but its most lasting impact on education in the United States was on programs that included woodworking.

John Dewey was certainly influenced by the sloyd movement, as he was by the Settlement movement I have written about in a previous post. It has always struck me how completely the arguments for arts education align with the philosophy of Dewey and of sloyd. Engaged learning. Productive learning. Project-based learning. Hands-on learning. They’re all related and they all lead to deep and enduring learning. They all incorporate the body and the mind into the cognitive process. I didn’t know at the time how incredibly lucky I was to be educated in that way, but I loved school, and for all of my years as a teacher and arts administrator I have endeavored to give my students something of the joy I experienced as a child in the wood shop.