Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



Join the largest creative community established exclusively for visual arts educators, college professors, researchers, administrators, and museum educators.

Join NAEA Renew Membership

« January 2010 | Main | March 2010 »

Thursday 02.25.10

What’s at Stake

There’s a lot of politicking going on in Washington around the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.  President Obama met with the nation’s governor’s on Monday:

Recounting his visit to South Korea last year, Obama told the governors about a conversation in which he asked President Lee Myung-bak to name the biggest challenge he faces in education.

"And he said, 'My biggest issue, my toughest fight, is that Korean parents are too demanding. They want their kids to learn English in first grade, and so I've had to ship in a whole bunch of foreign-speaking teachers to meet the demand,'" Obama said of their conversation.

"They want their students learning everything -- math, science, foreign languages -- all as soon as possible," Obama said. "So that's what we're up against. That's what's at stake -- nothing less than our primacy in the world."

--Christi Parsons, The Los Angeles Times
February 22, 2010

So there we have it.  That’s what’s at stake. 

That’s what’s driving policy decisions and budget allocations.

That’s what we’re up against.

Our people are at the table. An arts legislative working group in which NAEA participates has drafted a position paper with requests for the next NCLB legislations.  The positions are rock solid:

• The Arts Help Close the Achievement Gap
• The Arts Are a Core Academic Subject and Must Reach All Children
• The Retention of Arts Teachers is Crucial to Creating Powerful Learning Communities and Maximizing Student Achievement
• The U.S. Department of Education Must Include the Arts in All Research and Data Collection Regarding the “Core Academic Subjects.”

But somewhere between these valiant efforts to educate policy makers and the sound bites we hear on the 24/7 news cycle, our message is getting lost. Our kids are not going to be able to compete with their global peers if the arts are left out of their educational arsenal. 

When my boys were little they collected super-hero action figures.  I used to always say, “So where are the girls?”  So my boys found and gave me the three women super heroes pictured below that I keep in my studio in Manhattan.  I look to them for strength and inspiration any time I get discouraged about making sure more of our kids have the arts in their lives.

We all have more work to do! 

So here are my super heroes to give you strength to get up and do what needs to be done!


Silver Surfer, She-Ra and Teela!

I have been honored to be the February 2010 Mentor of the Month and hope to see some of you in Baltimore in April! Thanks for all you do to provide high quality arts learning and fuel for future innovation, imagination and creativity.

-BJ Adler

Wednesday 02.24.10

Putting the STEAM into STEM

Putting the STEAM into STEM

Have you noticed that when community leaders and the media talk about 21st century workforce skills they almost always mention innovation?  This should be a good thing for us, right? But I have noticed another unsettling trend that even appeared in President Obama’s State of the Union address when he linked innovation to education in science, technology engineering and math (now known as the STEM movement) with nary a mention of the arts.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman often writes about the need to develop American innovation.  He gets that the arts are part of the mix.

“The secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, music, and literature with the hard sciences.”—Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a national organization that advocates for 21st century readiness for all students.  Members include leading American businesses. They have created a framework for 21st century learning that should make everyone understand how important arts education is to our future.  Look carefully at this graphic from their Web site and follow this link to learn more:

 21st century student outcomes from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Under Learning and Innovation skills the Partnership lists creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration. Under Media and Technology skills they list information literacy, media literacy, and ICT literacy.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine achieving these goals without the arts playing a central role.

We need to get STEAMed about this!

Our most pressing challenge today is to help policy makers and school leaders understand the critical link between arts learning and 21st century skills.  The future of our kids and our nation depend upon our success.

-BJ Adler

Monday 02.22.10

My Other Son and Arts Integration

There has been long-standing controversy about justifying arts education using the argument that the arts develop skills and habits of mind that can turbo-charge learning across the curriculum. Arts integration, while convenient for arts advocacy, has been a very polarizing issue in our field.  I have observed arts-integrated lessons where there is integrity in the art form and real transference of skills to another academic area.  I have also seen arts integration so poorly realized that neither the art skill nor the companion academic concept was effectively taught much less learned.

The most troubling ideological use of arts integration has been to ghettoize the arts as a nice “extras” rather than rigorous academic pursuits.  Art and music teachers, in particular, have been burdened far too often with doing extra preparation beyond teaching their own curriculum to make arts integration lessons really work.  So while I am a true believer in the concept, I understand why it has engendered so many enemies among arts educators.

When executed by highly trained teachers and supported (THIS IS CRITICAL!) by administrators, adequate scheduling and sufficient budget, arts integration can transform education.  My youngest son Danny experienced how arts integrated lessons can positively impact learning and prepare students for work and life.

Danny was struggling academically and “bored” with school as he entered the sixth grade. Luckily Sonnet Takahisa, who co-founded The New York City Museum School, was a good friend and colleague. She suggested that her school might help close Danny’s achievement and motivation gap.  This New York City Public Middle School was founded nearly 15 years ago in collaboration with some of New York City’s premiere museums (e.g. The Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, and New York Children’s Museum.) The basic premise is that by allowing students access to authentic objects, inquiry-based observation and project-driven, integrated units of study, which formed 75% of the curriculum, all students can learn and thrive.  The school made an even more challenging commitment to economic and ethnic diversity, experimenting early on with closing the achievement gap through an infusion of the arts.  Each unit of study was evaluated through student portfolios and hands-on demonstrations of the mastery of learning. Students were also accountable for all district-mandated standardized tests.

See this link to the South Street Seaport Museum’s description of its partnership with The New York City Museum School.

One of my favorite units was an 8-week study of Colonial America, which made use of the remarkable period rooms and colonial portrait collection of the Brooklyn Museum, the historic sites of lower Manhattan, the South Street Seaport Museum, theatre and the visual arts.  Each student was assigned to study a particular Colonial figure in depth.  Danny was to “become” Abigail Adams. Part of his demonstration of learning portfolio was the successful completion of a portrait of our second First Lady in the style of the period with careful attention to the portrait conventions of the era.  The portrait was completed with a Polaroid image of Danny’s face!  Another assessment was the presentation of an improvised conversation about a contemporary Colonial issue among students portraying their individual historical characters. I remember Danny saying one night,  “Mom, I have to talk to ‘George Washington’, I mean Shameka, to prepare for our discussion of the issue of slavery with ‘Phyllis Wheatley’, you know, Juan.”

NYC Museum School  Graduation
(Our Danny is the one with the white tie!)

The 8th grade graduation ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum included a theatrical presentation of an assessment reflection module. The most important thing that Danny learned at the Museum School was how he learned. He learned to observe objects and interpret narrative with an anthropologist’s eye. This taught him to understand the essence of particular historical characters and the cultural context of the era in which they lived.  He learned how to communicate his learning to other people through multiple media.  The skills he learned in arts integrated units of study propelled him through high school, college abroad and on to his first job with an international marketing firm based in Madrid.

I know arts integration as practiced by the New York City Museum School prepared my son for a global life in the 21st century. I encourage all of us to advocate for authentic arts integration that incorporates the rigors of our disciplines without compromising our pedagogical principles.  Our kids deserve it and our future depends upon it!   

-BJ Adler

Thursday 02.18.10

Advocating for Visual Arts Education – Part 2

Starting an advocacy effort is not difficult. Many community arts organizations around the country offer advocacy training sessions.  Lots of small steps and joined hands have the potential to create a district-wide or even statewide movement.  So here are some Advocacy 101 basics.

Yellow_square_2  Accept that advocacy is part of the job.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Yellow_square_2  Hone your message.
Know who you are talking to and what they care about. The NAEA Web site Advocacy tab contains current resources to build your case. Whether it’s a new study, a compelling anecdote or some fast facts, check the NAEA Web site early and often.

One of many helpful advocacy resources on the NEAE Web site.

Yellow_square_2  Integrate advocacy into everything you do as a professional.
Think about ways your teaching, professional development, personal interactions with students, staff, parents and community leaders can demonstrate the critical importance of Learning in a Visual Age.
Yellow_square_2  Create relationships with local media. 
TV stations, print media and blogs need content.  Invite members of the media to your exhibitions and events. Let them know when one of your students is recognized  for their accomplishments. Become the “expert” on the value of arts education, the name that comes up in reporters’ Outlook contacts.
Yellow_square_2  Form alliances.
The power of persuasion is increased by numbers. Align with parents, other art and cultural organizations, professional education organizations, local government and  business leaders to create the policies and programs needed to make high quality arts education accessible to all students.

Yellow_square_2  Be armed with the latest data.
Click the NAEA Web site Advocacy tab and get the facts. Set your Google news feed to capture articles about 21st century learning, creativity and innovation. Speak out on  behalf of arts education.

Yellow_square_2  Be at the table. 
Monitor education policy-making institutions and organizations including local, state and national legislators). Attend meetings and participate.

Yellow_square_2  Set up advocacy alert systems.
Use existing communications channels and incorporate social media sites for visibility on an ongoing basis and in the event of a “crisis.”

Yellow_square_2  Be visible.
Organize exhibitions. Allow secondary students to speak for themselves at events and to the media. Participate in other high visibility community projects showcasing student work and the unique skills gained through arts education.

Art on display at Scholastic Inc. Corporate Headquarters in NYC

Yellow_square_2  Be a beacon of CREATIVITY. (See post “Check Creative Pulse” – Feb. 8)
You are a living example of creativity and innovation.  Let your light shine!

-BJ Adler

Tuesday 02.16.10

Advocating for Visual Arts Education

There is that famous old saying that “for true believers no proof is necessary and for non-believers, no proof is adequate.” 

I just don’t accept that, especially when it comes to advocating for arts education.  

I just heard an unsettling trend from colleague Christina DePaul who is the Executive Director of the Miami-based Arts Recognition and Talent Search, the organization that finds and recognizes our nation’s most accomplished artists, musicians and writers who are seniors in high school.  She and her program staff told me that a significantly higher percentage than ever before of the young artists who receive the highest level of recognition in the ARTS program are home schooled. This trend had even appeared in The Scholastic Awards in my last years as Executive Director.  This seems to corroborate Dr. Robert Sabol’s conclusions about the negative impact on arts education of No Child Left Behind.


 Abdi, Kathleen, Angela, Amanda and Calvin at the US DoE. All top Recipients of The Scholastic Awards and ARTS Awards.

I wrangled the remarkable group of talented young artists pictured above to appear at a meeting of the Arts Education Partnership in the summer of 2005 at the U.S. Department of Education.  Their voices and their stunning achievements in the arts gave convincing testimony to the impact of a high quality arts education.  

We simply can’t be vocal enough about our cause.  Making the case for high quality arts education is as much a part of the responsibility of a professional arts educator as making sure brushes are cleaned and that our NAEA memberships are current.  And like any routine maintenance job, it’s usually less effective and more costly in terms of impact if we wait until the storm clouds of impending budget cuts roil through our schools. We need to take bold, preventive action before our kids have even less access to arts education, and only home-schooled kids with unique resources can gain the 21st century skills that high quality arts education engenders.

I will offer some specific points for how to become a vocal arts education advocate in my next post!

-BJ Adler

Friday 02.12.10

A Valentine

A Valentine  for my NAEA Colleagues!

It’s been quite a stormy week on the East Coast.  There’s been lots of snow and the government shut down for several days.


The snow in my garden on Long Island

When I received a blog post from one of my oldest arts education colleagues, I felt even more dreary.  She has been advocating for arts education a very long time and emphatically states in her latest post that she has never seen the field in such a challenged position.  See this link:

Guest Blog: Jane Remer's CliffNotes--Scorched Earth: How Will Arts Education Survive The Current Climate?

After I read it, I stopped and thought for a moment,

“Wow. Maybe Jane’s right.  Maybe all the hope I am trying to put into my Mentor of the Month blog posts is a bit Pollyanna-ish.”

But then an email arrived from one of my oldest childhood friends.  She is a woman who still lives in the small Midwestern hometown where I grew up and teaches at the local branch of the state university.  She isn’t even in the arts.  She sent a link to a YouTube video that she said made her laugh, cry, smile and feel uplifted. 

So as a Valentine to all of you, I pass this link along in the hopes that it will brighten your holiday weekend.

The setting is the central market in Valencia, Spain last November. Members of an opera company disguised themselves as vendors and in the midst of a regular market day, burst into selections from La Traviata. Watch what happens as the arts sneak up on everyone. The sign at the end in Spanish translates, “Look at how much you love opera!”


I will go on pushing hope in future blog posts next week!  Happy holiday weekend!  Refresh, relax and recharge for the work ahead!


Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

-BJ Adler

Monday 02. 8.10

Check Your Creative Pulse

What about your own creative spark?  Have you checked lately to see if your pilot light is still burning?

We can’t just rely upon pedagogy if we are to be successful at the task of nurturing creativity.  We must be daily examples of creativity in action.

Take this little quiz to check your creative pulse.

1. List up to five examples of your creativity in action. (1 point for each listing)

Yes, of course, in your own art work.  But what about when you helped a colleague solve a problem or explained to a student how to create her own “studio?” Pay  attention to how creativity manifests itself in your life.

 My garden is my canvas

2. List up to five examples of creative solutions that impact your daily life. (1 point for each listing)
We consume the creativity of designers everyday. Remember what life was like  without Facebook or a food processor? Raise your creativity consciousness!
3. List up to five inspirational experiences you’ve had in the last month. (1 point for each listing)
Creativity is fueled by inspiration. I was inspired by a whimsical installation at the  Portland, OR Chinese Garden last spring. 

 Pathway in the Portland, OR Chinese Garden

4. List how many hours you have allotted this week to expressing your creativity.  (1 point for every hour up to five hours)

You provide inspiration and technical skills to your students. You set up materials  and an art room. Take your own creativity break!

5. Rate yourself as a beacon of creativity on a scale from 1 – 5 with 1 being the least bright and 5 being a blinding light. (Your rating is your point score on this task.)
Teaching is an art.  Bring your creative passion to your classroom every day.

You must be the change you want to see in the world
--Mahatma Gandhi
  Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 - 1948)

1-5   Your creative spark is in serious danger of being extinguished!
6-10 You may need creative life support! Get help immediately!
11-15 Are you sure you majored in art? Your creative batteries are only half    charged.
16-20 Good, but as Jim Collins says, “ Good is the enemy of great.”
21-25 I can see you from lower Manhattan!

-BJ Adler

Wednesday 02. 3.10

Igniting Creativity!

I feel certain that every human being is born with a creative spark.  What is my scientific proof?  I’m from Missouri so all you have to do is “show me.” So I see these sparks every time I observe a baby or toddler at play—when a saucepan becomes a hat or a drum or when wooden blocks become a bridge or a cell phone.

These tiny sparks can be ignited into flames of brilliance that result in works like Michelangelo’s David,  Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, Martin Luther King’s I Have  A Dream or Apple’s iPod.

7.Stamp-ctc-polio-vaccine   5.David   4.MLK 3.iPod 

Creativity can advance civilization whether it manifests in the arts, sciences, politics, business or any other human endeavor. But all too often that tiny blue spark can be quickly blown-out by the harsh winds of daily life. The most painful thing for us to watch as arts professionals is when that spark is inadvertently extinguished by the policies and practices of the schools in which we teach.

One of our primary responsibilities is to be the fanners of the flames of creativity in all of our children.  It doesn’t really matter whether or not they turn out to be the next Faith Ringold or Frank Gehry.  The creativity that we develop in our art rooms might emerge years later as a young doctor has to make a life-saving diagnosis or a businessman invests in the creation of a *green space out of industrial decay or a research scientist succeeds in extending the life of small batteries.

BJ on the high line

*BJ on the new High Line Park in Manhattan

The creativity of our children is a resource we cannot afford to squander. So even if we only have them for a semester, we have to make it count. We have to re-ignite those sparks of creativity.  They deserve it and our future depends upon it!

-BJ Adler

Monday 02. 1.10

The Blank Canvas

Hello, NAEA!  I am honored to be your blogger of the month for February!

Here’s a personal reflection to start our month together.

My oldest son Walter is an FDNY EMT based in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.  He is also a gifted artist and writer.  He volunteered for a medical relief team the day after the earthquake turned Port au Prince into piles of rubble, mangled bodies and death.  


My son Walter volunteering in Haiti

He has just returned from Haiti after working for 12 days at the General Hospital.  He and I are sitting in a small café in lower Manhattan. As he talks I no longer see the passing Wall Street traders bundled in their warm coats and scarves through the steamy windows. I suddenly feel the warmth of the sun and the humid breeze of the Caribbean. I smell the death and destruction.

I see the General Hospital.  It is a huge complex the size of New York’s Union Square where hundreds patients are in urgent need of immediate care. Someone points out a flattened building and says that over fifty Haitian nursing students are buried in their former school.

No one is in charge.  My son and a small group of volunteers clear debris from a ground floor room in one of the few standing buildings in the complex.  Now there is a small functioning emergency room.

There are not enough supplies. An EMT rigs a gurney from a tabletop and a rolling cart found in the rubble. Nurses improvise beds out of strips of cardboard for the growing numbers of patients.

The doctors are operating. They sterilize hacksaws with vodka.  Firefighters are foraging for medical supplies in the crevices of debris of the hospital complex and from crushed stores in the streets beyond.

As the dark falls the word comes down that the foreign volunteers must abandon the hospital for their own safely.  My son and a few doctors, nurses and EMT’s from his group won’t leave.  They establish a skeletal night shift. The uninjured family members of patients hold flashlights as the small medical crew battles against death. Sometimes they lose the fight. A gentle elderly woman with a peaceful demeanor slips away.  No one has been able to turn her over to attend to her mortal injuries.  An EMT helps the family gently wrap the woman in a sheet shroud. It is the only dignity he can provide.

Just as the heaviness seems unbearable, a burst of light illuminates the camp in the cry of a newborn baby. One voice pierces the darkness. Soon other voices join the song. The music is the resilience of the Haitian people.

I return to lower Manhattan to stir the bright green leaves of the fresh mint sprigs in my warm glass of tea. 

I suddenly realize that my artist son is painting. He has placed me at the focal point of his newest work. I am surrounded by the swirls of wet paint as his brush moves the thick words across the canvas.  I see the brilliant green of the palms and the deep azure of the sky contrasted by the chalkiness of the dust and the abstract lines of the debris. I feel the pain.  I experience the moments of hope.  I witness the creativity of the volunteers and the strength of the victims. 

I am experiencing the power of the arts.

-BJ Adler