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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.



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November 22, 2011

The 20-Year Test

Whenever I talk about curriculum, I talk about what I call “The 20-Year Test.”  Here’s how it goes:

Imagine that you are in the produce section of your local market, twenty years from now.  Another shopper sees you and comes over to speak, saying, “I remember you!  You were my art teacher twenty years ago."

This actually happens, by the way. 

Okay, so I want you think about what you want to know—when you smile back at this student of yours from long ago—what you want to know that this now-adult-person understands as a result of her or his time with you and your art program. 

This adult shopper—your ex-student—is not likely to be working as an artist when you meet.  However, regardless of what your student from the past is doing with her or his life, think about what you would want this person to understand—deeply—about art and our experiences with art.  

If you have a minute to do this, write it down: Twenty years from now, I want my students to understand _____________________. 

Allow me to share how a few other art teachers have completed the prompt.  They said:

I want my students to understand that:

•    Art is for all of us.
•    Throughout the world and over time, humans have used art to express their values and beliefs.
•    People can communicate moods, feelings, and ideas through artworks they make.
•    Objects can reveal what people believe and care about.
•    The arts engage and celebrate the human spirit.
•    Images have power and meaning.

Notice that these are BIG ideas—what many people refer to as “enduring” ideas.  These are the kinds of ideas/understandings that we want our students to take with them into adulthood.  We want them to have these and other understandings so that they will have the tendency to participate in the arts as adults—as makers and/or as responders—and receive all of the benefits that an arts-filled life has to offer. 

And this is where, given the season, I’ll ask, “Can we TALK?

Whenever I’ve given the prompt about what they want their students to UNDERSTAND about art as adults, most art teachers say the sorts of things that I’ve listed above.  I think, really, that wanting our students to deeply understand these things is why we get up in the morning.  Over and over again, I’ve asked art teachers to share what they hope their students understand, deeply, as a result of their time with them.  Over and over again, all over the country, art teachers respond with ideas similar to those above.  So, you might ask, “What’s the problem?”

Alignment.  I think that’s the problem!

Let me explain.  A concern I have is that while these ideas are important to us, we rarely actually share them with our students.  In my experience, I’ve found that we teachers tend to think that students will come to understand these things automatically, if only they are exposed to a lot of art teaching.  According to this view, as students see and talk about artworks, as they use a variety of materials and techniques, as they draw, paint, make collages, sculpture, prints, and more…they will come to understand the enduring ideas about art that undergird our teaching. 

Not so.  What we have come to realize is that this is simply not enough.  We cannot expect students to understand these ideas without letting them in on the plan.  We need to articulate the idea, post it, repeat it, and bring it to life with planned experiences through which students investigate and explore it.

Alignment means that if we want our students to understand, for example, that “Images have power and meaning” (one of the ideas listed above), then we need to align our instruction—how we engage our students in inquiry and investigation—with that idea.  We need to be purposeful and teach in a way that students will come to understand what we intend for them to understand.  

“Right!” you say.  “Easy enough!” 

I don’t think it’s all that easy.  I think it takes a lot of work, at least initially, to make sure that, first of all, as we plan curriculum, we plan it around “enduring” or “Big” ideas that we want our students to carry with them into adulthood.  It means that we need to figure out a way to have such ideas come alive for our students.  We need to make choices about the artworks, objects, artifacts, and images that we will introduce in order to animate enduring ideas.  We need to figure out age-appropriate ways for students to grapple with the ideas so that they integrate them into the way they think about the world.  We also need to construct ways (and even invite students to assist in constructing ways) for students to demonstrate their understanding of these ideas. 

This is all very challenging, but I believe it’s worth it.  How often have you been introduced as an art teacher in a group only to have at least one of the group members come to you and tell you something negative about her or his experiences in art class? How often do people say to us, “I can’t draw a straight line, “ as if getting people to draw well (which usually means realistically) is the only thing that an art program aims to do?

When this happens to me, I get sad, realizing that the person probably has not been helped to see how art is so integral to our experience as humans.  I realize that she or he will probably not be inclined to look around and find evidence of the human spirit expressed through things that people have made. 

The 20-Year Test reminds us that as we plan day-to-day experiences for our students, we need to keep an eye on why we will do whatever it is we are planning to do.  We need to ask how the activities we plan will connect to and bring to life the enduring ideas that we want our students to take with them into adulthood.  This planning needs to be purposeful, and our students need to become partners with us in the investigative, and even the planning, process.

Some of you may recognize this emphasis on teaching with “enduring” or “big” ideas as a direction in which education, in general, and art education, in particular, has been going.

Many schools have adopted an approach to planning put forward by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, in their book, Understanding By Design.
4Understanding By Design 

In our own field of art education, the book, Rethinking Curriculum in Art, by Sydney Walker and me, provides an approach for developing arts curricula based on enduring or big ideas.  This approach was developed within a project entitled TETAC (Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge), which was a five-year project involving 35 schools school in six national sites. 

5Rethinking Curriculum in Art

Does your school require that you plan with “enduring” or “Big” ideas?  Have you tried to do this in your own curriculum planning? How do these kinds of ideas figure in the curriculum work that you do?  I’d love to hear from you!

-Marilyn Stewart


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Jill Hare

Education is about giving and sharing. A teacher, as well as a student, needs to engage in this exchange of ideas, insights, “aha moments” and understandings. Art is about all of this and so much more. Art includes the inspirational, spiritual, and aesthetic. It is about risk taking without the fear of punishment as what is experienced adds to what is learned. Art is about possibilities.

I am an English/drama high school teacher who is seeing a class of freshmen who did not experience me as an arts educator at the elementary school level. The result is a difficulty (reality) as they struggle to connect symbols and stereotypes, imagery and imagination, and anything that is assessed outside of multiple choice/fill in the bubble designed understanding of literature and grammar. It is a challenge that I must face and the way I teach and integrate the arts with a core subject now needs a new scaffold of understanding.

A drama student, who graduated in 2009, sent me a video as a now college film student. In my last response I focused on music. The video of the 2010 Telluride Blue Grass festival is important as he understands the power of a past culture’s connection to his, and this manifests as reality in this music video. as I am 58 and he is 20.

When I began teaching high school English ten years ago most of my students knew me. I was their elementary drama teacher. They learned grammar and how to write a story through performance. They remembered this and there was an understanding of how the arts related to other subjects. My junior English students understand this, because they remember the connections. I hope that twenty years from now they will still be able to make these connections. My objective now is for my freshmen to understand connections.

Sue Pavlovich

When I teach I consider what my students will impart to their own children about school, learning, trying. I teach so that they remember something which stays and comes through, so they prepare their children to be enthused and eager.

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