“I’m doing Jim Dine:” How art educators’ language circumvents advocacy efforts

[no title] 1973 by Jim Dine born 1935

Jim Dine, Untitled, 1973

Art teachers seem to appreciate spending time together, especially given the isolated contexts in which most of us work. Generally, we are grateful for opportunities to be with other people who do what we do. After spending a day with other art teachers, an art teacher once told me, “With us coming from where we come from, no matter what kind of school you are in, how many people talk our language? To sit a day to talk with people who talk our language, so to speak, is such a treat.” (J.G., personal communication, September 25, 2009).

This teacher’s comment about a shared language intrigued me. Do we have a shared language? Do we have a shared practice? As I have been in conversation with art teachers, I have noticed a peculiar way that some of us talk about our practice and curriculum. For instance, I participated in one conversation among art teachers in which a number of them began talking about the lessons that they were enacting in their classrooms by using phrases that were assumed to carry a meaning that all of us would understand. One teacher said, “I’m doing Jim Dine.” Another reported, “I’m starting Faith Ringgold.” Such descriptions communicated to the rest of us that these teachers used the work of famous artists as a launching point for their lessons. I believe most art educators, from devout DBAE enthusiasts to those who embrace emergent, postmodern, and/or choice-based teaching practices, agree on the value of showing students the work of artists, even though how each would use the work of a famous artist might differ considerably.

In the same conversation, other teachers spoke about their lessons by describing the product (e.g., “the animal mask lesson”). This language tells the listener what students will be doing while communicating some of the commitments of the teacher such as a teacher-determined end product and the inclusion/exclusion of contemporary practices and/or engagement with visual culture. However, while this product-centered description of curriculum might communicate more about what the students and teacher will be doing, I am not sure it is a more effective way to describe our practice than “I’m doing Jim Dine.”

I am beginning to see how describing what happens in our classrooms with names of famous artists or describing the product our students will produce are symptoms of a larger problem: we are not designing our lessons in ways that allow us to articulate meaningful student learning. Without designing and describing our lessons in terms of meaningful student learning, we are likely circumventing our advocacy efforts. We traditionally aim our advocacy efforts at non-art educators: parents, colleagues, principals, and community members, who sometimes believe art is just about making stuff (and is thus, expendable). Yet, how many of us talk about our curriculum does not communicate the sophisticated learning that can happen in art classrooms and might be reinforcing this belief. Every art teacher I know would tell me that art is a valuable experience for students. However, is there a way we can increase its value by designing and talking about what happens in art classrooms differently?

I began to wonder if changing our language to phrases like, “My students are learning how to draw tools based on the work of Jim Dine,” (instead of “I’m doing Jim Dine”) would help, but neither of these statements actually describe what students are likely to be learning beyond a technique that has any long-term value. While production and teaching students technique are both integral to art education and should remain foundational in our teaching, learning how to is not the only thing our 21st century learners need, nor is it sufficient for advocacy. The value of art education in our century is largely held in the opportunity to engage students in explorations about topics that are visual, relevant, and can be transferred across disciplines. For me, advocacy is done well when a student who leaves our K-12 program and enters college to major in accounting has benefitted from our program as much as the student headed to art school. In this case, the value of our program must lie beyond (but not at the affordance of) teaching technique, which has limited practical value to those who pursue careers outside of the arts.

I have witnessed some progressive school districts that have worked hard to redesign their fine and performing arts curriculum based on the hope of providing meaningful arts experiences to all students. Instead of listing content in terms of products, these districts frame the learning broad “essential” questions that students will explore. This is one method of redesigning curricula in an attempt to place student learning (rather than a determined end product) at the center of our practice.

As an example, what if the “Jim Dine” lesson become one in which students wrestled with the question, “How can artists’ rendering of an everyday object change the way we view the object?” This question would still require the teacher to use artists (Jim Dine and others) to inform students’ exploration, but takes the focus off of an artist and on to students’ learning through creating, often towards an open-ended prompt.

I know a growing number of art teachers who have embraced teaching in this way and have seen the significant effects it has had on what happens in their classroom (and the way that they talk about it). Their practice and the way that they describe it work together to advocate for meaningful art education. I encourage you to listen to the ways you talk about your curriculum as one way of identifying what is currently in the center of your practice and curriculum. If you find that you are often describing lessons in terms of products or artist names, consider how and what revisioning your practice might do for your students, your program, and your advocacy efforts. The learning that happens in our classrooms is too valuable to hide.


Changing Mechanisms that Maintain Structural Racism and Societal Inequities

Note: These are the remarks I made during a panel titled Changing the Mechanisms that Maintain Structural Racism and Social Inequities at the National Art Education Association Conference in New York, NY on March 4, 2017.

There are numerous political and research-based rationales for a racial and ethnic diversification of the teaching force in the United States. One of these rationales focuses on the mismatch between the racial makeup of the students attending public schools in the U.S. and the racial makeup of those teaching in public schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 50% of the student population in U.S. public schools is white and 82% of the their teachers are white.
I may not be able to convince you in the five minutes that I have that this disparity in demographics is a problem. What may be easier for you/us to accept as a problem is that there are talented and intelligent students of color in the teacher education program that I coordinate who want to be teachers, however, becoming a teacher often costs them more money, time, and emotional energy than I see it costing many of their white peers.
I am here to talk about a mechanism that maintains structural racism and societal inequities in teacher education: standardized tests, in the form of exams that must be passed in order for teachers to be licensed. In Pennsylvania, my home state, teacher candidates must pass five exams that cost over $400. Students of color disproportionately fail these exams.
In the fall, a student asked to talk to me after class in my office. “Should I just give up now?” she asked. Her lip started to quiver and tears started to pour down her cheeks. “Give up what?” I asked, confused. I soon found out that she had failed the first round of tests, which cost her $150. This single mom wasn’t sure she had the stamina or resources to get through the rest of the program. Failing the tests made her question whether she had what it took to be a teacher.
Another student found out while she was studying abroad that she hadn’t passed the first round of tests and would thus be ineligible to register for her next semester of coursework. Passing the first three of the five tests are required to advance at a certain stage in the university’s teacher education program. She was delayed for a semester and took the tests multiple times that semester until she passed.
When I asked these students about their experiences taking the test, one reported that the test administrator looked at her and asked, “Do you speak English?” and then proceeded to check her body to ensure she didn’t have any devices that would allow her to cheat.
The other broke out in hives, anxiety building with every re-take of the test. “If I don’t pass this time, I won’t be able to afford to go to the conference,” she said.
Both students were scanned with a wand-like metal detector. “I was treated like a criminal,” one said. I remembered back to a few weeks earlier, when a group of white students in my class described how easy the test was and how “silly” the wand was. I was struck again by my own privilege and the privilege of the students who laughed off the wand, the laugh coming from white bodies who had likely not experienced racial profiling, unaware of the way the policing of the tests triggered anxiety in some of their classmates.
Now in the midst of a research study to investigate how the tests are affecting students of color, my concern deepens.
The Educational Testing Service, the company who writes and produces the tests for our state, offers vouchers to waive test fees based on family income but this information is not advertised. Furthermore, when a student registers for a test and is asked if they have a voucher, ETS’s need-based voucher isn’t listed among the reasons one might have a voucher code to input.
One of my students who took the same test three times found out a few weeks following her exam that the state had lowered the score required to pass the exam. I am still collecting data on the changes made to the cut scores over time. However, for someone like this student who failed the tests only by a couple points on each attempt, you can imagine the exasperation of students who have spent hundreds of dollars trying to hit a moving target.
There are many of these issues.
Let me talk for a moment about the one most concerning to me: these tests do not provide our field with valuable information about teacher quality or retention. One of the five exams assesses teacher candidates’ art content knowledge — as if earning at least a 3.0 and taking 60 credits of studio art and art history courses at the university that are taught by people with terminal degrees in their field isn’t sufficient for demonstrating their content knowledge.
In summary, these tests discriminate, place undue financial burden on students, cause emotional and professional distress, and they don’t give us any information we don’t already have about our students.
I have raised this issue on campus and have drafted a list of ways to begin changing this mechanism of structural racism by first attempting to better support teacher education candidates of color in their attempt to take and pass these exams, and second to continue to advocate for a teacher education free of standardized tests as one of many barriers students of color face en route to teaching.