“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.