REFLECTIONS FROM A NEW SISTEMA: Learning to build community through music

by Paloma Udovic Ramos

On a street that acts as a border between gangs, in a neighborhood with a changing racial demographic, 200 low-income kids attend free group instrumental lessons and orchestra rehearsal 3-4 times a week. Our team of Teaching Artists struggles with establishing proper
technique, developing ear training, note reading, instrument care, and… racial tensions. It is easy to find training on pedagogy and classroom management, but where does a Music Teaching Artist learn about community organizing and social justice?

Our program takes place in a Los Angeles Community Center situated in a historically African-American neighborhood that in the past ten years has become home to a large number of Central American immigrants. It is not uncommon to discover the underlying feelings of resentment that exist within the community. Within our numbers, the divide is clear. Less than ten percent of our participants are African Americans, with almost all of the remainder Latino. It would be easy to say that many African American students come from single parent households and thus have more transportation issues, or that they look to be more involved in sports. Perhaps they would prefer to sing gospel in the church choir than learn classical music in an orchestra.

Regardless of stereotypes, and perhaps even because of the falsities they promote, our program needs to step up to the responsibility of representing the whole neighborhood. Due to an already long waiting list, we have done little recruitment. Most on the waiting list are Latino who know of the program through word of mouth. Many African-American parents have told me that they assumed the program was for Latinos, and had doubts about enrolling their children. All of these children have an ear for music somewhere, and it would be a missed opportunity for the program and its Teaching Artists to not find a way to attract a most diverse group of kids and develop a
musical community less divided than their own neighborhood.

As the face of our program, the Teaching Artists are the ones who must learn to accurately represent the intent of the program. However, in several instances, I have heard Teaching Artists ignorant to racial issues. “I just can’t talk to Ishmael’s mother, I feel like she’s always
busy and not present like the other parents. I don’t think she cares.” In this particular case, Ishmael’s mother, who is an African American, works 2 jobs as a single parent while the rest of the students in the class, all Latino, have stay-at-home Moms that hang out with each other right outside the classroom. In another case, an African-American student quit her class because she felt like her Teaching Artist spoke Spanish in class too much. Her mother told me, “She felt like the class wasn’t for her kind.”

Our Teaching Artist faculty is a loving group of professional musicians extremely proficient. What we lack is training is in Sociology and Cultural Sensitivity, practices that would be fully relevant in a program such as ours, where practicing music is the mode towards building community and fighting for Social Justice. While it’s not surprising that ‘Social Action through Music’ is not a common course in today’s top Conservatories, perhaps it is time to think about the benefits of such training to assure effectiveness in marginalized communities.


Teaching Artists as Advocates

by Joan Weber

Teaching Artists could lay a claim to caring more about arts education than just about anyone else. We have given up hope of high salaries with great benefits in the interest of educating young people in and through the arts. Many of us have learned our craft experientially. because, until very recently, there were very few training programs for our field. All the while, we have continued to grow as artists, knowing that we demand excellence of ourselves in both our art form and teaching. We are improving our practice through action research, arts integration and documented outcomes. We are professionals. Let’s be like other professionals and ask our bosses for a raise. While we’re there, let’s ask for a larger workforce to meet the real demand for arts education in our communities.

We deserve a living wage that includes enough money to pay taxes and have health insurance. What we do has incredible value to the education of children around the world. It’s time to show policy-makers that value by introducing ourselves to them. We don’t generally have that opportunity. After demonstrating the value of arts education through testimony about our practices, we just ask for more money. That’s really it. What’s beautiful is that the better we do for ourselves, the better we do for kids.

Arts Education Month is in March. During that time, let’s make a commitment as Teaching Artists to Testify for Arts Education in March 2011. This is an important time in the budgetary process for school systems. Decisions made during this time will dictate school budgets for the next year. If arts education partnerships are not in the budgets at this time, it’s harder to “find” the money for a teaching artist later. The Board of Education determines the budget for the entire school system. If they require all schools to have budgets for arts education programs, then that

becomes policy for the system. If not, each principal decides on how to allocate discretionary budget lines, including artists or transportation.

Teaching Artists have direct evidence about the benefits of arts education. We must gather our lesson plans, compile our anecdotes, line up our slides and write speeches about how our programs have affected students’ lives. We must tell the board members our stories and convince them to spend more money to create more stories like that. Let’s tell them why we are Teaching Artists.

While we are with the Board of Education, we must also advocate for arts specialists in every school building. The truth is that arts specialists make it possible for us to have the impact that we do. Teaching artists are complements to specialists, not replacements. We must always make that clear to policymakers.

Join Teaching Artists and other arts education advocates across the country in a new social community at Our goal it to build a grassroots movement of people that want to make sure that kids in our communities have arts education. It requires everyone’s help. Teaching Artists must be at the table of school reform, arts education standards and school system budget decisions. Showing up and testifying is a great start. Please e-mail me at to share your story or ask questions.

Teaching Artist Town Hall in Chicago, Minneapolis and Scotland

Here are pictures from tonight’s Teaching Artist Town Hall, hosted by Columbia College Chicago and facilitated by Becca Barniskis and Nick Jaffe from the TAJ editorial board. The town hall was a lively discussion (via Skype) between over 50 teaching artists from in Chicago, a group in Minneapolis, led by Barbara Cox of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and Diarmuid McAuliffe, of the University of the West of Scotland.

The town hall started with a talk onthe nature of art and community; then the group watched and discussed a video from local student artist Leche Fair. Teaching artist Daniel Shea and Corrine Rose of Columbia’s Museum of Contemporary Photography also spoke and gave more insight on Leche’s work, as she could not attend.

There was even some Twitter backchannel discussion taking place under the hashtag #teachingartist.

If you attended the town hall we’d love to hear your thoughts and encouraqe you to continue the discussion started at tonight’s event!

Cross Discipline Collaboration and Education: “The Series!” – Tom Berich

Over the years I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in a number of vastly different artistic disciplines. Theatre, Film, Recording, Dance, Visual, etc., and, having had that opportunity, I have noticed a consistent lack of understanding, or, in some instances an actual refusal to accept how the different disciplines work, certainly independently, but this transfers rather quickly into collaborative stumbling blocks.

It’s fine if you are working on writing your script by your self, but how does a writer deal with the actor saying “My character wouldn’t say that, so I’m not going to.” Or when a lighting designer says, “What do you mean the dancers need to wear red? This won’t work with the design at all!”

Musicians approach the stage differently than actors do. A choreographer addresses a piece of music in a completely different way than a set designer

An opera singer could belt something out that melts your heart, but then you have to stuff her into a corset, throw a number of VERY hot stage lights on her and have her sing the exact same thing folded up into a ball.

In many cases a variety of disciplines need to find a way in which to communicate effectively with one another. This is much easier said than done and more often than not conflicts arise from an inability to communicate or even fundamentally understand how your collaborators work. The creative process from artistic discipline to discipline tends to be VASTLY different.

Over the next few articles we’ll look at how different disciplines can effectively communicate and collaborate on various projects. We’ll be providing examples of successful (and not so successful) collaborations and examining why they may or may not work and provide interviews with the artists involved.

Engaging Diverse Learners with Diverse Art Forms by Richard Jenkins

Teaching Artists are finding themselves in classrooms with an ever-growing diversity of students; students with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, students with various learning styles, and students with varying degrees of cognitive, behavioral, or physical disabilities. Engaging such a broad range of students in art-making can be daunting.

Occasionally, teaching artists are challenged to develop new skills and understanding in order to meet the needs of these students. Here are some questions that I considered when I was recently invited to work with a diverse group of children.

Who am I teaching? What are the students’ strengths, preferences, and challenges? And how will that affect my teaching?

I worked in an ESL classroom with many children coming from dual-language households. Seven of the students were non-English speaking. Also, there were three students with learning disabilities that limited their abilities to write. All of the students were eager to make visual art and many loved acting. So, during this residency, the ESL teacher would translate my instructions into Portuguese, dictation would be provided for the students who had trouble writing, and all of the students would be allowed to express their stories in oral, written, dramatic, or visual form.

What is it about the creative process of my art form that is beneficial to a child’s cognitive, social, and/or emotional development?

In my studio I am creating stories that are much like stage plays on paper with actors, dialog, and settings. Drawing characters with specific attributes and qualities, to the service of the story, is one of the fundamental elements of my craft.

In the classroom, I taught these students how to identify and draw different lines, shapes, and patterns. Then I taught them how to synthesize theses elements into unique characters. Next they named their characters and assigned attributes to them. Soon their drawings became imbued with personal meaning, and they wanted to share their work. This provided a powerful motivation for them to master their skills and knowledge.

What is my own “growing edge” here?

Having earlier made the theater connection to my art-form and learning about the student’s fondness for acting, I decided this was a perfect opportunity for me to learn another art form. With the help of a friend (a teaching artist with a theater background) I developed two improvisation activities to assist the students in the creation of their narratives. All of the students had the chance to bring their characters and stories to life in dramatic skits.

During this residency, all of these varied students became highly engaged in their projects and learning. The students were given multiple options for engaging with the curriculum content and multiple means for expressing their ideas and stories. Finally, like a challenging art-making experience, this residency, with its diverse group of students, opened new avenues for me to explore in my art form and in my teaching practice.

Drawing Meaning by Shaqe Kalaj

He draws lines on his paper that chisels the wrinkles of the woman’s face. He doesn’t stop, because he can’t. He’s found something in drawing this woman that he hasn’t found in his life, including his traditional education. He’s found something that resonates with his inner person that’s meeting him as he carves out the rest of her existence with his defined pencil.

Could it be that the student found something real about what he was creating? His connection to the subject matter went beyond doing a drawing and into understanding the woman behind the lines. His connection to the subject matter brought an engagement that we hope to see with all students. The woman in his drawing became more than a drawing, it was as if she brought something real and tangible for the student. Could it be that the student found meaning in drawing the woman that met an unexpressed need?

Meaning, to paraphrase its dictionary definition, is the communication of something that is not directly expressed. Given its indirect nature, exploring meaning is a difficult pursuit, because there’s no right way as to how to create meaning — just like art, which has no prescribed answer.

This is what’s absolutely beautiful about the creation of meaning, because it differs for each person or what is familiar for a group of people. But if you start to uncover what might be meaningful for someone and make those connections to them personally, they’re going to engage in their work and life with purpose and drive in a whole new way.

We’re talking about a whole new education model when we start to play with the idea of meaning and the possibilities that it can stimulate. When a student finds an idea or information relevant and emotive, he or she takes the information through their whole body. By seeking meaning, as teaching artists we find that we open up ways of learning that the student knows is possible. The student may not be able to communicate what will aid them to engage in learning, but if we facilitate a kind of learning that expresses an unrealized need, the student knows and experiences the difference.

The student I described entered his work in a whole new way, because that kind of connection to his work was made apparent for him, and as a result this dormant talent emerged. The student didn’t understand why he became engaged; he became a part of the essence of the woman he was drawing, meeting an unexpected need. I believe meaning is a gold mine in education. We’ll find an engagement in students that will surprise us, and open doors of higher thinking for the

Shaqe Kalaj is a visual artist, VSA arts fellow, and teaching artist and artist-in- residence at Art & Ideas Contemporary Art Gallery & Studio, in Plymouth, Michigan