Ms. Donnan’s 7th grade drama class changed my life. I know that sounds dramatic, and it is. But it is also true. In drama class, I found my people. I found a creative outlet. I found a place where it was okay to be, well, dramatic. I also found a path to where I am now, the arts education director at the SC Arts Commission.
From Ms. Donnan’s drama class I went on to be involved in every aspect of theatre life at the South Carolina Children’s Theatre. As a teenager at SCCT I could be found on stage, back stage, and assisting classes – I had the unique opportunity to explore all areas of my chosen craft. This led to a BA in Theatre from Winthrop University, a career as a theatre artist and administrator at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, and several years as a drama teacher at Stone Academy of Communication Arts. After receiving my MFA in Theatre Management from Florida State University and spending two years working as the education manager for Opening Nights Performing Arts at Florida State, I journeyed back to South Carolina to join the team at the South Carolina Arts Commission. I can trace the path from Ms. Donnan’s 7th grade drama class directly to where I sit now, writing this blog post.
As we celebrate National Arts in Education Week, I can’t help but think of all the Ms. Donnans of the world. The teachers and mentors who provide opportunities for students to explore, create, and discover. Access to the arts can be a game-changer for young people. Students in schools with arts-rich learning outperform their peers in schools with low arts access (Arts Education Partnerships). According to the National Endowment for the Arts, teenagers of low socioeconomic status who have a history of in-depth arts involvement earn better grades and demonstrate higher rates of college enrollment and attainment than their peers. Time and again we see the impact the arts have on students and we celebrate the citizens they become.
These days I have the good fortune to occasionally cross paths with Ms. Donnan. I still think she’s a rock star and jump at any chance I get to work with and learn from her. When I first saw her after I was hired at the Arts Commission, I shared how her drama class inspired me to pursue theatre and that she was basically the reason I stood before her in this new job. She laughed and told me that when she taught me she was a fresh new visual art teacher, just a few years out of college. Her principal told her she was going to teach a drama class and she felt like she had no idea what she was doing. She just put one foot in front of the other and tried her best to give students a space to learn about and explore theatre. Explore, create, discover.
My life was changed by a teacher who was just trying her best - putting one foot in front of the other and doing the work. And isn’t that what it is all about? Day after day, teachers and mentors in the arts put one foot in front of the other and try their best. In honor of National Arts in Education Week, I say to the teachers and mentors of the arts education world… you have no idea the impact you make. You never know who you will inspire, what they will go on to do, or how you change the future. The arts challenge the status quo and encourage students to dig deep. They build character and help students become citizens of the world. So march forward, one foot in front of the other. Work to ensure all students have access to quality arts education experiences. Allow students to explore, create, and discover. Because I promise you, you don’t even know it yet, but you are someone’s Ms. Donnan.
Growing up as a child living in a small town in the rural south, I attended school with a multitude of cousins and spent the summers with my grandparents.
How I loved those summers! I’d leave on a Monday morning, bag packed, to spend hot South Carolina days visiting with my grandparents. I remember cutting flowers in the garden, eating tomato sandwiches, and dripping-down-your-chin peaches. I could usually be found painting in the barn loft, building forts in the woods and digging clay from the creek behind the house. Above all, what I remember from my summers was enjoying more creative moments in those two short months than the rest of the year combined. An imaginative and productive family surrounded me. My uncle was a wood carver; my cousin was a sculptor, and my grandmother was a quilter. They were all artists. Their homes were galleries, complete with original pieces of art, simply functional at times but always beautiful. Repurposed tools became sculpture, bolts of textiles and scraps of fabric became quilts or tapestry hangings, all with the timeless elegance of quality. Innovation and creativity were important to my family-a cultural nexus. The making of art was fundamental and came with the sheer joy of creating something new with a unique sense of style. I was given the freedom to experiment with materials, found objects and the space to work on a big back porch. I didn’t know it then but what I was given in those early formative years was a creative spark, or “expeditionary learning”. This catalyst of self-discovery inspired me, motivated me to learn, and fostered curiosity.
My story is not a rare one. No anomaly, but rather I joined a legion of individuals who have found meaning, a method of communication, and a veritable lifeline through exposure to the arts. This creative stimulus was further fueled via encouragement from arts educators in my local school district. As I grew up, I gained more perspective and a deeper understanding with the study of art in school. Beginning with my first art class, my art teacher, Liz Smith, was such a positive influence on me I immediately knew that I too wanted to teach art someday. We traveled to galleries, museums and visited artists’ studios. I experienced first hand her dedication to our profession and she affected my life in a profound way. She inspired me as an artist and ultimately to seek a career as an art teacher. She encouraged me to pursue an arts education in college where I was mentored by Roger Wolford. What a difference great teachers can make!
Again, I share my story as yet another illustration of why it is important to advocate for the importance of a quality, sequential arts education in our schools. For many children, school is the only place where they will get this kind of exposure that will stimulate their creativity. Once it’s sparked, truly sparked, it cannot be diminished, but it must be encouraged. If it had not been for this exposure, I would not know creativity and all of its possibilities. Instruction in the arts can keep our most at-risk students from falling through the cracks. We need the arts so students may have a place to celebrate individuality. One example from my early teaching career centers around a painting class made up of twenty 8th grade boys. I began the year by giving them an art survey to determine their level of knowledge. The results were telling. When I asked, “What are the primary colors?” The answer I received was, “The really important ones.” They thought Leonardo Di Caprio painted the Mona Lisa and Raphael and Michelangelo were both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I threw out all my lesson plans and started over to create individualized instruction. Curriculum that lent relevance to their lives, gave them confidence and avenues for success. And successful they became! These were students who had never picked up a paintbrush or lump of clay. These are the students I keep in the back of my mind when I am advocating for arts education in South Carolina—students who do not even know that they are artists, actors, musicians or dancers.
In addition to creativity, an education in the arts does an excellent job of giving students the skills, knowledge and understanding that leads to art making and skills that last a lifetime. Students will either be creators of or consumers of art. In my current position, I have found that arts education, in all its disciplines, creates a connection with the community at large by utilizing the arts as a tool for communication with families and fostering relationships. As school districts partner with higher education institutions, arts organizations, and local businesses, we expand the opportunities for student exploration and learning. Our most gifted art students need accelerated courses such as Honors and Advanced Placement to best serve their needs. Art education is visible, vital and valued in Spartanburg School District One. I am fortunate to work to work in a district that does not marginalize the arts but has embedded a vision for our program within each school, and has formulated a plan to achieve it. In fact, Dr. Ron Garner was the 2013 South Carolina Art Education Association Art Advocate of the Year.
A student-centered approach recognizes that art education contributes to the overall growth of experience; it enhances the meaning of everyday life and provides cognitive development. In the process, students develop a passion and commitment to achieve excellence as they master the communication, problem-solving, and technical skills to allow for a high-quality personal and work life. As arts educators, we encourage creativity to meet the demands of the rapidly changing workforce of the 21st century. More specifically, in South Carolina, the arts align with the following elements for success; World Class Knowledge, World Class Skills and Life and Career Characteristics, as outlined in the framework that supports the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. Not only does art teach pride in the satisfaction of a job well done, but the arts also teach our students not only how to look at the world differently but how to perceive the world differently.The arts are not elitist; they are in fact, inclusive. The arts have always reflected an awareness of social and cultural contexts. In our world where multitasking is commonly praised, the gift of deep thinking and the creativity and freedom that it brings, are skills that the arts teach. This is the spark that an education in the arts can bring.
Finally, the educational success of our children rests on creating a school environment that is both literate and imaginative, both competent and creative. There exists a robust body of research in various scientific fields including sophisticated brain imaging techniques supporting the idea that music, dance, theatre and visual arts positively affect cognition and intelligence. But consider this, should we just teach art for arts sake? Yes, because it is the right thing to do for our students and can create lasting, positive change. Art, taught with passion and purpose, encourages a child’s creative spark and is an essential part of the fabric of a child’s education. I believe that all children should experience such a spark. Arts education fosters the discovery of our innermost creative selves. Just like that little girl I once was, many students crave a creative outlet. They deserve it.
by Frank W. Baker
If you read any news story during the past year about “fake news” you no doubt also came across the phrase “media literacy.” Many of those stories recommended that “media literacy” be taught in our schools. And that’s a good thing.
But what exactly is media literacy? Since I’ve been teaching it for the past 20 years, I can tell you, from my perspective, that media literacy is applying critical thinking to media messages. Media literacy is about engaging students in both analyzing AND creating media messages.
One of the major ideas in media literacy is that all media represent something or someone. So looking at the photo below, I’d ask you: what is this?
If you answered: “it’s a horse” you’d be wrong. It’s not a horse. But rather it’s a photo of a horse: it represents the horse. We can’t touch the horse, or feed it, because it’s not real. I am willing to bet that many of you reading this have had no training in media literacy and so you would not have known about media as representations.
Most students, who see a production on the screen, aren’t thinking about how it got to the screen—the process. But knowing how media are made is really important.
Take movies as an example. The people who make movies are all crafts technicians who specialize in one area or another. Everyone from the camera operator to the costume designer to the storyboard artist has been trained to utilize certain techniques that communicate to us, the audience. It is these techniques that media literacy hopes to teach.
Media literacy also encourages critical inquiry—questioning. Who made this; why did they make it; what techniques did they use; who is the audience; who benefits; and who or what might be omitted? These are just a few of the questions students could and should consider when they study media. Most teachers teach with the media, but not many have been trained in teaching ABOUT the media.
So how do we get started teaching “media literacy” if we haven’t been trained? For years, the workshops I have conducted all start with visual literacy---learning to read images. I can take a photo from the morning’s news, cut off the caption, and engage students in a “close read” analysis.
I can take a magazine from the media center and have students deconstruct how the images on the cover communicate and persuade. I can take a commercial or film clip from YouTube and challenge students to understand how to analyze lighting, sound, camerawork, music and more.
The 2010 revision of the SC Visual & Performing Arts standards included “media literacy” for the first time. The 2017 revision now includes “Media Arts” which embeds media literacy within that standard.
If you teach with images or video (and I assume most educators do), then you should be interested in media literacy and how teaching it can enhance learning.
Want to know more? Here are two books I authored recently which I hope you might ask your school library media specialist to acquire:
In the meantime, if you have a question about media literacy education, and how to implement it, send me an email.
Guest blog post submitted by:
Frank W. Baker
PSAE Board Member
I grew up on one of the Finger Lakes about forty miles east of Rochester, New York where summers were spent in a carefree existence of riding bikes and playing tag. Our concerns were the color popsicle we’d get at the end of the day (hopefully cherry) and if the fireflies would be out that night. I can remember so many specific details from my childhood summers, almost forty-five years ago, as if they happened yesterday. Yet, I don’t remember the capitols of all fifty states (even though I memorized them in 5th grade) and I can recite less than ten presidents in order (even though at one time I could rattle off Washington to Ford in less than two minutes). Why is it that we remember some things, while others fade away almost immediately? I’ve learned through the years that what we remember is connected to experiences that were fun, engaging and interesting. The things that get us excited and that spark our curiosity are the things that keep us motivated and inspired to the point we often lose track of time.
When I was teaching first grade, I would start virtually every lesson or book by tapping into my students’ past experiences. “Who has seen a bird’s nest,” “Have you ever slipped on a wet rock?” Inevitably, the high achievers in my class were always the students who had a wide range of experiences and opportunities, especially over the summer. From horseback riding to playing guitar, swimming in the lake or playing Kick the Can, those experiences provided the platform for future learning. It’s important to point out here that incidental learning is just as important, and sometimes more important, than intentional teaching. My summer experiences provided opportunities such as learning about plants by creating my own terrarium or reinforcing geometry and engineering when we were building a tree fort. Play is a child’s job.
Tips to Prevent Summer Learning Loss
For more tips, see our article in the spring issue of National Association of Elementary School Principals Magazine.
And lastly, please consider participating in National Summer Learning Day on July 12, 2018.
National Summer Learning Day is a national advocacy day aimed at elevating the importance of keeping kids learning, safe and healthy every summer, ensuring they return to school in the fall ready to succeed in the year. Your participation sends a powerful message across the nation that summers matter and offers an opportunity to showcase how summers can make a life-changing difference in the lives of young people.
We all know that it takes a village to develop and sustain a successful arts program. That includes having a highly motivated and competent teacher at the helm, student buy-in, support from parents, support from the community and support from school and district administration. If any one of these components is lacking or missing it is likely that achieving success, whatever that might be defined as, will be hard to come by. In our blog today we are going to take a look at support from school and district administration – what it looks like, is it given or earned, developing professional relationships and how to handle situations where you might not feel supported.
What is Administrative Support?
School and district administrative support for arts programs is going to look different from district to district, school to school, program to program and teacher to teacher depending on the scenario and a million different variables. That means there is not just one clear cut answer. What one district or school can do to support teachers might or might not be possible in other places. However, here are universal supports that can be provided by school and district administration, in my opinion.
Is it possible for every administrator to provide all of these supports to all teachers every single day? Of course not. However, it is a great place to start and a good way to do some self-reflection as an administrator to see if you are providing support to arts programs in the way it’s needed the most.
Is School and District Administrative Support Given or Earned?
The answer is very simple. BOTH! Some of the supports listed above are simple and come very natural to administrators. However, many of the supports listed above only come with trust. Trust is built when teachers demonstrate over time that he or she is highly competent, dependable and a team player. Remember, actions speak much louder than words. If you want a high level of trust and support from administration you’ve got to be sure you are 100% professional, 100% of the time too. Be on time, be organized and always be willing to be a team player. That means that you are willing to work with others outside of your arts area and do whatever is needed to be done. One last thing that will help you earn the trust of administration is to be FLEXIBLE. That can sometimes be hard for arts teachers but your flexibility helps the administration carryout initiatives that are important to them. Your willingness to help and your flexibility will make you a valuable team player. In the long run that builds credibility and trust and as a result you will feel valued and supported by school and district administration at a higher level.
What Kind of Relationship Do You Have With Your Administration?
Get to know your school and district administration. Communicate with them on a regular basis about all of the great things going on in your program. They should hear from you, know you and know your program long before a problem comes up. Watch this great video to hear more about this from a teacher’s perspective.
What Can You Do If You Feel That You or Your Program is Not Supported by School and District Administration?
This is not a concrete list and I’m sure all of you could come up with just as many if not more suggestions. However, here are my thoughts on what you can do if you feel that you or your program is not supported by school and district administration.