Joseph Campbell, the American mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of competitive mythology and religion shared a bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: As you go the way of life you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.
I’ve spent many years in and out of schools bringing ideas and challenges from the worlds of dance and theatre to the world of education. I’ve encouraged, maybe more than encouraged, taught, prompted, and occasionally exhorted teachers in school and community programs to “jump” by adding arts based learning experiences into their teaching practice. “You go,” I say, “activate creative thinking and watch the learning and energy that develops. Watch how arts experiences engage the learners in your care. See the ways that kids can enjoy their own learning, make meaning of things, and learn to work together.”
I have met many teachers who have been excited to try something new and see what happens. But time and again I have met and worked with teachers who take various workshops brimming with good ideas and approaches, who talk about the value of the arts and the ways arts integration can make a difference in students learning, yet they stop short of actually trying out the approaches. They could ask kids to get up out of their chairs to physically ‘discover’ a character by trying on various gestures, postures or walks embodying a stance or reaction to help them to find the “right” describing word for their story. They could ask students to create a movement phrase representing the essence of a Greek mythological god or explore how sound waves travel. Yet they don’t, and I wonder about the barriers or challenges that stand in their way.
I know that teachers navigate full plates of demands and expectations. With large numbers of learners in their classrooms they are expected to individualize instruction, be alert to changes in a students behavior based on something going on at school or home, and cover identified curriculum on a specified timeline. Schools are also expected to provide medical care, meals, and police supervision for students The plate is full and getting fuller. And now I’m asking them to use the arts in their teaching practice as well. Yikes!!
And yet, imagine……How can an active classroom help build attention, focus, and interest with learners? How will using image and action build clearer understandings? How does making and viewing help learners find evidence within the art work to support their interpretations or conclusions? How do the skills used in making a movement study or theatre scene make learning more memorable, nuanced, novel?
After years of encouraging teachers, modeling the work and scaffolding the learning I feel its time to take a deep breath, summon a full voice and say “Just give it a go. Please.” In this era of 140 character tweets and 24/7 news cycles that condense complexity to sound bites I hesitate to call upon a marketing motto but really, as Nike has so successfully told us, JUST DO IT.
Try asking kids to show what they think by moving their ideas. Ask good questions about the work. Be alert to the learning within the making. Try doing what so many parents have said at so many family dinner tables, “just take a bite.” Take a bite of new learning. TRY IT. See what you think, what you notice about the process and the outcome.Maybe that bite of broccoli needs a little seasoning or to be mixed with other ingredients. Adjust. Then try it again. A familiar theatre game is called “GO” – improvisation relies of the idea of “yes, and…..” When we move our ideas to investigate and show our thinking we go farther, forward into broader and deeper understandings. We can all gain new insight and perspective about teaching and learning when students are invited to access arts based entry points to ideas and avenues to understanding.
I keep thinking about the ways the arts open doors and shed light. I think about how students are as unsure and nervous about learning, about doing it “right” as we older learners are. Teachers are asked to be the knowers but perhaps the best knowing we can offer comes in helping those we work with to consider ideas in new ways modeling our willingness to try something different, to experiment. Light may spill over the minds and actions of learners as they get up and move contrasting qualities of two poems or move a sequence of tableaux showing prediction, evidence, outcome. A process of draft and revision develops persistence in those making the work.
I met recently with colleagues from a performing arts and education center that I work with. They were questioning, lamenting really, the gaps they see between teachers being given professional development resources, support from arts organizations and artist in residence programs and teachers bringing those ideas and approaches into their work and classrooms. For those struggling with uncertainty or hesitation I say, “Jump”.. It doesn’t have to be a big jump. As with many things a first step leads to next steps. That happens for us as teachers, as students, as humans. We are explorers in our learning and our lives. So take a deep breath. Take two. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.
Joseph Campbell Foundation http://www.jcf-myth.org