Last Friday I had the joyful opportunity to work with a group of music educators at the New Mexico Music Educators Association Conference—or, as most of us know it, the All-State Music Festival. We gathered on the UNM campus in a rehearsal room across the lobby from Popejoy Hall. A piano had been rolled into a corner, a few pieces of random music left behind, and—tucked haphazardly above one of the doors—was a black and white photo of the American education scholar John Dewey with “WWJDD?” printed below….What Would John Dewey Do?
In addition to sounding like a festive barn dance call (“next up....the dewey-do!”), I loved that one of the scholars whose work has profoundly shaped my education journey was there as guide and inspiration for our afternoon’s work. For one hour, we were going to take a deep dive into what’s possible when we think of our education practice as an art form and ourselves as artists. I like to think we were doing exactly what Dewey would have done.
Art and artists play a profound role in the formation of cultures. They reflect who we are but also help inspire and define our future. They mirror and challenge, record and reveal. In his 1962 essay The Creative Process, James Baldwin wrote that “the precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Choosing from a collection of writings about the role of art and artists—from Joseph Campbell to Aretha Franklin, Maxine Greene to Seth Godin—participants in the workshop selected and shared passages that resonated with them. I then invited them to cross out the word artist and write in educator, to cross out arts or music and write in education or learning. It was like rotating a kaleidoscope and delighting in what is revealed—something similar to what had existed just moments before yet somehow utterly new. Educators became those illuminating the path, those nurturing the capacity for wonder, those transforming the culture. The simple exercise reminded us of the larger purposes of our work as educators, those that extend beyond our particular subject areas and job descriptions.
I’ve always been most interested in those hard-to-name qualities that result in outstanding teaching and leading—that magic that is greater than the sum of content and pedagogy. We’ve all witnessed it—the combination of things that make a life-changing teacher, a transformational leader. It’s something hard to name, yes, but if I had to name it, I’d call it art. I’d call those kinds of teachers and leaders artists.
In his 2002 John Dewey Lecture at Stanford, Elliot Eisner argued that the very skills and “distinctive forms of thinking” necessary to create magnificent works of art are “relevant to virtually all aspects of what we [educators] do, from the design of curriculum, to the practice of teaching, to the feature of the environment in which students and teachers live.” His argument reminds us that while content expertise and pedagogical knowledge are essential, teaching at its very best evolves into an art form unto itself.
The music educators in last week’s workshop navigate a unique landscape of being musicians and artists in their lives beyond the classroom walls and also continually aspiring toward artistry as teachers. They already think of themselves as artists at least in part, and the invitation to expand this framework to include their classroom teaching was a manageable step. For some of the rest of us, the leap might be larger. Me, an artist? But the more we think of the art of teaching and the art of leading as the ultimate goals of our work, the greater the possibility for human insight, engagement with beautiful ideas, and the capacity to put skills to good and transformative use. In short, the greater the possibilities for our students.
Continuing in his Dewey Lecture, Eisner offered this compelling invitation to aspire toward artistry in all that we do, in hopes of offering young people the kinds of learning experiences they deserve:
“The highest accolade we can confer upon someone is to say that he or she is an artist, whether as a carpenter or a surgeon, a cook or an engineer, a physicist or a teacher. Imagination is no more ornament, nor is art. Together….they might help us restore decent purpose to our efforts and help us create the kind of schools our children deserve and our culture needs. Those aspirations, my friends, are stars worth stretching for.”
Gratitude to Joanna Hart, Bosque’s Choir Director and the Choral Vice-President of NMMEA the past two years, for the invitation to work with the music educators at NMMEA.