Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Social Justice And Arts Education by Sue Goncarovs, MPA

Humanizing America’s classrooms starts and ends with social justice. For too many years, our curriculum danced around America's love affair with inequity, violence and intolerance. Testing became the norm and as a result what’s being taught resembles a highly sanitized one-size-fits-all box instead of a tempered reflection of America's struggles with equality and peace. Even though educational research is replete with facts and documentation about how the Arts help students succeed, there has been purposeful marginalization of Arts Education. It is my personal belief that the ultimate purpose is gentrification and racist contribution to the failure narrative.
Humanizing our nation’s classrooms will require that we re-adjust our basic, professional equipment. Specifically, teacher training and professional development needs to be reclaimed for racial and social justice inside an artistic medium.

As an Art Specialist, I taught about how artists struggle, use endurance and, persistence in order to make Art. I conveyed to my students that struggle makes us human. Struggle gives meaning and teaches the truths of ‘difficult.’ When we bond together against our own struggles, we learn what it means to become human.

To learn from struggle identifies essential human capacity.

My professional struggle to protect the integrity of my integrated Art program meant that I disagreed with administrative colleagues woefully ignorant about how integrated Arts work. Many colleagues called themselves out for lack of formal Arts training while others wore their ignorance proudly. A few teachers were open about not caring about Art whatsoever. I personally detested the teachers who declared such pronouncements in front of our students.

In my opinion, Teacher and administrative preparation programs that ignore the value and substance of the Arts and the tenets of social justice reject the foundations of education itself. Without humanistic substance, teachers and administrators rely on incorrect presumptions and stereotypes. These programs need to be identified and buried.

It is perhaps the primary reason for my writing this.

More often than I cared to count out loud, I had to dispel pre-conceptions as well as bury serious bits of disinformation:

• First. Art does not necessarily mean already accomplished freestyle drawing that encouraged “free expression” or staying inside coloring book lines. Art was not always ‘pretty;’
• Second. The Arts do not exist inside a box marked "Western European.”
American Art has Eurocentric roots, but are not exclusively. The Arts are often judged on white male standards in order to marginalize our diverse roots.
• Third. Administrative disinformation ubiquitously assigns the label ‘non-academic' since testmaniacs use the label to invalidate responsibility for understanding or funding staff development work involving human development, creativity, and humanity.“ Everyone has heard: Cut the Arts? Why not? --- – after all, we’re really interested in ‘improving academics.’” Yuck.
• Fourth. Art classes should never be used as a classroom teacher’s prep time on the master schedule. Cutting away Art time makes it difficult for classroom teachers to embed basic and complex concepts. Classroom teachers need to be involved and engaged in the integrated art lesson as well as plan with the Arts specialists. Art Time should never be used for testing.

In order to infuse social justice into my own Art, I crisscrossed my own readings of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Jonathan Kozol and Faith Ringgold. Their writings were my early teachers, and marches against apartheid and segregation were my lab studio.

Social Justice became as essential to my art education study as comprehending how the principles and elements of design connect to mathematics, economics, language arts and history.

Since the McCarthy era, academic witness at colleges and universities all over the world intersected Art and Social Justice. Drama, Theatre and Creative Writing were adapted into the English, Music and Language Arts curricula and yet School Boards and Districts ignorantly marginalized Music and Visual Arts by labeling programs small and “non-academic.” When School Boards and Districts did this, they marginalized potential, for cultural understanding, and humanism.

An example of a unit I designed as a fourth grade cooperative learning lesson that introduced symmetry, repetition, color, symbolism and balance by creating a paper quilt based on the Gee’s Bend quilters. Just as students were uncovering post-Civil War Reconstruction in Social Studies, division and fractions in mathematics, the Gee’s Bend quilts asked students to create blocks that demonstrated how poverty controlled the economics of human survival. Using paper and glue to, young hands planned their quilt blocks using overlap, contrast and symbolism, and inside their heads imagined how life was like the Gee’s Bend quilt makers. These quilts embodied the economics of poverty dictated by survival.

While many Teachers were trained to see the Artistic connections as thematic, social justice connections went deep and beyond the learning surface.

A second example is a second grade printmaking lesson on Adinkra introduced at a juncture when second graders merge concrete thinking in order to organize abstraction and symbolism. Insofar as the Adinkra West African roots heavily influenced American culture, mathematics, music and language, the lesson celebrated Adinkra influence in textiles and printmaking.

As if to scream out their cultural ignorance, our State Board of education voted to replace Adinkra with study of a North African city. No concern for substantive contributions of the Adinkra to American culture was contained in their edict.

Our Board of Education gave Testmakers permission to implement a sanitized, testable “Pearson-ized” curriculum without concern for the impact on either on real human development or critical thinking. Authentic assessment was replaced by data.

In order to pave the way forward to removing Art and Art Teachers, our state removed one of two required high school graduation Fine Arts credits in order to insert “personal finance.” The assault on Arts and Music staff resulted in a cascade-like elimination of certified Art teachers. Many were asked if they had certifications in “real” subjects so they could be placed elsewhere. Arts educators were treated as dispensable, disposable and irrelevant by their administrators. 

• Kindergarten Art time was cut to 45 minutes from one hour.
• Time was taken away from scheduled Arts classes in order to test.
• Decisions were made to disarrange the curriculum in each grade in order to remove the logic with which the Arts curriculum had been designed.
• Administrators in charge of showed NO concern for student completion of artwork, student art exhibitions or concerts.
• Administrators ordered Testing Time scheduled during Arts classes.
• Art rooms be sequestered for testing.
• Arts Teachers were burdened with complicated, irrelevant rubrics requiring 4 different art grades on every report card in each quarter. Given that elementary Arts teachers teach as many as 600-800 students, grading meant planning time was eaten away by learning how to grade and then bubbling in over 3200 grades quarterly.
• Visual Art was removed from the elementary core without real discussion with parents or teachers. No provision was made to secure classroom assistance for students with ED, mental or physical limitations during Art. I had no access to the specialist for the visually impaired when I taught a blind child. Art Teachers were no longer included in IEP meetings. 

Our classes were considered planning time for classroom teachers. No common planning was possible.

Although 94 percent of Elementary Art Teachers surveyed opposed the idea, scurrilous maladaptation of a marginally valid test designed for 8th graders was implemented for our sixth graders. High School art teachers with no elementary experience were asked to validate the importance of the test down Elementary teachers’ throats and the survey was abandoned.

The assessment cut out and replaced no fewer than 6 classes out of 18 weekly art lessons. The most heinous objection was named by surveyed teachers as cutting away the social justice curricular content. It had to be dropped in order to accommodate this maladapted test. Sixth grade was the year to study westward expansion. Hand-on lessons that engaged content knowledge of the slave trade, Native American cultural iconography, and Chinese immigration had to be abandoned. Since we were “assigned” times for the testing, we had NO choice in our scope and sequence.

This art “assessment” intimidated youngsters expected to master technique techniques with no instruction that couldn’t and wouldn’t be introduced until High School.

Proctoring this “assessment” mandated a verbatim style with no demo or Q&A.

Schools with the highest concentration of diverse students were forced to eliminate yearlong instruction so Art could be truncated into only one quarter of the school year. These students weren’t included in the collected “assessment” data, so test data from sixth grade programs in less diverse schools were “mingled.”

In middle schools, “required electives” began to replace middle school Arts electives, so Arts teachers to “compete” against other teachers! This meant their time was cut back students endured larger classes, giving students less Art experience in prep for high school upper level. Specialty classes had to be eliminated or dumbed down so college preparation was not as competitive.

My middle school initiated Visual literacy as a core subject through 8th grade as a way to provide our 99% non-English speaking student population [who had little school background] meaningful and educationally relevant ways to acquire English and school readiness. We succeeded, and instead of replicating Visual Literacy throughout other diverse school populations, it was abandoned by our County. A charter school had been proposed so it was necessary to characterize our students as failures who needed military style discipline.

Experienced teachers were demoralized. Our Arts community had carefully woven drawing, sculpture, printmaking, and fibers strands with social justice to teach the truth of our country’s struggles with racism, sexism and gender bias.
Ignorance eliminated what it had taken years to forge. 

If we are to reinstate humanity in our classrooms Teachers must re-educate themselves beyond capability to interpret data from high stakes tests. We must insist that social justice and humanity support our students as their academic backbone.

If the politics of today have anything to show, it’s that truth must be taught.

A complete restoration of an integrated Arts curriculum should be included in ALL teacher training programs and post grad professional development. Social justice must be reintroduced in the lower, middle and upper grades. We need truth and humanity to inform administrators – who should be hired from the ranks of experience --- so we can competently reinstate the truth, especially if we are to be conscientious about teaching against social injustice.

Just ask any teacher.

Suggested resources.…/social-justice/certificate

About the author: Sue Goncarovs, MPA is a Visual Arts Specialist and Co-Director, BATs Meme Team

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