Teacher As Artist

Oct 01, 2020

I have a real distaste for canned curriculum. The memories of being forced to follow a pacing guide, being reprimanded if I wasn’t on the same page as the other teachers, making photocopies of worksheets, and being bored out of my mind while I read a script to my students… it sends shivers down my spine. I did not spend precious years of my life engaged in deeply understanding the world and its complexities to be told by a set of unknown individuals working at a corporate firm what to teach and how to teach it. Canned curriculum is the marker of a society that gave up and gave in to mediocrity.

Our Collective Responsibility

I’m a believer that a holistic, culturally responsive, arts-centered, liberatory education is our collective responsibility as educators. We owe it to the future to rethink who we are, what content we deliver and our methodology to meet learning goals. Canned curriculum is devoid of the ingredients for a holistic, culturally responsive, arts-centered, liberatory education.

We deny our students access to the range of their minds and full selves when we rely on biased lessons that center a white dominant narrative, when we ignore who they are, when we ignore what neuroscience and cognitive science tell us about how we learn, and when we allow established “teach to the test” norms to dictate the flow, aesthetic and culture of our classrooms.

It is our collective responsibility to make sure we compliment the future with humans equipped for critical thought and critical engagement. Are you ready?

In The Beginning

My first teaching assignment was at a Montessori Charter School. We learned methodology but were not handed a compiled curriculum to teach the classroom. That would have been against the agency of the learner. Maria Montessori’s pedagogy is about following the curiosity of the child and guiding them along a path of discovery, allowing them to soak up the world around them as they engage in meaning making. This was a predominantly white school. I learned a lot, but I left because I wanted to serve and work with children who were Black, like me.

Teaching Turned Terrible

My next teaching assignment was at a charter school for predominantly Black/African American students, (98%) to be exact. I was handed a set of curricula upon signing my contract. Saxon Math and Open Court Reading. I was told to be on the same page as the other teachers and to not create my own content (which I had been used to doing at the Montessori school).

The first half of the year was agonizing. I hated the 90 mins of ELA I was expected to facilitate and the 90 mins of math after that. My students went home after 3 hours of canned curriculum instruction (it was a half-day Kindergarten class). I didn’t understand the use of the Open Court alphabet cards. Why couldn’t I have all the cards turned over at the same time? What if my students were ready to see and know the whole alphabet? These weren’t the rules. I had to introduce one letter a week based on frequency (it has since changed), which greatly slowed down the academic achievements of my students. Do you see how utterly frustrating this was? I could have had my students reading fluently by Christmas and here I was in January still introducing letters and sounds and the accompanying sight words.

Saxon math was the same. I have one very clear memory of teaching Saxon math. I had to use these little plastic teddy bears (which were the least offensive manipulative that we were given to teach with). The lesson was about teaching numbers up to 20. Students had to follow exactly what I was doing. I was forced to read a script so the pacing guide was on the floor right in front of me. It said, “Line all the bears at the bottom of your paper.” I had to repeat this to my group of wiggly Kindergarteners who wanted to do anything but keep bears in a line on a piece of paper. “Push one bear up to the top of the paper.” I remember reading through the first few lines and realizing I had to read this 20 times. I remember flopping over the pacing guide, spreading my arms out to my students and saying “Stop!” “This isn’t fun is it?!” They all cheered. “I hate this!” said one kid. Nearly in a riot, I had to think quick. Song. I started singing and had all my students put their bears away. “Let’s sing for math today.” I made up a song about numbers right then and there and had my students jump in with phrases to build the song together as a class. We clapped our hands in rhythm, stomped our feet, and laughed! And right then and there, I said I would no longer follow the Saxon math scripts. If I could have burned it in a bonfire right then and there, I would have. But I had to pretend to follow it and at most, follow the pacing guide, and report on it to my administrators weekly.

A former student is writing the cover to his poetry book about bread. It’s titled “No One is the Boss of Yeast.”

A former student is writing the cover to his poetry book about bread. It’s titled “No One is the Boss of Yeast.”

An Arts Integration School

Next I moved to a new city and found myself teaching at an arts integration school. Canned curriculum was available but I was not expected or forced to use it. As a recovering canned curriculum educator, it took me a whole year to relearn how to teach without a spiral bound text telling me what to do. I was actually expected to Teach for Understanding. I was expected to use my creative mind, lead artful instruction and Make Learning Visible. I was expected to open up the week for students to engage in visual and performing arts with community artists (including parent artists). My students had music and visual arts once a week to build Studio Habits of Mind. I was in shock. The entire year.

I saw the immediate change in myself as a teacher. I was happierfor one. And I realized how much I missed the artsin my life for two. The school aesthetics were harmonious, filled with student art everywhere. The walls were covered with prideful learning. Bells, drums, pianos, guitars, xylophones and singing could be heard from the auditorium. It felt like a sanctuary. It was.

As I became more proficient in integrating the arts into the content, I learned how to seamlessly allow for student inquiry, center arts experiences as the vehicle to learning and understanding and learned how to assess student knowledge in authentic and meaningful ways. One year, my students learned about Breads around the World*. Their performance of understanding was to make a cooking show where they showed an audience how to make a type of bread. They studied bread from seed to wheat stalk. From the milling process to baking. They learned about the people, culture and rituals of bread making. They visited large and small bakeries. They studied cooking shows. They wrote poetry books (see image above). They wrote scripts for their own show. They made their own set designs. Did I mention they were Kindergarten and First Graders? Yes, it was more than awesome! And in case you’re wondering, the unit exceeded the learning goals that the state standards had mapped out for me.

Canned Curriculum and the School to Prison Pipeline

What I haven’t mentioned yet, is that the arts centered school was predominantly white. It was more diverse than the Montessori school but definitely wasn’t a school serving the rich diverse landscape the school was located in. This is when I really began to understand the role of the arts, who had access to them, and for which reasons.

Simply put, predominantly white and wealthy schools always have the arts. Predominantly Black and Brown schools rarely have the arts. The arts support students to be critical thinkers and to be critically engaged with the world because the arts are how humans learn best. Rote and didactic ways of teaching and learning produce mediocre ways of thinking and mediocre engagement with the world. We have the data to prove it. The New York Times reported on December 5, 2019 that in analyzing data over the last 20 years through the PISA report(an international student assessment data compiler) two-thirds of our 4th and 8th graders are NOT proficient in reading and only 14% can actually determine fact from fiction. There has been no change with all the money spent on reading and math in the last 20 years. This means that No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core have not moved our kids academically as a whole.

In short, we have not prepared our students for college and career readiness. In fact, colleges have shifted their methodology to meet the ways that students were taught in high school...through the preparation of standardized test-taking aka (rote, drill and kill, and didactic methods of teaching and learning). We are not collectively preparing our students for the marketplace or for community engagement which is needing and seeking innovative thinkers, creatives, problem solvers and collaborators. We’ve known this for some time and have made little shifts in our educational landscape to meet these needs.

Instead, we are perpetuating the School to Prison Pipeline. Yes, this should feel like an overused term rattling in your head, but until we fully dismantle it and insist on equity and justice in the classroom, we need to keep identifying how it shows up in teaching and learning. The ACLU reports that “Black students are suspended and expelled 3 times more than white students. Students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.” The persistent elimination of the arts is one of the key design features of maintaining a school to prison pipeline.

An educator explores a day of building connections between the arts and education with Studio Pathways.

An educator explores a day of building connections between the arts and education with Studio Pathways.

Teacher as Artist: The Creative is You

Educators, please understand this, you are an artist! You’ve been asked to hide and stifle your creative self sans making a beautiful bulletin board (don’t get me started). Even if you work at a progressive school that supports liberatory pedagogy, you may never have been introduced to the role of the contemporary artist or even exposed to the brilliance of the arts as culturally responsive education. Teachers, you may be told to integrate the arts and then masterfully had your students making the same version of a peacock for a study on birds. I am poo-pooing this unapologetically. Centering the role of the arts with the understanding of how they are culturally responsive is one of the biggest leaps we can make as a nation of teachers to move our system of teaching and learning in the right direction. The first is teaching our babies how to read. Because, as Fredrick Douglass says, “Education…means emancipation.” And with the same heartbeat, I want to also explain that you can teach our babies how to read through the arts!

My hope for you in the new year is to accept that you have not only mastered the art of teaching and learning but that you are the artist and it is your birthright to find, claim, and keep developing the artistry that uniquely and profoundly helps you continue to make meaning in the world. And to then in turn, provide the rich experiences for your students to find themselves in and through a holistic, culturally responsive, arts-centered, liberatory education so that they also are able to understand and participate in the world around them with the level of complexity and empathy most needed for our perplexing times. (Have I mentioned the correlation between the arts and social emotional learning? It’s true!).

I will leave you hopefully wanting to ditch canned curriculum in exchange for a holistic, culturally responsive, arts-centered, liberatory education. I will close with the following recommendations on who to follow, pay attention to, take a class with and evolve your own pedagogy and methods for teaching and learning. Here’s to our future of learning!

  1. Zaretta Hammond:Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Understand the role of culture in cognitive processing and how to design your lessons to meet the needs of the brain. Zaretta has some upcoming classes, some free, and a new book coming out in 2020.

  2. Studio Pathways, A bit of self-promotion here, but come learn with us. We help teachers put into praxis the role of the arts and equity. We are the creative team behind Rise Up! An American Curriculum, Othering and Belonging Curriculum for UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, Racial Healing Curriculum developed for World Trust and the Kellogg Foundation and Instructional Designers for Zaretta Hammond (CRT and The Brain).

  3. Follow the artists! Explore some of our favorites- Adia Millett, Hank Willis Thomas, Anna DeVeare Smith, Amy Sherald, Olafur Elliason, Brett Cook, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Carrie Mae Weems, Ai Wei Wei, Misty Copeland, your local orchestra, your local comedians, your local poets, your local graffiti artists, your local street artists, your local actors, your local visual artists, your local musicians, your local dancers. Follow them and observe the questions they ask, the things they make, the inferences made, the analysis they share. Invite them for coffee, invite them into your classroom, collaborate, and have the time of your life.

  4. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Diane Friedleander: A Humanistic Approach to Scaling Up. This piece explores systems thinking in education and centering humanity vs policy.

  5. Rise Up! An American CurriculumCreative explorations of democracy, revolution and citizenship, connecting past, present and future, found in the themes of Identity, Power, Embodiment, and Narrative. Inspired by Hamilton the Musical, this is a production of Studio Pathways including Marc Bamuthi Joseph at The Kennedy Center, Michelle Mush Lee founder of Whole Story Group and Jah Yee Woo, Teacher of the Year, Oakland.

In the words of bell hooks, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility…” We have a moment at hand to take all that we’ve learned about teaching and learning the past 20 years and make the needed adjustments to carry out a bright future inclusive of a restored planet, restored faith in humanity, and a restored vision for a bright world.

“We must continue to lay the groundwork for the best future we can imagine now.”- john a.powell

*Breads Around the World was a teacher developed curriculum specifically designed for K/1 instruction at our school. Creators and contributors are Jenn Bloom, Marissa Berman, Lily Jones, Justin August, Tatum Moser, Jasmine Sheldon and myself.

Further articles on canned curriculum that I appreciate a lot!

  1. “Canned Curriculum” Caterwauling by Carmel McDonald

  2. Teaching Canned Curriculum by Hope Teague-Bowling

Gratitude to the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.