One of my jobs as the Artistic Director is to visit school sites to support teaching artists.  During a school year my observations take me to child development centers, elementary schools, middle schools and juvenile halls. My role is to understand what takes place during a 30 minute to 1 hr lesson, and offer suggestions to deepen engagement and critical thinking between artist and student.

Obviously, student engagement and levels of critical thinking play out in many different ways.  I recall visiting a site early one morning in a rural setting of hills and fire roads. The students filed into the classroom; four girls and nineteen boys.  Girls sat in a row of desks to the right, boys to the left.  All sank into their seats, board, tired, and disengaged.  At the back of the room a visual arts class was in progress with ten students bent over desks.  Five adults circulated the room.

Girl With Mandolin
Girl With Mandolin

Without an introduction, the artist projected a nude onto the wall, a cubist painting by Picasso.

A terse, sluggish, somewhat disconnected discussion followed on art, cubism, Paris café society in the 20’s, and what the students saw in the painting.

The artist switched on a recording of Gertrude Stein reading her poem, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Pablo Picasso.” Another discussion followed, this time the students showed early, timid signs of engagement and curiosity.  Then the assignment was given: “Write a piece about a person who you are or were very close to, and do it in the style of Stein or Picasso.”

Thirty minutes later, a few reluctantly read their poems, after being bribed with additional points for the day.  Based on the apparent low level of engagement, I was surprised by the content and power of the poems.  The students had written very personal, emotional pieces, and in the process had maintained a fascinating level of objectivity, uncharacteristic of teens. To me the poems had an elegant tension between emotion and detachment, and in the process the emotions had become powerful, truthful, unaffected and highly articulate.

Then they filed out of class in the same bored, tired, and routine way they had entered. Visibly, nothing had changed.