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Getting Ready for School:
Teaching Artist's Checklist

by Alice Lovelace
Atlanta, Georgia

Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Jeremy Nichols and Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace with student Jeremy Nichols at Horizon School in Atlanta, Georgia.
So it’s summer, and while you are enjoying the break in your routine, you know those school bells will be ringing soon. This article is for those teaching artists who continue to try to make sense of working in education, and those artists who are thinking about taking their first foray into the arena of education.

With No Child Left Behind and the constant changes in local and state education goals, it is always a good idea to checkout the state and local board of education web sites for changes in core curriculum and learning goals. Make sure you connect what you do to one or two of those goals. The connection should be very clear and demonstrate your grasp of what students need to learn, not abstract or fuzzy.

Some schools are creating requirements for anyone who comes in contact with students. At some schools this means they want to know about your professional background, at others it might include a criminal background check or fingerprinting. Be aware and ask questions.

The greatest challenge to being a teaching artist is scheduling. You can almost bet on the fact that at least one or two of your planned days will turn out to be for auditorium sessions, or some special program that wasn’t on the schedule when you planned your residency. Be patient, be flexible, do not blame or point your finger, and never lose your temper.

I have found that the rewards for working in schools far outweigh any of the obstacles. I believe that I am bringing students a new way to connect with education and helping them clarify some very personal reasons to learn and grow as human beings. While I work hard to make sure my art connects in real ways to what students need to know for academic success, I recognize that a lot of my work is about the future.

First thing you want to do is get really clear about your art and how to translate what you do into education and position it in the classroom.

Am I comfortable around and compatible with children?

Being a teaching artist is not for every artist. Be honest with yourself. Schools are the dominion of children. To do a good job you have to be child centered, or you will not be able to cope with the uneven playing field of ability and emotions. The way children are sometimes intensely focused, and the next minute playing; or the fact that some students will be over confident about what they can do, while others with ability will seem to have no confidence.

One of your most challenging tasks will be creating a sense of community in the classroom. Of course this depends on your ability to recognize the culture and community that already exists in the classroom. Pay attention to what the students pay attention to -- sometimes the teacher is the focus of the classroom community, but at times you will find that it is actually another student who is the center of the class community. You want to be sure to honor the fact that you are the visitor in their community and create an introductory exercise that allows them see you as a positive addition to their community. Next, you must honor them by making room in your lesson and in decision making for the voice of the students.

Next ask yourself, do I think teaching my art form will diminish me or my art in some way?

Teaching artists learn fairly quickly that there are only some elements of their art that are appropriate for the classroom, and that the decision is made based on the grades you will teach. This is easier to deal with if you have developed for yourself a teaching artist philosophy. You must be clear about what part of your process adds to student learning, you must pick and chose what is appropriate. You can create lesson plans based on your art -- any of your art, as long as you make relevant connections to education.

The most powerful tool in your bag is your process, how well you understand it, how well you can relate it to literacy, scientific process, philosophy and mathematics, geography and social studies. Pick the correct art lesson for the connected academic connections. Try to demonstrate to students how to make interdisciplinary connections -- show them how your art process connects.

Create lessons that demonstrate for students how essential creativity is -- the ability to create something from nothing, how brave it is to take a chance, to be vulnerable in the hope that you will discover something about yourself and your learning.

Include opportunities for teachers to develop new skills and to see themselves in new ways. Don’t let language become a barrier; create art based experiences that allow the English as Second Language students to connect with the learning. Leave room for the students to teach you something -- let them solve some of the problems for themselves

Think you could do a better job than the current classroom teachers?

Connecting with a teacher is sometimes a joy, and other times leaves you walking away shaking your head. Not all teachers are created equally. Teachers study hard to get to the classroom. Of all the workers I know teachers have some of the longest days, very demanding schedules, a lot of bosses, and work under intense public scrutiny. It is only natural that from time to time you run into teachers who harbor some resentment that an artist, with no prior education training, is going to come into their classroom and teach their students better than they can.

It is your job to let that teacher know you respect what they do, that you are there only as a resource for the teacher to draw upon. Remember, while you may get the class clown to sit down and write a poem for you, that is only one day in the life of that child. The classroom teacher must get each student to perform at their very best every day. So, while we like to think we are modeling classroom management, and that the teacher stands to learn a lot from us, we must remember our situations are not equal.

Take the time to find out something about the teacher(s) you will work with. Many teachers create a classroom website, find out if your teacher has one and visit it before you show up in the classroom. Take the time to learn some of the vocabulary used in education, connect this vocabulary to your arts vocabulary so that when you have a discussion with the teacher you can demonstrate that you have taken the time to learn how what you do fits into the teacher’s world and the world of education. This goes a long way to build respect. Ask the teacher lots of questions, including questions that don’t have anything to do with school or teaching. The more you let the teacher talk, the more you will begin to understand how you can make the lesson something the teacher wants to get involved in. Make room for the teacher as collaborator, don’t let them shuffle all the decisions back to you, keep trying to get the teacher to invest some thinking and ownership into the process. If possible, get the teacher to stand up in front of the class with you and team teach. Every time you demonstrate an arts based action, ask the teacher to talk about how this connects to academics the students are working on. Take the time to brush up on your brain based learning and multiple intelligences research.

Have a great time!



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Published in In Motion Magazine May 1, 2005

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