Happy Holidays with Artistry

At this time of year we are moved by delicious sounds of the season, beautifully designed decorations and cards, folk and more formal dances that tell stories with immediacy and grace, & pageantry and storytelling through dramatic interpretations. These gifts: music, art, dance and drama, are also basic human ways of expressing important ideas and connections. It’s ironic that our leaders often celebrate arts products by attending performances or visual art objects without providing support for the on-going process – the arts education that begins at birth, building not only artistic skills and ways of knowing, but the imagination, creativity, problem-solving and cultural treasury that make a society great, build relationships, and give it a moral compass.
Our followers and friends are artists, educators, and consumers of the arts – and some are also the decision-makers who determine whether arts education continues, gains support, or is cut even further in the coming year. During the coming year, we’ll continue to share evidence as we generate it or find it in our colleagues’ work. We will advocate for the arts as powerful tools for living, learning, and communicating, and for arts education as an essential in the core curriculum.
Happy Holidays with artistry, however you celebrate. Wishing you a New Year in which you help keep quality arts education alive for our children – so we can continue to enjoy the benefits of gifts of artistry.


stone walls soften, branches bend, and beauty shows itself to those who choose to see it.

stone walls soften, branches bend, and beauty shows itself to those who choose to see it.

Reflections on the Role of the Arts and Education in Cultural Change Today

“Peace, justice, and equality,” says Mary Travers on the TV screen. “Keep on singing.”

“As long as we listen to the music, American will always have Peter, Paul and Mary,” says the PBS host of a recent retrospective documentary.

Peter Pan Live, or protester die-ins on the streets of NYC – which to watch??? Flip back and forth?

We’re in the middle of an important moment in the history of our democracy. Just like the somewhat comparable period in the 1960s, when we’re in the middle it’s hard to know exactly where we are, never mind where we’re going! There is turmoil in the world, turmoil and unrest in America, and the same economic and racial/cultural inequities that are the source of tensions – the heat that keeps the pot boiling.

Many of the leaders who galvanized the country in the ‘60s: artists, musicians, actors, and dancers, and a fledgling media through radio and emerging television have given way to a new generation. I just watched a PBS special on Peter, Paul and Mary (joined at one point by Pete Seeger), who created the folk classics of our collective consciousness – “If I Had a Hammer” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “Jet Plane” “Deportee,” “Don’t Laugh at Me” “Stew ball” . . . (I know, they’re white and so am I.)

Someone this week had a student ask, “Why do I have to learn music?” While there are many answers to this question, one surely must be that music is the soundtrack of our lives and history, not only recording it, but driving it. Music galvanizes the audience to recognize, analyze, and commit to what is right, just, equitable and peaceful – and challenges each individual to stand a be counted as part of a just community. Music and the arts touch not only the head, but the heart and soul – they inform our humanity.

The question I want to ask is, what should I be doing as an educational leader, as an artist, as a member of this democratic society, and as a person? And what role will artists and arts educators take in helping our community make sense of the situations and choices we are facing? There’s lots to think about and sort through – what are you thinking?

Then and Now

Is it nastier now than it was in the ‘60s? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It was pretty nasty then. There were threats and bombs, night sticks and lynching, angry rhetoric in response to horrible behavior – and activism that emerged, heroes and martyrs, and passion.

There are differences, of course, among which are:

  • The media, and the fast pace at which information is shared. The media analysts dissect situations before they occur, they not only report the news but create it. Everything in the world is reported, and memory is sometimes only a sound byte long. Getting a sustained effort going requires some organization, planning, a slick messages and deep and ongoing intention.
  • Another difference is the adoration/celebration of empty, pretty heads and bodies. Often the voices that are sought don’t have a sufficient knowledge base, meaningful perspectives, or the necessary analytical and political skills to move anyone anywhere. It’s not that there’s a lack of talent, it’s just whether the talented have the passion for social justice, the capacity to muster passion in others, and the bandwidth to be heard.
  • A third difference is the amount of gratuitous violence, beginning early in young children’s lives. Starting with cartoons, then sitcoms, and in the media, toys, plays, movies, and games – the collective trauma eventually desensitizes individuals, and clouds the difference between fantasy violence and real actions.

This week there have been protests sparked by events in Missouri and New York. Change is hard, but it’s even harder to ignore the tensions that beg for change when they become so present through community action that sparks media attention.

In my daily interactions, my experiences illustrate a disjunct between the real world and education. Educational decision makers are not very nimble at creating new and responsive scenarios as the world quickly changes. Of course, there are enduring understandings and skills that transcend the moment. But there are also new perspectives, needs, processes and technologies that can change the equation and make some learning strategies (and even content) obsolete. At the very least, we need to keep an eye on what children will need to succeed in life, and what our society needs our children to know and be able to do for our country to remain innovative, imaginative, and on the cutting edge of progress. It’s time to address the myopic focus on one skill or another at the expense of bring up whole thinkers. Teachers are continually being asked to focus on the one skill in which children did least well, while setting aside other important skills. Specific knowledge will be sought at the right time if our kids know how to craft and solve problems together.

The Opportunity

As an eternal optimist, this is a difficult time. However, when our world appears to break and tear, it also makes space to act, an opportunity to better ourselves, a chance to make a difference. Just like Peter, Paul and Mary, and Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, the Weavers, Country Joe and the Fish, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and so many others. You can add your favorites.

Where are the artists today who will lead and support change? They’re gathering their collective energy. Pete Seeger is gone. Mary Travers is gone. Peter and Paul, Richie Havens, Tom Waite – they’re old. And they already guided one social revolution. This new one can build on their shoulders. But I’m looking for the new leaders and what actions they will take. How will they move the culture to action? How will they step out of the boxes of more traditional organizations, and find the kind of new we need?

I think we’re getting there. It’s going to be a great time to be alive, if you’re willing to live it, share it, and mentor fledgling efforts! Sing the songs. If they don’t suit you, write new ones! Make the art. Collect and tell the stories. Dance the dances together. Feel the feelings. Act the role of rebel – of peacemaker – of social activist – of teacher. After all, isn’t this all about what is taught? And isn’t it the artists who, in generation after generation, lead?

Here are some thinkers, performers, performances, and ideas that I’ve experienced and think might be models or philosophies to base a lasting, connected response upon, and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

There are voices emerging out there. Change is a continuum, and we can put a marker on the current time, but it comes from somewhere, and is on its way to the new. If the new is going to represent democracy and imagination, it will be led by artists across all the arts. And arts educators will seek out those with powerful voices and positive but insightful messages. I’ve only started this list and discussion! Please suggest additions, including your own work and that of valued colleagues and other extraordinary arts-based professionals. Think big and fantastically, as well as practically and personally. If we think and act together, we can continue the honored tradition of the arts and artists leading change for the better! And we might even bring educators along!

Yay and Nay

A shout out to the wonderful performance by the Brien McMahon choral group at the Rowayton Holiday Stroll this early December. Their harmonies were beautifully in tune, the balance was almost always perfect, and all this in the challenging environment of an outdoor performance.

A couple of things:

  1. I know this is an outdoor gathering of the community. But when our children sing, shouldn’t we listen? I won’t mention the fire truck siren that drowned out part of the performance (oops, I did!), but the level of crowd noise was rude, and a horrible example for the many young children in attendance.
  2. I have no idea what this group is called. The name is not anywhere in anyone’s literature, including the McMahon School’s music website. When a school group contributes to the community, it might be acknowledged. C’mon, McMahon – toot your own horn!
  3. Please note that the singing was beautiful, and I don’t want to diminish that. But it appears that taxpayer dollars paid for a school program to share sacred music. (Maybe this was a volunteer group that met outside of school time, and the conductor volunteered his free time – I don’t know.) This raises questions about separation of church and state. I’m really torn about this, because we all love the tunes. But in a pluralistic society that is increasingly diverse, educators should lean heavily toward more secular, festive winter selections. I’m not a Grinch – I love the spirit of the holidays, and the value of community singing, but also value our democracy and the foundations under which it was created. Sacred songs are more appropriately performed outside school-sponsored performances.

    Brien McMahon choral group performing in Rowayton

    Brien McMahon choral group performing in Rowayton

A Skype Visit at Eastern Michigan University

It was such a busy week! On Tuesday evening, I joined Lorelei Zwiernikowski’s class at Eastern Michigan University by Skype to share Total Learning Digital with them. Half the time was conducted with a PowerPoint presentation, and the other half was Q/A and conversation. I taped it, so have the video and PowerPoint presentation in Dropbox for anyone who’s interested, and the PPT is attached here – it’s a big file. Below is a screen shot of the Skype call – Sue in the lower left corner, the class taking most of the screen. It’s amazing how personal this digital visit can seem!

One way that Total Learning and arts-integrated curriculum will flourish is if courses becomes part of undergraduate and graduate education degree requirements.  Better yet, the strategies should become part of every course that education students take, infused into the ways content is delivered.  Exceptional teachers do this anyway! Lorelei said, “The session was inspiring to ALL!! MANY THANKS!!! Students all want you as their Prof of Education here at EMU now!” What a treat!

Total Learning PowerPoint presentation – 2014

screen shot of Sue with EMU class

screen shot of Sue with EMU class

Sharing Good News


Allison Logan

Allison Logan

If Total Learning is going to become institutionalized as a powerful model that makes a difference in early learning, it’s really important that we share good news as broadly as possible. Congratulations to Allison Logan on her fine article in the CABE (Connecticut Association of Boards of Education) Journal – December 2014 edition!

The article is shared here: CABE Article