Contemporary Community Curriculum Initiative
- Professional Development Consultant, CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education)
- Core Artist of Chicago Public Art Group
- Independent Public Artist, Mosaicist, and Painter
- Arts Education Consultant
I am writing this report on the exhibition of contemporary artwork and new curriculum created by teachers and students in the CCC project. I attended the reflection session on June 29th and revisited the exhibit on July 5th. My notes are in response to the work itself and the process that was shared at the reflection session.
My first general response pertains to the exhibit. Walking around the room I was drawn to the work itself, much of which was beautifully executed, forceful, and visually compelling. The visuals drew me in, and then I moved in closer to read the text. This was an exhibit that demanded careful thought from the viewer. The work was many-layered, and reading the accompanying text deepened my experience of the show.
I was struck by the eloquence of the art teachers in their descriptions of their curriculum and the students in their reflections on the process of making their work. Lisa Wax, art teacher at Whitney Young High School wrote about her Deck of Cards curriculum: We are often drawn to card playing because of the element of risk and the metaphorical association to real life. This project uses playing cards as the basis for that visual, emotional and spiritual exploration. A student for Crete-Monee Middle School wrote about her collage self-portrait: The tissue paper represents the curtain we put in front of ourselves so that the world will accept us.
I attribute the poetry of their thoughts to the high stakes of the project itself. The CCC initiative has the very expansive goals of helping teachers: to develop their own art making capacities, to foster collegiality, to create a dialogue between teachers and other art professionals, and to encourage art teachers to see themselves as artists and creators of culture. First. the art teachers, and then in turn, their students, were encouraged to think critically about contemporary art practice, about both artistic processes and products, and their own personal stance in the world around them. They were asked to reflect on their work at each stage of their art making, and this thinking is evident in both the visual work, and written refection.
I also am responding to some of the evaluation questions written by Olivia Gude in the CCC Initiative material. The section called, Examination of the Content of Curriculum raised the following questions:
Does the curriculum encourage the investigation of significant aesthetic and social issues?
Does the curriculum teach students skills to communicate about their lives and ideas?
Is the curriculum interdisciplinary in nature?
I think that the CCC initiative the curriculum definitely achieved the outcomes mentioned above in a variety of ways, including:
Using contemporary artists as models
All the art teachers started by looking at contemporary art practice. Students studied the work of Barbara Kruger, Hollis Sigler, the Guerrilla Girls, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, Jaunne Quick-to-See, and Kara Walker as well as older modern artists, including; Robert Rauschenberg, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ertnst, Yves Tanguy, Romare Bearden to name some of the references in the curriculum materials.
Working with contemporary themes and ideas
The themes were very varied and often complex including: the uses and meanings of altars, shrines, and container forms in various cultures, Eastern philosophy and thought in architecture, self image and advertising, sexuality, representation, power, identity, and social commentary and social action, (in the Level Playing Field Project by Belinda Lutz, the Power of Advertising Project by Tracy Van Duinen, and the I Can Change the World Project by Carol Molenda).
Working with varied forms and materials
There was a wide array of media used in the curriculum projects including, collage, painting, mixed media, found objects, photographs, computer generated art, video and time arts, juxtaposition of text and image, and installations that changed the physical and physiological space in a school, (in the Possibility of Video as Installation by Rob Moriarty, Maximizing the Minimum by Dennis Zygadio and the poignant and powerful, Memory Museum by Matt Schergen).
Developing varied structures and processes
Teachers developed many structures to stimulate ideas with their students including, the use of questionnaires, student discussions, the generating of text and visuals with one process informing the other, the element of chance as a factor in the making of the work, (the exquisite corpse game in A Moment in Time Video Project by Kim Fitzer, and the Deck of Cards project by Lisa Wax,) and examining daily experiences and routines, (the Evidence Project by Laura Hall).
Encouraging high quality art
Much of the work was very high quality. I was particularly struck by Tracy Van Duinen's stunning black, white, & red wall installation of text and photographs. This project worked on many levels. Each photograph, taken by the students, had a strong composition, the relationships of words to images were beautifully designed, and the power of the students own words and slogans, (Criticism is bogus. Label jars not People. Love thy Brother. So, I'm different.) made each separate piece as powerful as the whole installation.
Other projects that were extremely high quality were the Deck of Cards project, the Who Am I Really self-portraits, and the Elementary I Project. These three projects used collage and mixed media to build up layers of shapes, forms, and textures. It was interesting that each of these projects used a formal art element as a metaphor to get at a deeper meaning.
Olivia Gude, in her project for the art teachers, looked at the use of "space" and asked the group to break from the established rules of perspective to arrive at a very personal and subjective memory of space in their childhood classrooms. Karen Heritage used the "layering" process of building up layers of shapes that revealed and concealed the layers beneath, as a metaphor for our public and private selves. "Chance" was both subject and process in the Deck of Cards project. The formal elements of art in these projects were used to give rise to new content. Students were encouraged to go beyond narrow, formal concerns, by exploring form as meaning and making connections and associations. Very strong personal narratives emerged.
Not all the projects achieved this same level of work. There were some exhibits where the work wasnt as well realized. The projects that worked the best were ones where all the pieces of the curriculum came together. The art teacher found a way to design and structure a project that included critical thinking, a response to a contemporary artist or concept, included some experimentation, writing, reflection and careful attention to the aesthetic component. But, overall, the ideas behind each project were always ambitious and interesting.
It makes me wonder about how students and teachers will choose to evaluate this kind of artwork: there are so many different goals that each teacher was striving for. So now that we have raised the stakes how do we measure this work? I am more interested in this question, not for outside verification, but as an artist and educator myself, as a way to help our students make higher quality work.
Evaluation of Change in Teachers' Paradigms and Practices
How effectively has the project developed teacher leaders?
This question will need to be looked at over time, but it was clear at the round table reflection session that teachers were indeed stimulated, excited, and changed by their involvement in this project. Lisa Wax said that she wanted to reexamine her whole arts curriculum to include opportunities for critical thinking in all of her lessons. She arrived at her conclusions based on reading student evaluations of her lessons. The students all responded so positively to the more open-ended, experiential and reflective art projects that she decided to listen to her students and revise her teaching practice.
Other art teachers talked about how they began to be seen differently in their schools. Many of the projects were exhibited in public spaces. Rob Moriarty wrote that other teachers noticed the level of enthusiasm and discourse among students in response to his students' video installation. He will continue to provide a place for dialogue through public art at his school by directing a collaborative mosaic project this summer.
Matt Schergen said that he had already been drawn to this new kind of curriculum and that he was further encouraged and inspired by this project. His Memory Museum and past installations at his school have earned him and his students citywide publicity and a place at the table in whole-school change initiatives.
Each of the teachers in this project has the potential to become leaders in their art departments, schools and in the field of arts education. They all spoke about how valuable and supportive the cross-city dialogue with other art professionals was to their development. People discussed their desire to organize a different kind of citywide art fair where experiential, interdisciplinary and contemporary artwork would be exhibited.
Many participants talked about how this practice encourages art teachers to change the paradigm of how they teach. It encourages teachers to think and work like professional artists in the schools and make art teaching more authentically "disciplined based" in the broader sense of the word, and encourages this mind set in their students. This paradigm is at play in curricular reform movements in other discipline areas, where teachers are beginning to teach like professional scientists, mathematicians and writers.
Publicity about this project, the CCC web-site, the dissemination of this curriculum as well as further networking among participants and their constituencies can make these art education practitioners leaders in a new kind of art education.
Finally, Maria Benfield, from the School of the Art Institute, talked about how this project provided a space for young people to engage in a discourse about the things that really mattered in their lives. She talked about how few opportunities youth have for that kind of space. I think this is ultimately the loftiest and most ambitious goal of this project. I believe that for the art teachers and students involved in the CCC initiative, they definitely achieved this goal.