Teaching with Contemporary Art

A Year of Contemporary Art in (and out of) Contemporary Classrooms

This is part two of a three part series that will share the experiences of three Art21 Education staff members (Jessica Hamlin, Joe Fusaro, and Flossie Chua) after spending a year with a group of 16 incredible teachers. Each of us has a unique perspective on the past twelve months and this series will ruminate on what it means to teach with contemporary art, specifically contextualized by our experiences this year working with the Art21 Educators program.

When I think back on the past year with Art21 Educators my mind goes to three places: the summer institute itself one year ago, the one-on-one conversations I have had with a small group of teachers I worked closely with this year, and my hopes for the entire group going forward. Since Jessica packaged her post into four neat bites last week I think I’ll stick with these three and follow suit…

Thinking Back on Last Year’s Institute

Last summer’s institute was literally another hot one in NYC. The days were steamy and the group we gathered for year three had an infectious energy and calm confidence that each of us was (and continue to be) inspired by. Workshops and working sessions with artists such as Oliver Herring and Shahzia Sikander, opportunities to share student work and plans for upcoming units of study, as well as an inspiring day at the Museum of Art and Design were just a few highlights that really kicked off quite a year. I so fondly remember standing outside Alias restaurant on the eighth and final day, blissfully exhausted, and bringing teachers onto the sidewalk to film their reactions to the institute. While I’m not sure to what degree that food and drink fueled the interviews, I definitely knew we were dealing with some special educators who were going to do big things. And I was right. See below.

The One-On-One Conversations

Jessica, Flossie and I get the opportunity to work a little more often with a few separate teachers from the group that each of us, well, sort of watches over. I guess that’s the best way to put it. We coach. We facilitate. We encourage and try as often as possible to inspire, but we watch over these people in order to make the yearlong experience as productive and enjoyable as possible. My group included Jack Watson, Julia CopperSmith, Maureen Hergott and Todd Elkin, and it was my job to help them not only write a unit of study they began in the institute, but also provide feedback as they taught it. Jack and Todd teach high school art classes while Julia and Maureen teach elementary school art. The balance over the course of the year was really perfect. In Jack’s unit, which focused on “Borders and Boundaries”, he wished to explore the role that geography plays in cultural identity and conflict. Maureen and Julia investigated, over the course of an entire school year, how transformation can make its way into art making and how young artists can play a role transforming themselves, their environment and their perception of what art can be. Todd taught students to follow their interests, discover what is “grabby” to them, and find ways to work in some of the same ways artists actually work vs. being recipients of “project assignments”.

As each of my teachers planned their units and eventually taught them, I was lucky enough to be in on the “thinking out loud” part- wrestling with the big questions and decisions that come with having to think and teach differently. On top of THAT, teachers took opportunities to share their work in very public forums over the past year, including a very special workshop that Maureen and Julia facilitated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, a panel presentation about TASK that Jack took part in at NAEA here in NYC, and two separate blog interviews that Jack, Julia, Maureen and Jethro Gillespie gave. Having the opportunity to talk with each of these superb teachers on the phone, online and in person, makes me re-remind myself about how fortunate I am to have these people as colleagues. Which takes me to the last section…

Hopes Going Forward

I guess my first hope for all sixteen of the teachers who began with us last year is that they use the online Ning site we have set up to maintain contact, share ideas with previous Art21 Educators, continue to come up with new ways to improve their teaching and, as David Altmejd would say, inject energy into their work through the incorporation of contemporary art. Everyone, including Jess, Flossie and I, begin each summer at a certain place in our own work as educators and artists. We wind up in a different place the following year. We are changed by these people and I can only hope their work with us has a similar effect. My wish is that each of the teachers from this past year makes new friends on the Ning and perhaps even gets to visit the classrooms of other Art21 Educators. Let’s face it, we as teachers do not visit other classrooms often enough. While I know it might be a pipe dream for two of our previous teachers from year one, Keeley Stitt and Casey Carlock, to visit Maureen in Julia in their classrooms for a day (or more!), I simultaneously know it’s not that farfetched because they ALL teach in Chicago. I would love for Jack to eventually team-teach with Anna Dean. And I would so enjoy facilitating a long, lingering meeting of the minds between Todd, Kelda Van Patten and Jocelyn Salaz.

Perhaps my biggest hope going forward is that this larger group of Art21 Educators doesn’t just evolve and grow in numbers, but rather that it evolves and grows through a consistent and supportive culture shaped over time.