Leadership Academy Empowers Educators in the Practice of Culturally Responsive Arts Education
Members of Arts Education Collaborative’s Leadership Academy bring culturally responsive education practices to classrooms and organizations throughout the region.
As early autumn light filtered through the colorful windows at Center of Life in Hazelwood, members of Arts Education Collaborative’s Leadership Academy gathered for the sixth session of their year-long leadership development program. The leaders in this year’s cohort represent a diverse range of arts education backgrounds, from elementary school music and art teachers to program directors for various organizations in the Pittsburgh area. Each, according to Arts Education Collaborative (AEC), “are devoted to becoming leaders in their communities” by “increas[ing] the credibility and visibility of arts programs in their schools, districts, or organizations.”
As cohort members mingled and refilled their coffee cups, I spoke with the AEC’s Executive Director, Yael Silk, about the Leadership Academy’s three main focal points: leadership development, action planning, and culturally responsive arts education (CRAE). AEC recently received a grant from Remake Learning to redesign the Leadership Academy with a focus on CRAE, a pedagogical method which encourages arts educators to connect curricula with students’ personal identities, perspectives, histories, and cultures. In collaboration with four teaching artists—Celeta Hickman, Dameta Skinner, IAsia Thomas, and Shabaka Perkins—AEC redesigned the program to help educators engage students more actively by tailoring teaching methods to their lived experiences, and enrich their learning by bridging gaps between classrooms and communities.
Yael has conducted hundreds of school site visits throughout her career as an education researcher and arts program manager, bringing a wealth of experience in culturally responsive education to AEC’s mission. By immersing herself in classroom and administrative settings across the country, Yael “became increasingly aware of what racism looks like in schools, in big ways and small ways.”
As a result of these experiences, she said, “I became committed to better understanding structural and interpersonal racism, and…finding my role as a white woman in anti-racism work.” Yael’s perspective around anti-racist work in schools is crucial to developing CRAE practices which ensure students are reflected and respected in their learning environments.
Yael agreed that arts education, perhaps more so than any other content area, “is a natural fit for culturally responsive pedagogy.” The creative arts—such as visual arts, theatre, music, and dance—are a boundless source of diverse practices and perspectives from which educators can draw to ensure that students’ identities are mirrored in class material. Some of Yael’s main questions when developing CRAE practices include: “how do we de-center whiteness, celebrate diversity…[and] address this idea of the power of learning from someone who holds an identity that I share, particularly someone with an identity that’s not consistently represented in the teaching body?”
One of the most effective ways of harnessing that power and addressing issues of representation is by inviting teaching artists whose identities align with students’ into the classroom or program. By doing so, educators can help facilitate culturally responsive dialogue between learners and creators with similar intersectional experiences. This is a practice the Leadership Academy has implemented in their own sessions as a way of demonstrating the power of CRAE through first-hand experience while also connecting educators with artists in their communities.
For this September session, AEC invited museum educator Becky Gaugler to speak with Leadership Academy’s members about a pedagogical method known as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). As the first white arts educator to speak with the 2019 cohort, Becky was quick to qualify her perspective, and ask herself: “What are my potential biases? How can I keep my perspective in check when engaging with learners?”
Becky walked the group through a VTS learning practice by projecting images of artwork onto a screen and asking the group to simply discuss what we observed. Beginning the engagement by centering learner’s observations, without giving any background information, allows students to formulate their own interpretations and apply their unique perspectives to the collective learning process. After sharing our observations, Becky provided some historical context to help deepen the discussion.
Works discussed included a handful of images by renowned Pittsburgh photographer Teenie Harris, as well as Alisha Wormsley’s provocative text-based work which celebrates afrofuturism and examines the black experience in America. By selecting artworks weighted with cultural poignancy and specific to our city’s history, Becky helped participants engage with both the creative elements of the media and their cultural context.
After a relaxing lunch and walk around the neighborhood, the group reconvened for the next activity, in which leaders were asked to build a prototype of something they’d like to incorporate into their learning spaces. Gluing together materials from a table overflowing with ribbons, book pages, old toys and popsicle sticks, everyone worked hard to materialize their ideas before sharing with the group. Projects ranged from the practical and realistic (more storage space for art supplies) to the imaginative and conceptual (a “brain storm” machine students can sit inside, to be soothed and inspired by the sound of falling rain).
Following a quick break, AEC’s director of programs Jamie Kasper led a discussion around various Montessori school practices, prompting us to watch videos in which Montessori educators spoke about one of CRAE’s central tenets: the importance of fostering a sense of pride and identity in each student. “Without a strong sense of self,” one educator commented, “students have no way of integrating what they’ve learned into their daily lives.” Cohort member Diane, a music teacher at Duquesne City Schools, rounded out the session by sharing her experience of using an online gaming platform to foster teamwork and collaboration in her classroom.
By centering students’ personal experiences while engaging with issues in their wider communities, CRAE can support Remake Learning’s mission of “challenging learners to question, examine, and dissect social systems; to develop the confidence to address and deconstruct inequalities; and to construct a more just and equitable world.” Because the arts lend themselves so readily to this mission, arts educators are uniquely poised to lead CRAE initiatives in their schools and organizations. The Leadership Academy program is designed to empower educators in forging those initiatives. With enough momentum, their efforts can create a ripple effect in transforming education systems to be more respectful, celebratory, and affirmative of learners’ diverse identities and backgrounds.
Published November 26, 2019