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The Transformative Power of Art for Students

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This post is by Rick Lear, Interim Executive Director of Envision Learning Partners.

Maxine Greene, whose career as a philosopher spanned parts of six decades, argued with force and boundless passion for the centrality of the arts in our lives, and in the education of our young in particular. On her death in May, 2014, Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman noted, "With the passing of Maxine Greene, Teachers College has lost its brilliant philosopher queen."

Greene believed that art informs and has power only when we make a personal connection to a work of art. When that happens, art alters our vision of the world and of ourselves. Greene also observed that often, as educators, we can actually see that alteration take place in our students. I call those events "Maxine Greene moments," and I've collected them over the past quarter century.

Last month, Envision seniors presented their College Success Portfolios--a collection of artifacts that demonstrates each student's competencies in research, inquiry, creative expression, and analysis. Students also discuss their leadership skills and reflect on their growth as learners in their four years at Envision--all part of making the case that they are ready to graduate and move on to the next phase of their learning.

Each senior does this in a dissertation-style presentation where she also responds to questions from a panel of teachers, who then determine readiness. Almost always, other students, friends, and family are part of the audience. It is, in a very real sense, an Envision student's final performance assessment. Because the actual artifacts have already been approved by their teachers, the defense focuses on the student's sense-making, responses to substantive questions, and evidence of personal reflection.

Maria's defense was typical for the first hour, a brief description of her philosophy of education and a discussion of her artifacts and how they demonstrate evidence of a core competency. For analysis, she talked about her study of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic dystopian novel. She described Montag, the fireman protagonist whose job is to burn books on behalf of society, and the impact of his brief association with Clarisse, an adolescent who is an outcast in school because she reads and treasures books. That brief encounter exposes Montag to a new perspective, one that eventually transforms his life.

Maria had an extended exchange regarding what she was willing to accept as evidence during the question period about her research artifact. The issue was her use of a newspaper column that was distributed to 43 newspapers, which Maria asserted made it a credible source. That triggered an extended discussion between Maria and two of the school staff about the nature of evidence in various contexts: What is the standard when evidence is physical, and What is the standard in the examination of a moral issue. Maria was thoughtful and poised, and ended that portion of her defense by saying, "You've given me a lot to think about. Thank you."

Maria's defense was thorough and well designed, and she was comfortably in control of her defense, typical of most Envision students. She ended by reflecting on herself as a learner and she shared some personal things about herself.  She talked about being both a student with a disability who had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and an English Language Learner. (While this post is not about IEP's and the students who have them, it bears mentioning that Maria's successful portfolio defense stands as a cautionary tale for educators--about making categorical assumptions and exceptions about individuals our system labels in one way or another, a common and especially pernicious instance of "the soft bigotry of low expectations.")

Maria also discussed being very involved in her religious practice:

"My biggest growth as a learner was in my personal life. I'm very religious, and have been raised in a fundamentalist family, and my religion is important to me. In January, my best friend told me she was bisexual. I had a really, really hard time with that, and I struggled for a long time. It was hard on my mom, too. I didn't really understand how that could happen.... But I loved my friend so much I realized I needed to find away to accept her if I wanted her to be a part of my life."

Maria paused for a long time; then, "I realized she was my Clarisse."

There it was. A Maxine Greene Moment, the personal connection to a piece of art--and a learning experience--that altered Maria's vision of the world and of herself. Maria might have come to the same conclusion in her personal life without Ray Bradbury's novel. We can't know that, of course, and neither can Maria.  But clearly, Fahrenheit 451 became more than a book to her, more than an assignment: it became part of how she sees the world.

She also used her personal knowledge of drama and presentation--I don't know if it was by design or it came to her in the instant--to make that connection public and thereby transform her defense into her own work of art.

I doubt that Maxine Greene knew about the Deeper Learning "movement," but she surely knew in her bones what deeper learning is, and would as surely have recognized it in Maria's defense. And I am certain that she would have appreciated the centrality of art to that presentation, and to Maria's life.

 

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