It’s ninth period in Ms. Lagares’ English and Language Arts Class at Bea Fuller Rodgers school in Manhattan, New York. The sixth-grade students aren’t looking at the clock or completing a worksheet, but are debating an image from a Willow Wilson comic book. The discussion revolves around the inferences the students can gather about the previous scene from looking at the character’s facial expression. The drawing makes the debate possible and the debate allows students to learn new English vocabulary through visual thinking strategies.
Under the direction of Zawadi Noel, a teaching artist from Urban Arts Partnership, these students discuss other artists’ works and make their own art. They also write about themselves as part of Story Studio, a program which helps middle school students learn English through art-integrated lessons and storytelling. The students work throughout the year to create a self-portrait that accompanies their story.
Noel has been working at the school four years, but he is an employee of Urban Arts, a nonprofit that uses arts-integration programs to achieve different academic and developmental goals. Teaching artists differ from art teachers because they are practicing artists hired outside the educational system and assigned to a school. They do not always stay at the same school or stay throughout the day, but Noel’s constancy at I.S. 528 has allowed him to develop relationships with the teachers and students. He says that over the years he has seen great progress.
“I see a confidence growing. I see a level of commitment increasing,” Noel said.
He added that he sees his students improving in areas such as public speaking, sequencing of ideas, and composition.
Claire Tunkel, who manages the Story Studio program and observes the teaching artists to ensure they are maintaining the purpose of Urban Arts, recognizes what Noel brings to the organization.
“His passion and commitment to the students and teachers creates a safe space for them to take risks artistically and academically,” said Tunkel.
Noel is at Bea Fuller Rodgers four days a week and has his own desk in the teacher’s lounge, which is not common for others in his position. The other teachers know him well and speak to his impact on the students. Unlike Department of Education art teachers, teaching artists are not required to have a teaching certificate and have a more flexible schedule.
Go to the Urban Arts headquarters on 19th Street in New York, New York, on Wednesdays and you’ll find a meeting between assistant teaching artists, who are graduates of Urban Arts programs, and teaching artists that guide them through making lesson plans. Chenits Pettigrew, who leads the meetings, stresses the importance of “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy” in the ACDMY program so that teaching artists can engage high school students with material that is relevant to their generation.
Despite studies on the benefits of arts education and the abundance of partnerships and organizations dedicated to arts education, 23 states, including New York, do not consider art as a core academic subject in public school curricula as of 2016, according to a state policy summary by Education Commission of the States and Arts Education Partnership. Different programs, organizations, and educators have responded to a lack of arts incorporation into core academic curricula by increasing access to the arts through external organizations that hire teaching artists, such as Noel, to place arts at the center of a quality education. This community of art advocates continues to grow in different realms such as the classroom, the professional art world, and society as a whole.
Marit Dewhurst directs City College of New York’s art education program, which not only focuses on educating people to teach the arts, but also attempts to instill the idea of art as a force of social justice.
“Learning how to both look at art critically and how to make art critically can open up opportunities for really important conversations about who we are as people, how our society functions…then how to participate and engage in it,” said Dewhurst. She noted the importance of practice in art as well as other subjects rather than praising students who are naturally talented artists. “They’re learning to think through, to make a plan and to realize that plan. They’re learning to incorporate criticism into a work of art and then change it,” said Dewhurst.
Tom Cahill is director of Studio in a School, an organization that brings arts programs to New York City. He worked with Susanne Harnett, senior associate of Metis Managing, on evaluating and advocating for assessments in the arts as methods to provide information on the best way to teach the arts. The research project is called Arts Achieve, which utilized teaching artists to support art teachers and discover ways to strengthen the curricula and how to assess achievement in the arts.
“They really had a partnership with the teacher. They were there to help the teacher and support the action research that the teacher was conducting,” Cahill said. Cahill and Harnett gathered the data from the assessments to make conclusions about the effectiveness of the arts in education on student growth. They found that the treatment group exhibited greater growth than did the students who did not go through the program.
“The arts expand our capacity for empathy, create social bonds, provide pleasure and captivation, and promote cognitive growth…The arts are a public good—like functional roads and a clean environment, they are worthy of public support,” said Terry Liu, who specializes in arts education at National Endowment for the Arts.
Other government programs include Turnaround Arts, which was started in the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities and was led by Michelle Obama. Turnaround Arts has recently decided to move to the Kennedy Center, where its mission to bring access to arts in schools can be sustained. Ron Gubitz, leadership coach for the organization, knows the important role teaching artists play in schools.
“They’re working to help align curriculum such as English and comprehension strategies to theater strategies,” said Gubitz. He also mentions installation projects led by teaching artists that highlight historical and social justice movements and bring together a community within the school.
In both the communities at Urban Arts and at Bea Fuller Rodgers there is a dedication to the advancement of education, which is why the relationship between Noel and his co-teachers works in harmony. Other teaching artists, such as Meagan Van Ahn at M.S. 328 and Flavia Berindoague at John Adams High School, belong to the same community within Urban Arts, but bring their unique knowledge and ideas to the environments of their respective schools. Teaching artists do not always have the organic bond that Noel and his co-teachers have, however, and many involved say a lackluster relationship can hinder productivity in the classroom and provide inconsistencies for the students. Without the external organizations and teaching artists many of the schools would not have the same access to the arts.
“There is a lack of resources made available that are only becoming available when these outside entities get the grant money,” said Noel.
He said that the schools can view these grants as a financial benefit, but teachers also lose space and time in their classroom. The opportunity to bring arts into other subject areas allows students to view school as not just a series of subjects to learn, but an education in which subjects overlap and help each other.
Art advocates realize that now it is more important than ever to use the arts to better education whether it’s to provide a platform for social justice, help make visual associations, or learn another language. Even though New York does not view art as a part of the core curriculum, the state’s department of education is the biggest contributors to Urban Arts. The grants awarded to these nonprofits fund the teaching artists’ careers and allow the programs to remain at the schools. Urban Arts gains 59% of its revenue from government grants, and changes in policy could affect the breadth of teaching artists and programs.