Harvard Reflections: Arts, Education and Learning

This summer I was fortunate enough to have been selected to participate in the first ever Institute on the Arts and Passion-Driven Learning held at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble.
photo Andrew T. Garcia

My situation was unique.  I was camping in the Adirondacks for 5 days and planned to continue the same for another 5 days after the Institute.  I emerged from the woods, attended the 2 1/2 day Institute and traveled straight back to the Adirondacks.  While in a hammock at the edge of Rollins Pond, I reflected on the experience.  The result is below. This list is in no particular order and may not even make sense to those outside the context of the experience.  However, I have attempted to expound on the list.  Feel free to contact me for any clarifications or just to connect.

This is a quote by Loris Malaguzzi that host and Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Steve Seidel shared at the opening plenary session.  He also concluded the Institute with the quote.  Mr. Seidel was the best of hosts (Yo-Yo Ma referred to him as "Mr Rogers for adults"). He used humor when appropriate but also posed excellent questions to frame the Institute.  Some examples: What is the role of passion in learning? What are the possible roles for the arts? How can the arts deepen learning in other subject areas? How do the arts support students in becoming more engaged, empathetic and responsible participants in their learning?

This question was also raised by Steve Seidel.  It seems like a simple question but it is so important for all educators to spend some time thinking about it.  Given precious little time in the school day/year, what is worth knowing? And why?  Answers to those questions drive the curriculum and what gets 'learned' in schools.  If you teach something, why did you decide it was worth knowing?

As an example of what is worth knowing, the video Snakes Are Born This Way was shown. The 2nd grade class at Conservatory Lab Charter School wrote and performed this parody to share what they had learned about snakes through their learning expedition. The Conservatory Lab Charter School is unique as it "empowers a diverse range of children as scholars, artists and leaders through and El-Sistema-based orchestral education and rigorous Expeditionary Learning curriculum."  As the students tell us: "In 2nd Grade our teachers told us that we would be herpetologists".  And that began the exploration. Worth knowing?

More than once Cristina Pato (Gaita player) said this.  The important takeaway is to be genuine in teaching, performing and learning situations.  The more one is open and transparent, the better the learning for everyone involved.  

Butterfly by Aidan William Garcia, age 6
Making learning visible was a theme of one of the workshops I attended.  There are many ways to do this but so much of the time we feel (as teachers) that we lack the time to follow through on this. However, it is probably the most important part of learning in schools. It reminds me of the quote from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. The character (and once real life artist) George Seurat sings: "A vision's just a vision if it's only in your head.  If no one gets to see it, it's as good as dead".  Likewise, it easy and tempting to keep learning in the classroom only. But it should be shared.  Starting now.  

Collaboration was a big theme of the Institute since the role of the Silk Road Ensemble involves collaboration 100% of the time.  In their own performances, the musicians are always working together, sharing, experimenting and pushing themselves into new territory. When the Ensemble visits schools (as with the Silk Road Connect venture), collaboration is the name of the game.  There exists the school culture and the Ensemble (made up of members from many different cultures).  In these environments, open mindedness,  negotiation and flexibility lead to trust and true collaboration which leads to a feeling of safety and comfort for all participants.  Once this level is reached the collaborative 'dance' can yield new, spontaneous creations.  Powerful stuff.  How can we create these conditions in our classrooms and schools?

Yo-Yo Ma described an exercise he uses to spark creativity and new thinking. In a conversation with Steve Seidel, he said he uses something he has dubbed "Disciplined Imagination", the crux of which is to take something known and transpose this to a new setting in your mind.  He used the example of knowing Steve and his thoughts, mannerisms, interests, passions in the context of Harvard and then imagining Steve in other settings and how he might engage, communicate and participate in those other settings.

Small and large group conversations in several workshops led to the understanding that, as arts educators and educators in general we are really involved with 'culture building'.  Culture building is laying the foundation of how individuals would act, speak, respond and participate in the classrooms/school setting where collaborative (trust-based) learning would take place.  We spoke of the difficulty of some students bringing jaded and negative attitudes into the classroom impeding trust and true expression, sharing and learning.

photo Andrew T. Garcia
Related to Culture Building is building a 'Culture of Listening' in our learning spaces. Since listening and considering the thoughts, ideas, music, etc.. of others leads to true growth and learning and opens the mind.  A powerful definition for teachers in this context would be "The most experienced learner in the room."

In a conversation on the final day of the Institute, Mike Block of the Silk Road Ensemble said learning happens and transcends the local environment when one knows deeply and shares generously. Amen.

And there you have it.  Some nuggets I took away from the 1st Harvard Institute on the Arts and Passion Driven Learning.  I have shared generously and hope that these personal recollections are of some use to others.  I will forever be working on the 'knowing deeply' part.

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1 comment :

Connie Weber said...

Andrew, thanks so much. Delights me through and through to see the reflections of such an engaged learner--you--ifrom what looks to have been a deep and meaningful institute. Now that is Professional Development that lives up to the potential, not something laid on you like a cage but rather something that opens everything up and sets you free with renewed energy. . Lots to connect about. Thank you for extending the learning outwards, and may this be only the beginning.
Whew, yeah... wow. I like that you came from the woods and went back there, too! Time to actually, really reflect. That makes the learning settle in and start brewing. You've set up the conditions for the best learning ever.
I want to hear more!
Connie Weber