Thursday, December 04, 2008

Educational Interlude the Second: What It's Really About

This morning on my way to work, I came up with the right answer to something that was bugging me eight months ago, so I thought I'd share.

I worked on a theater piece with a woman who was just beginning to do arts education, working with eighth-graders on a civics and theater project at a school where I knew many of the students. She explained to me that the project was about presidential elections and figuring out the importance of politics, "but really, it's about giving the kids a voice, you know?"

Though I didn't say anything at the time—see, I'm learning!—I was disgusted and a little offended by that last statement. I couldn't say why at the time. But now I can!

There are two reasons.

First, the kids already HAVE a voice. Or, to be more accurate, many voices. To say otherwise is banking education—to imagine the kids as empty vaults until you came along and Gave Them a Voice! Aren't you just a savior! If you want to say you're giving them tools for USING that voice, if you're teaching them powerful WAYS to use that voice, you have my blessing. But to say that you are the one giving the kids that voice creates a relationship in which you want them to be wholly dependent on you. Not to mention that the notion of giving the kids "a voice" implies that you're expecting a certain kind of uniformity, that they will all speak with this one voice that they've so generously been given.

That isn't just semantics. If it is indeed semantics, it is an example of why we shouldn't say "just" semantics. Semantics matters. It effects how we perceive things. Including our own work.

Second: TEACH WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT. Seriously. If it's not really about that thing—say, civics and theater—then why is that what you're teaching? It is possible to give people a voice, or even better, to give people the tools to use and maximize the power of their preexisting voices, without using theater or civics, much less combining the two. Why are you choosing theater and civics? How do those subjects effect what use you make of your voice? It may be that in a general, very abstracted sense one subject is as good as another, but that doesn't make for uniformity; it doesn't mean that because all things can teach you good ways to use your voice, all things teach you to do so in the same way or with the same power or to the same ends. If you're choosing to do civics and theater, make it real, make it specific, look at the ways that these specific subjects matter in the world along with their application to some vague abstract goal like "having a voice."

Especially if you're a theater artist going into arts education, have enough respect for your subject, for the work you do, to make that what you're actually teaching to kids. Otherwise, why are you even doing it yourself, much less passing it on?

Rant out.


At 11:05 AM, Blogger Connor said...

One would hope that a teacher of theater and the arts would have not only respect for their subject but sufficient sense of precision to distinguish between an abstraction and a meaningful goal.

I also agree: semantics are very important.


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