In June, I spent a few days with some really hard-working graduate students. They were involved in a rigorous, four-week course of study that included early morning classes, an all-afternoon seminar and mountains of reading, projects and papers to complete at night after the long day of intense focus. What kind of crazy people would give up four weeks of their summer in Montana to work this hard, and miss out on all that camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and craft brew-drinking that the Big Sky has to offer?
Teachers would. Almost all these graduate students are teachers. Think teachers don’t work during the summer? Wrong. Here is one thing I know about teachers, though it may contradict some characterizations made by the mainstream media: almost every teacher I know wants to learn how to be a better teacher, and how best to help their students learn. Towards that end, many go to school in the summertime. These particular teachers go to school for two summers in a row, giving up time with family and friends to attend the Creative Pulse program at the University of Montana. Creative Pulse is a master’s degree program in integrated arts and education, and draws not only arts teachers from every discipline, but also classroom teachers of all grade levels and subject areas. Creative Pulse is taught by UM College of Visual and Performing Arts faculty, plus guest lecturers. This year, 38 teachers participated in Creative Pulse, most from Montana, but a few from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Massachusetts.
I participated in the first week’s seminar as a guest presenter and observer. The topic, School Communities: The intersection of Arts, Education and Culture, was led by director of Creative Pulse Karen Kaufmann and Dr. Lori Gray, assistant professor of music education at U of M. The overarching question for the course was “what does the ideal school culture look like?” To explore the question, participants were led through a variety of arts-based strategies to process numerous readings, discussions and guest lectures. They danced school culture, they drew school culture, they created frozen images with their bodies of school culture. They were offered what all students should be offered in an ideal school culture: multiple ways to express their knowledge and share their ideas.
Creative Pulse itself creates a culture you want to stay in for a while. It was remarkable to see the kind of community the Creative Pulse participants, who call themselves “Pulsers,” quickly created. The leaders of Creative Pulse have clearly created a place where risk-taking, creative expression and honest reflection are the norm, and where joy in learning is the most palpable feeling. Everyone in the room was working very hard in an intense process over four long weeks–but having a ball doing it.
Isn’t that the kind of culture we want for all students? One where everyone is working hard and having a ball? Of course, a major topic in the seminar was how the arts can create this kind of joy-filled school culture. Creative Pulse participants become true believers that the arts can transform the learning environment for students, and many of them become committed to being change agents in their schools. Yet many of the “Pulsers” will return to schools where the arts are not fully embraced, and where the school culture may not be healthy. This is one of the conundrums of great arts-based professional development programs for teachers. So often there are only one or a handful of representatives from a single school who get very excited about what they learn, and return to their school fired up to integrate the arts into the culture–only to meet a wall of obstacles and resistance that deflates the energy they built up during the experience. Administrators with conflicting priorities, disinterested colleagues, testing mandates, constraints of time and budget–all these things can be bubble-bursting.
How do we help keep the momentum going for teachers coming out of arts-based professional development programs with a mission to transform their school culture through the arts? Geography is one huge obstacle, especially in Montana. Our state is very large, and many of our teachers are working in small, isolated communities. I’ve been having exciting conversations with some of my colleagues at the Office of Public Instruction about the potential in digital technology for teachers, not only as a platform for professional development coursework, but also as a way to connect teachers through online professional learning communities where they can chat with colleagues who have similar interests, no matter where they live. Coursework is already happening through the new Montana Professional Learning Digital Network, including classes in integrating the arts into the Common Core. Free services like Google Hangouts can also help teachers meet up online. Twitter is already a great, no-cost platform to connect teachers, and a large group of Montana educators meet every Tuesday night at 8:00 pm with the hashtag #MTedchat to discuss topics in education and swap ideas. Maybe we need a #MTartsedchat, too?
One of my favorite things to see is a group of teachers standing together in a circle at an arts-based professional development workshop. I have led many of them, and I’m always in awe of teachers and their willingness to take risks and try new things like dancing or doing improvisation, even if it terrifies them, if they think they will learn something they can take back to their students. My hope is that we can create more professional development opportunities for teachers in Montana like the Creative Pulse, places where teachers and teaching artists can stand in a circle, taking risks together, learning and sharing ideas to improve arts education for all students.