Transforming City Schools Through Art: Approaches to Meaningful K-12 Learning
reviewed by Anna Beresin - December 18, 2013
Title: Transforming City Schools Through Art: Approaches to Meaningful K-12 Learning
Author(s): Karen Hutzel, Flavia M.C. Bastos, & Kim Cosier
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752924, Pages: 192, Year: 2012
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My review of Transforming City Schools could be summed up in two sentences:
Buy this book. I wish it were longer. The book is a heartfelt collection of essays based on a Dewey/Piaget/Freire foundation respecting the process of meaning making through art. It is a timely book, an important book, and yes, I wish it were longer.
Part I: Seeing the City: Resources, Assets, and Possibilities includes an introduction and then three chapters that set a philosophical frame. The first, Artful Cityscapes: Transforming Urban Education with Art, by coeditor Bastos, sets the tone for the whole book. It includes a quote by Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire challenging us to teach critical thinking, to practice the pedagogy of the question, and then contrasts this ideal with the very real words Flavia Bastos recorded while doing fieldwork. Stay in line. Keep your hands to yourself, Be silent in the hallways (p. 13). The urgency of the whole book reverberates in this contrast, one that it sometimes struggles to balance. Many of the fine examples throughout the book, real case studies, real field struggles, occur outside of school, or outside of class time. The books challenge, and in a sense all of art educations challenge, is how to expand upon creative pedagogy and return it to the classroom for social change.
The rest of Part I includes Funks chapter on The Business of Beauty: Women as Assets in the City Beautiful Movement, bringing forth this motif of asset building, rather than deficit stasis. This leads into the next chapter, Counternarratives: Considering Urban Students Voices in Art Education, by Whitehead. This second motif of counternarrative seems to be true of the book itself. It is not just student voices that are typically silenced, but the struggles of public school art teachers working to create innovative programs within the system that are silenced as well. It is this narrative of challenging the school model that is hiding in the larger work.
Part II: Reimaging Teacher Education Through Art: The Dialectic of Freedom, by coeditor Cosier, acknowledges the difficulty of teaching art in this post No Child Left Behind era. The call here for the reimagining of art teachers as cultural workers is complex, and the ethnographer in me wishes there was more said about the challenge of being a cultural worker in a city with many cultures in it. Guimaraes chapter, The City as Culturally Quilted Pedagogical Territory, includes a lovely bit about the students discovering the history of one local landmark, a bridal shop. Implied here, and in many of the chapters, is the idea that local territory or placemaking is key to quality art experiences and student meaning. I wish the authors collectively had gone beyond the art education and education theorists and had examined the wider fields of childhood geography, urban folklore, and memorial art. Each chapter is a tease, suggesting that deep inquiry has been made, but not showing the reader all of the steps along the way, both historically and pragmatically.
Heise and Bobick address Community Arts Academy as a service learning program for urban art teachers. Again and again the term a playful approach emerges here, and the authors connect play, art, and resilience in important ways. Play, art, resilience are tied into empathy, a most underplayed element in city living. The book really gained momentum as I was propelled into Cosiers interview discussion with Olivia Gude, an award winning professor, art educator, and collaborative public artist. At this point, I wished the interview had been placed more prominently, or that several artist interviews had been included, or there had been some kind of explanation of why this artist in this place appears in this book. One gets the sense that place, and indeed friendship guided the formation of the book. I wished there were backstories, counternarratives to the counternarratives.
Part II: Engaging Pedagogies: Curriculum and Methodologies in the City is the most pragmatic of the sections. In coeditor Hutzels chapter A Possibility of Togetherness: Collaborative Art Learning for Urban Education, the author tells of the evolution, pardon the pun, of an Earth Day inspired project, A Whale, a Mural, a Song, and a Changed Place (p. 99). Like many of the chapters here, I wished the project was given more than three and a half pages for its description. Art educators need these stories, as models, as inspiration, as proof that these transformations do happen.
Zenkov and Sheridans chapter employed photography, Picturing City Youth as Writers, Artists, and Citizens. Rhodes followed with Growing up Gay in the Midwest: The Youth Video OUTreach Project. I wished again for more, for a guide for procuring equipment, for links to films made by children and teens. The next chapter by Ng-He on the creation of a Teen Museum raises a host of unasked questions. How to put childrens culture, and particularly teen culture on display, while respecting the privacy needs of those involved?
The last two chapters in this short book of many chapters address Sacred Structures (Rolling, Jr. ) and Public Art (Buffington and Waldner). Again, the book returns to the sense of place and its importance, one that is ironic in this day of mega-schools and buses. Underneath all of these fine essays lies the question: How do we move our cities into the realm of the small again? To face-to-face meaning? I wonder, what is the role of technology in all of this? What conversations need to be had with people outside of art education, to place creativity and dialogic inquiry back into the center of education where it belongs?
One of the concepts that I will personally take away from the book is this idea of researching/interpreting public art/space, and then having students respond WITH ART, and then inviting critique from local community members (p. 140). The conclusion itself quotes the great Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, suggesting that when precise explanations are elusive, the way is open for poetic interpretation (p. 148). The cure for our city schools? Deeply poetic art. The cure for our ailing cities? Deeply, poetic, art.