Songs for the Struggling Artist


We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Now Would Be a Hard Time to Start a Creative Practice

For well over a decade, I have had a daily writing practice. I’ve developed various pieces of it over the years but it has included, consistently, at least an hour of concentrated writing. I have written about it before – here, here and here if you want to know more.

The thing about a practice, the practice of anything, I suspect, is that it is not always easy but the fact of it makes some other things easier. Let’s say I had a daily swim practice (which, lord knows, if I had access to a pool I would have). It might be hard to get in the pool somedays but surely I’d get better at swimming over time and perhaps even challenge myself to learn new strokes as time went by. Days wherein I didn’t swim might feel strange somehow and a little off. This is true for a writing practice, as well.

But the real gift of a practice is when the times are tough. Take now. This coronavirus situation has made it incredibly hard to put pen to paper. (Side note: I wrote this two months ago. Just publishing now. Now there’s even more going on that might make writing challenging.) Every time I sit down to write, it is a fight. But. I keep going because it is my practice to write even when it’s hard and usually after a few pages, I’m back in business. If I did not have the benefit of a previous practice, of mountains of evidence that wading through the hard parts was worth it, I’m fairly certain I’d have quit in the first 10 – 15 minutes. As it stands, I suffered through about three pages of agonizing slow word by word garbage before I started writing this piece, which, has flowed rather easily after all the halting resistance at the top. That’s the practice buoying me up, keeping me flowing when I feel like I’m going to sink.

If you don’t have a practice yet, I’m not sure now is the time to start one. I mean, give it a shot, if you want to – but it feels to me like it would be very hard to begin something new in this time – or even to learn something new. I know everyone’s yammering on about how now is the perfect time to learn that language you’ve always wanted to study – but I’m skeptical. Human brains learn best when they are safe and secure. When there’s a lot of excitation and fear around, learning doesn’t tend to stick. At least that’s the theory we work with in Feldenkrais. From what I understand, we are most receptive to learning when we are comfortable and when our safety is not at stake. For many people that is not right now.

I feel like establishing a practice is similar. You create one in good times and it will sustain you in bad times. I’m so grateful for mine right now but I would not want to start it at a time like this. It feels like it might be doomed to fail. I can feel all the moments I’d be tempted to give up and toss away my pen. I write through those moments because of practice. That’s what practice is for, I think. Not so much to create genius writing but to be a support for us when the sky is falling. Dancers with a dance practice keep dancing, even if they have to adapt to their small spaces and such. Singers keep on singing – even if it disturbs their neighbors in confinement. We just keep afloat doing the practice we’ve always done and it will keep us going when all else falters.

Y’all know this is not my writing set up. First, there are lines on this notebook. Second, uh, water?! Just water? I’m going to need some coffee.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me keep my writing practice going?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

 



Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Like the blog? Want to help keep me writing?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis




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