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Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Art School

Art School

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A foundation created by the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty wants to make a place for the arts in every discipline. And it aims to do it one teacher at a time.

Omaha, Neb.

Omaha is famous for three things: the Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., and the financier Warren Buffett. It is not considered a hotbed of culture. Yet this city of about 350,000 on the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska is also home to the Joslyn Art Museum, an Art Deco gem that contains an encyclopedic collection of paintings, prints, and sculptures. Works by some of the world's most celebrated artists--including Titian, Degas, El Greco, Winslow Homer, Monet, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, and Grant Wood--adorn the museum's stately galleries.

About 150 teachers from across the Cornhusker State take over the Joslyn every year and plot a revolution for their schools. They come for a weeklong professional-development institute called Prairie Visions, part of a effort

by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts to transform the way art is taught in the United States. Sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council, the institute is led by a team of professors from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who train the teachers in the theory and practice of discipline-based arts education.

The approach takes its somewhat awkward name from the four disciplines of visual art: art-making, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics. Proponents believe all of these elements are crucial to a comprehensive arts education and should be integrated into the entire K-12 curriculum--a belief that is considered radical in some parts.

In many public schools, particularly at the elementary level, "art education" amounts to little more than holiday-oriented arts-and-crafts projects that wind up as family presents or refrigerator decorations.

But that's not enough, proponents of disciplined-based arts say. Art-making, they argue, is an essential part of any comprehensive art curriculum, but it shouldn't be the only one. An English teacher, they point out, would never teach literature simply by having his or her students write personal essays. Why, then, should art be taught solely through art-making?

Many of the teachers attending the latest Prairie Visions institute here had never before set foot inside an art museum. Indeed, some even considered art itself an elitist enterprise, certainly not a subject to be taught alongside reading and mathematics. But after one week of nonstop lectures, tours, workshops, and group discussions, they know the Joslyn and its vast holdings intimately, and they talk about art and art history like scholars, tossing off such highfalutin phrases as "post-rationalist eclecticism" and "stylistic analysis." The experience has made them eager to return to their classrooms and put their new notions about art and education into practice.

"I've got so many ideas going through my mind," says Vicki Richman, a high school English teacher from Lexington, a farming community in central Nebraska.

First grade teacher Julie Myers, also from Lexington, says: "I was a Friday-afternoon art person at best. You know: Here's another crafty holiday art project; let's have some fun coloring and painting. And I'm sure I'll still do some of those. But the students will be getting more art instruction, and I plan to use art to teach other subjects."

It's been a long, hard week for Myers and the other teachers. The days begin at 8:30 a.m. and last well into the evening. Not that the teachers aren't having fun. The Prairie Visions staff members go out of their way to make it a pleasant experience.

During the 1960s and 1970s, most K-12 teachers continued to teach art in the traditional manner, emphasizing creative development through art-making.

Still, the teachers are giving up a week to be here, and many have left families behind. Until last year, the institute lasted for two weeks, but the organizers decided that was simply too much to ask.

Lynn Lebsack, a 4th grade teacher from Kearney, has come to Prairie Visions with all 16 of her colleagues at Kenwood Elementary School. She's 28 years old, recently married, and misses her husband. "I wouldn't have come if my school wasn't here," she acknowledges. "Still, I've enjoyed it. The awesome part has been getting to know the museum. I was telling my husband how much I love being in the museum. It's really cool."

Her school's art specialist, Jan Jones, has attended the institute for years and uses disciplined-based arts in her lessons. Four years ago, she and Kenwood's principal, Pat Zeimet, decided to get the whole school involved. They applied for a five-year, $550,000 grant from the Annenberg Challenge, the $500 million school reform initiative founded by former TV Guide publisher Walter H. Annenberg. When the Annenberg money came through, Zeimet signed her entire staff up for Prairie Visions.

"On a personal level, it's been wonderful," the principal says. "We've really come together as a staff, and that's going to make a difference for our students."

Discipline-based arts education can be traced to the ideas of educator Jerome S. Bruner, who in the 1960s argued that students, instead of simply learning facts, should be given "an understanding of the fundamental structure of whatever subject we choose to teach."

Manuel Barkan, a professor at Ohio State University, applied Bruner's ideas to the field of art education. In 1962, Barkan predicted that "there is the very strong probability that in the next several years, we will witness renewed and energetic attention to the teaching of insightful observation of works of art. It will not come in the form of art appreciation. ... Rather, this renewed energy will be apparent in the creative development of teaching materials and courses in art history and art criticism."

Barkan, as it turned out, was off by about 20 years. During the 1960s and 1970s, most K-12 teachers continued to teach art--if they taught it at all--in the traditional manner, emphasizing creative development through art-making.

Enter the J. Paul Getty Trust, the enormously wealthy foundation established by the late oil tycoon and art collector. For years, the trust operated a small museum at Getty's former villa in Malibu, Calif. The private philanthropy attracted worldwide attention in 1997 when it opened the Getty Center, a sprawling complex set on a Los Angeles hilltop.

Visitors flock to the center's best-known feature, the J. Paul Getty Museum. But relatively few people are aware of the Getty Education Institute for the Arts. It was this entity that set out to redefine the way art is taught in American schools.

The institute in 1982 commissioned the Santa Monica, Calif.-based rand Corp. to study the state of art education. In most public schools, the researchers found, art was marginalized. "It was considered a rainy-day activity, or a Friday-afternoon activity, a release from the hard subjects," says Leilani Lattin Duke, the founding director of the Getty Institute. "Superintendents and principals didn't think it had a cognitive payoff, so it wasn't part of the curriculum. Well, we believed that it did belong in the general educational curriculum, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it teaches kids how to think critically and analytically."

The new approach had its critics, mostly art specialists who thought that teaching the subject as one would teach math would take the fun out of art.

The RAND study led to the institute's first report, "Beyond Creating: The Case for Art in America's Schools." Meanwhile, Duke and her colleagues established the Los Angeles Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, where the principles of discipline-based arts education were established and tested. "We were looking to see how practical it was to teach this more comprehensive approach to art," Duke says.

After testing those ideas in 21 public school districts in the Los Angeles area, the Getty embarked on a major national reform effort in arts education. Starting in 1987, the trust established seven regional institutes in California, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. (The Getty no longer supports the Minnesota institute.) The goal: to disseminate this new approach to art instruction one teacher at a time.

As a result, hundreds of classroom teachers, art specialists, and principals every summer attend the professional-development institutes, which are held in museums and universities. Some pay their own way, but most participate at the request of administrators who have embraced the tenets of the discipline-based method. More than 12,000 teachers have taken part in the institutes.

In the classroom, the approach can take many forms. Ethel Tracy, a 2nd grade teacher at the 92nd Street School in Los Angeles, uses work by black artists in a unit on the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Art teacher Debra Barrett-Hayes of Florida State University High School in Tallahassee devised the lesson "Mona Lisa: What's Behind Her Smile?," in which she uses the famous painting as a launching point to study the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.

Art-making, too, is part of the program, but it is taught in conjunction with the other disciplines of art. For example, Evelyn Pender teaches printmaking to her students at Kate Sullivan Elementary School in Tallahassee, but first they study work by the Japanese artists Hokusai and Utamaro and the American Mary Cassatt.

"When you walk into a [discipline-based arts education] school," Duke says, "you are immediately bombarded visually with artwork all over the halls, and it's not artwork that looks alike. It's artwork that really shows that kids have a creative sense about it. You'll see different media. You'll see reproductions of artwork hanging in the classrooms. You'll see students writing about their work, and, in the older grades, you'll see students writing research papers about work by famous artists," she continues. "You'll see teachers using art in interdisciplinary and integrated ways with other subjects, seamlessly, in reading lessons and spelling lessons and math lessons and science lessons."

From the start, the new approach had its critics, mostly art specialists who thought that teaching the subject as one would teach math, for example, would take the fun out of art. "Opponents claimed that [the approach] would 'intellectualize' art education and that students would spend all the scarce class hours available for art talking and writing about it instead of producing it," writes Stephen Mark Dobbs in Learning in and Through Art: A Guide to Discipline-Based Art Education.

Some classroom teachers have long resisted teaching anything about art simply because they're art amateurs, says Marty Skomal, the director of Prairie Visions. "They say: 'I can't draw. If I'm going to teach an art class, I have to hold something up to these kids that they're going to appreciate. And I can't do a watercolor or a sketch or a charcoal or whatever.' "

At least 35 states have adopted curriculum frameworks that include comprehensive arts instruction.

But disciplined-based arts education now enjoys widespread popularity, particularly in the states with Getty-sponsored regional institutes. In Nebraska, more than 1,300 teachers have attended the Omaha institute since it began in 1988. As a result, discipline-based arts education has taken hold in many schools throughout the state.

Art education, it seems, is an idea whose time has come. At least 35 states have adopted curriculum frameworks that include comprehensive arts instruction.

The Annenberg Challenge, which has embraced discipline-based arts instruction as part of its overall reform strategy, pledged $15 million in 1997 to help implement the approach in 36 "Arts Partner" schools, including Nebraska's Kenwood Elementary School in Kearney. Faculty members from the 36 schools are trained in the method at one of the six Getty regional institutes.

"We're a long way from claiming victory," says Duke, who recently retired after 17 years with the Getty. "But we're also a long way from where we were in this field 15 years ago."

If the results of a recent federally sponsored test are any indication, there's much work still to be done.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Education released the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1997 Arts Report Card, the country's first extensive test of arts education in 20 years. More than 6,000 8th graders at 268 public and private schools around the country were tested in music, theater, and visual arts. The results of the assessment, which was partially underwritten by the Getty, were not good.

For example, students were asked to interpret "Pittsburgh Memories," a collage by Romare Bearden. Most students could not adequately answer questions about the work, and just 6 percent of them could create what were judged to be "effective" or "adequate" collages of their own.

"Unfortunately," Bill Ivey, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said at a press conference marking the release of the naep report, "this study clearly shows that most students are not now engaged in meaningful, sustained instruction or production of the arts, and that's a troubling fact."

Added U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who has long stressed the importance of national standards in the arts: "As a nation, we are falling far short in the opportunities we provide to our students for quality arts instruction. This neglect of arts education is simply inexcusable."

Seven teachers are seated around a table in the Joslyn's spectacular fountain court, near the museum's main entrance. Led by faculty member Arlen Meyer, an art specialist from St. John Lutheran School in Seward, Neb., the teachers are engaged in a typical Prairie Visions exercise: selecting art for a hypothetical school.

Before he first came to Prairie Visions, high school history teacher Dave Richard knew nothing-'nothing at all,' he emphasizes-about art.

Here's the scenario: A group dubbed the National Endowment for Good Active Reflective Thought has awarded the school $10,000 to purchase great works of art. The field has been narrowed to 10 pieces, including "Woman With a Cat" by Renoir, "The Library" by Jacob Lawrence, "Field" by van Gogh, "Young Corn" by Grant Wood, and "Sioux Sun Dance" by Oscar Howe. But van Gogh's painting alone costs $10,000--such a deal!--so the teachers must make some critical decisions.

"I think we should pick something that will stretch the children's imaginations," says one participant.

"I want something that will raise a particular issue," offers another.

"I think it would be important to have something historical in nature," says a third teacher. "And I would want it to be connected to the curriculum."

Meyer, a Prairie Visions veteran, says, "I suspect we're never going to get one work to do all of this." Then he adds his own criterion: "As an art teacher, I would like something that can be clearly defined as expressive or formal because I would like for my students to do a critical analysis of the work in some way."

After about 30 minutes of high-level discussion, the teachers reach an agreement. They want art with broad appeal. They want works the kids can connect with. They want at least one piece by a regional artist. And they want to be practical.

So the teachers reject the Renoir and the van Gogh in favor of three lesser-known works: "Young Corn" for $5,000, "Sioux Sun Dance" for $2,000, and "The Library" at $3,000.

Before he first came to Prairie Visions in the summer of 1997, high school history teacher Dave Richard knew nothing--"nothing at all," he emphasizes--about art. "I'd never been to a museum or a gallery before," he says. "I was really 'non-art.' "

Two years ago, the Annenberg Challenge gave Richard's high school in Columbus, Neb., a grant to incorporate discipline-based arts into the curriculum. Jean Detlefsen, the school's art specialist, asked Richard and other Columbus teachers to attend Prairie Visions.

"I came in with a bit of a negative attitude," Richard admits. "I thought, 'I've got all this stuff to teach; how am I going to put art in there?' But I came to realize that art is a reflection of culture, so if you're going to teach history and culture, then art's just another vehicle to get that across. Very simply, I thought, 'Hey, I can use this.' But Prairie Visions has shown me how to use it."

Getty officials asked Richard to return to the institute this past summer as a sort of junior faculty member. "I'm finding the review is really good," he says. "And I'm learning a lot of new things. It changes from year to year."

Within a few months, Kenwood found itself well on the way to becoming a complete discipline-based arts education school. The entire K-5 curriculum has been infused with art.

A 34-year-old Iowa native, Richard is now something of an art buff, and he visits museums whenever he can. "I look at things more critically now," he says. "It's not just a five-second glance and then I move on. I try to look into the meaning of the work. I still have a hard time with a lot of abstract art--a painting still has to look like something for me to enjoy it. But one thing that Prairie Visions has taught me is that just because I don't enjoy a work of art doesn't take away from its artistic quality."

Richard speaks fondly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where he came across "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze. What struck him most about the painting was its massive dimensions, "something like 24 feet long by 11 feet high." It's the kind of detail that he might never have gleaned from the tiny black-and-white reproductions typical of textbooks.

"Now," Richard says, "when I use the painting in my American history class, I tell my students how big it is, and I ask them if that puts a different perspective on the subject. Obviously, it's a depiction of a historical event, but why the size? What does it mean? And that gets them thinking about the importance of the American Revolution and the importance of George Washington as the most famous national hero of the time, and maybe of our entire history."

At the conclusion of the Prairie Visions institute, the faculty members of Kenwood Elementary School in Kearney went to work. "We spent a week rewriting the curriculum," Principal Zeimet says.

Within a few months, Kenwood found itself well on the way to becoming a complete discipline-based arts education school. The entire K-5 curriculum--including math, science, reading, and even spelling--has been infused with art. "The walls are covered with students' artwork," Zeimet reports, "and it's not just the artsy-craftsy stuff. It's at a much higher level than that. We've also got reproductions of masterpieces all around the building, and each one has a set of questions next to it."

For a 4th grade unit on the human body, Lynn Lebsack's students studied Georgia O'Keeffe's famous paintings of animal bones and then did their own drawings, "kind of in the Georgia O'Keeffe style," the teacher says. She put together a unit on the Oregon Trail that will incorporate paintings by Nebraska artists, and she planned a field trip to Kearney's Museum of Nebraska Art.

"We're hoping to see improved achievement levels," Zeimet says, "and we're hoping to produce more higher-level thinkers and problem-solvers."

The 250 students at Kenwood are indeed learning the value of art--and in more ways than one.

After 2nd grade teacher Barb Naber showed her students a slide of O'Keeffe's painting "Ranchos Church," she asked, "Would you buy this art?"

"Oh, no. It's not colorful enough," one girl replied.

But when Naber identified the artist, a savvy boy pronounced: "Oh, I'd definitely buy it. It would be a really good investment."

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Pages 28-33

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