At Lincoln Center, Teachers Learn To ‘Experience’ Art

By Debra Viadero — September 09, 1992 7 min read

NEW YORK--On a warm summer day in July, Ginny Kobren, a 3rd-grade teacher from a Queens elementary school, was reeling a little from a hectic week.

On Wednesday, she had watched the New York Philharmonic practice Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and listened to a brass quintet perform. Earlier in the week, she had taken in a production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest’’ and watched a group of actors perform “Winnie the Pooh.’'

Today, she will view works by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, and Henri Matisse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She will sketch pictures of African masks, practice tapping on percussion instruments, and take in a lecture. Still to come on her agenda in the weeks ahead are performances of ballet and modern dance.

“You’re bombarded with every kind of art form and there’s so much to reflect on,’' Ms. Kobren says.

Ms. Kobren is getting this kind of intensive exposure to the arts through an unusual education program affiliated with the renowned Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Known as the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts in Education, the program strives to create a legion of “esthetically aware’’ educators who will return to their classrooms and infuse the arts into their own teaching.

Through the program, educators like Ms. Kobren are immersed in a broad spectrum of arts experiences for three weeks. The artworks then serve as the textbook for the teachers in classes taught at the institute by working artists. The emphasis in those classrooms is on participation, and the teaching artists are trained to use “hands on’’ activities, such as those in which Ms. Kobren participated, to help teachers understand why artists make the choices they do.

Then, once teachers complete the summer program, they are expected to work during the school year with the institute artists to transport the same kinds of experiences to their own classrooms.

“What’s important is not knowing about the work of art but to begin by really experiencing the work of art, to develop the skills of perception,’' says Mark Schubart, the institute’s president.

“To draw an analogy,’' he adds, “we’re not giving kids books because we want them to like books. We’re giving kids--and teachers--books because we want them to learn to read.’'

Combating ‘Dullness and Banality’

That philosophy distinguishes the institute from more traditional programs conducted by arts institutions, according to Mr. Schubart. Typically, such institutions have either bused children in for performances or have sent artists out to the schools. Students and teachers often had received no advance preparations for their experiences, and there was little opportunity for interaction with the performing artists.

Mr. Schubart points out that Lincoln Center had also experimented with that approach for many years.

“The kids who brought a lot of knowledge with them got a lot out of it,’' Mr. Schubart says. “But the vast majority of kids who were bused in for performances did not.’'

Looking for a better way, officials at Lincoln Center linked up more than 20 years ago with Teachers College, Columbia University. Working with Maxine Greene, a prominent professor of philosophy and education at the college, they devised a program intended to bring a more meaningful arts education to area schools. The institute, the product of that collaboration, was formally founded in 1975. Since then, it has provided training for thousands of teachers from the New York metropolitan region and has inspired 17 similar programs by other arts institutions around the country.

The educators who take part in the program must come from schools or school districts that have made a formal commitment to the program. Participating institutions must agree to provide some administrative and financial support, as well as time in the school day for educators to work with the artists and devise lesson plans. The program is offered free of charge to teachers, but many are giving up summer employment in order to participate.

Only about 10 percent of the teachers who take part in the institutes are arts teachers. The rest teach elementary school, preschool, special education, high school English and social studies, and even science, mathematics, and physical education.

By focusing on a broad range of teachers, the institute’s founders hope to foster integration of the arts throughout the school curriculum.

But Ms. Greene says the program also benefits all teachers by opening them up to “a way of resisting the dullness and banality of schools.’'

“The teacher is so burned out, so tired after 14 years of going through school and, through this, she suddenly sees a possibility,’' she says. “It stimulates a kind of inventiveness, and society needs inventiveness as much as skillfulness.’'

Understanding Choices

Teachers at the institute say the program can benefit them no matter how much experience they have.

Ms. Kobren, the 3rd-grade teacher from Queens, for example, came to the Lincoln Center institute after 16 years of teaching. She says she applied to the program after talking with an administrator at her school who had already taken part in it. Like most of the teachers here, she had no previous training in arts education.

“I never felt prepared enough to share this sort of thing with my students,’' she says.

Ms. Kobren speaks as she sits in an institute class sketching likenesses of African masks shown on a screen at the front of the room. The lesson is intended in part to introduce the educators to the paintings of turn-of-the-century artists who were beginning to experiment with abstract forms.

Tom Aprile, a sculptor whose own work has been described as “new surrealism,’' is the instructor of this class. He says such masks may have influenced the work of Picasso, Leger, and other abstract artists who were painting in Paris, where a local art dealer had begun to import African masks.

Ms. Kobren, who teaches in School District 29 in Queens, says the masks are “something my kids can relate to.’'

“I would like to take this and carry it through to have them look for it in arts forms and to see what they could recognize and interpet, and perhaps have an activity in creation,’' she says.

After the art lesson, the teachers discuss the performances they saw the previous day by the New York Philharmonic and the Meridian Brass Quintet.

Then, Sue Lund, the instructor for that part of the classroom session, leads the teachers as they use percussion instruments to understand the concept of ostinato, or continuously repeated idea or pattern of sound, in a symphonic piece. The group also dabbles with other aspects of musical performance over which a conductor has control, such as tempo, timbre, and imitation.

“This is one of the things I do where I feel I’m least likely to get in a rut,’' Ms. Lund, a flute player in two chamber-music ensembles, says of her teaching experiences.

Later that afternoon, the teachers will troop to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, armed with a battery of questions to ponder, they will view some early abstract paintings. Looking at Picasso’s Three Musicians, for example, the teachers are asked to think about: “What shapes did Picasso develop a language from for this painting?’' and “Did he stay consistent to this language throughout the painting?’'

The focus, as always in the institute classes, is not on coming up with the right answers but on coming to understand the choices artists make and asking thoughtful questions.

“The teacher who comes to class with’Hamlet’ all worked out and finished is the worst kind of teacher,’' Ms. Greene says. “The teacher who knows she will never have all the answers is the best kind of teacher.’'

About 60 percent of the teachers who have participated in the institute return for a second year, Mr. Schubart says.

“Obviously, it takes an enormous degree of sophistication to discover ‘The Tempest’ and then begin to apply that to another play,’' he says. “But, eventually, that begins to happen.’'

Funding Cutbacks

While teachers have given the program high marks, no definitive research has been completed so far to show that the institute experience translates to more and better learning in the arts for their students. To find out whether it does, the institute is currently working with the Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner on a five-year experiment to measure the impact of the program in classrooms.

Having some research backing for any arts-education program is particularly important now, Mr. Schubart says, because school and government funds to support such programs have begun to decline in recent years.

School arts programs, often considered an educational “frill,’' have been cut back in a number of states and major cities--including New York--in the face of budget deficits. At the institute, despite the hundreds of new participants this year, enrollment has declined by 10 percent from the previous years, according to Mr. Schubart.

As a result of budget cuts, educators at the institute say, some schools can offer children little or no arts exposure in the course of the school day. Ms. Kobren says her school is among them.

“I deal with the lower grades,’' she says, “and whatever art my kids get is the art that I give them.’'