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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

One to Grow On / Sparking Students' "Uncommon Genius"

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    All educators can learn valuable lessons from the way the arts are taught.

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    Instructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
      If we as educators ever need a potent reminder of why creativity matters in our lives, the 1990 book Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise G. Shekerjian  can help. The book, a long-time favorite of mine, chronicles the lives and work of 40 recipients of MacArthur Fellowships, also known as "genius grants." It shows how developing creative capacity evokes the best in us in every field. 
      Taught effectively, the arts help young people develop that capacity. Instruction in the arts guides them in seeing the world in greater detail, feeling wonder, experiencing joy, probing the creative urge inside them, finding their voice, developing empathy, and discovering themselves. All of us who teach have watched students who may otherwise lead a grey existence during their school day become animated thinkers and doers in classes that focus on the arts. In those spaces, these students—and many others—seem to find meaning and purpose. 
      In my K–12 teaching career, I watched colleagues introduce students to the arts in transformative ways. Their students discovered early talents, cultivated those talents, learned and applied habits of mind and work that positively impacted every aspect of their lives, and garnered independence, confidence, and agency. 
      I believe arts educators offer important lessons that we can learn even if our teaching is not directly arts-focused. Uncommon Genius prompts me to think more deeply about the considerable worth of such lessons for all classrooms. Here are four such lessons, drawn from Shekerjian's book. 
      Let students see the "real people" behind the lessons. When students study art, they often learn about (and even occasionally meet) the musicians, filmmakers, dancers, actors, and artists that create the works. This allows them to more easily envision themselves in those roles. 
      The rest of us miss a prime opportunity when we fail to introduce students to mathematicians, historians, scientists, and other subject-area figures as real people who do work—sometimes heroic and sometimes more pedestrian—that enriches our understanding of the world. MacArthur awardee Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, reflects that as she began to encounter a world much more expansive than the one into which she was born, she thought, "My gosh, there is all of this out there," and at that point she knew she had to find out more about it. Similarly, when I was a young adolescent, I was drawn to writing, but simultaneously believed I could never be a writer. The process seemed very mysterious and besides, my life was too plain. One teacher asked me to read about authors who mattered greatly to me. I continue to do that to this day. I realized that I never knew the depth of possibility in writing, or that authors' lives could parallel my own. It was my "aha" moment, and it changed my world. 
      Fully integrate learning and doing. We diminish teaching and learning when we make students study history or biology or math or literature without consistently and simultaneously having them do the work of and as practitioners in the field. Teachers of the arts embrace the reality that most humans learn by doing far more effectively and happily than they learn by listening and repeating. Their students often learn fundamental knowledge and skills as they go about their work of creating, not through extended decontextualized practice of those skills. 
      History or social studies teachers, for example, could ask students to develop a community history of a given time period, building fundamental knowledge, learning effective use of sources, and applying the principles of expository writing as they work. Math students could be asked to design a summer camp that they and their friends would want to attend, including applying knowledge of geometry, measurement, fractions and percentages, and economics to present the layout of the camp and create a budget. In literature class, students could become biographers of a poet, lyricist, playwright, or novelist of their choice to understand how that person developed as a thinker and a writer over time. 
      In all such instances, students must be provided with clear guidelines for project parameters and consistent support for the journey. The goal is for students to derive meaning from the work they do and to consider how what they learn helps them craft a meaningful life. 
      Shekerjian counsels us to "break free from the seductive pull of book learning" (p. 75), giving ourselves over to the doing, which allows us to accumulate a deep fund of knowledge that will inform and direct our efforts. She's not advocating that we jettison critical knowledge, understanding, and skill as student goals, but rather that we imbue such knowledge and skills with meaning. This is challenging and wise advice to teachers. 
      Draw on the power of authentic audiences. In arts-oriented classes, students prepare their work for observation by people other than their teacher and classmates. They get the opportunity to receive feedback from practicing artists, members of the public, or possibly even reviewers in local papers. They learn from the risk of sharing—putting their work "out there" for assessment. The process helps them commit to ownership of their talent and refine that talent over time. 
      Too many times in classes other than the arts, students prepare for—a test. The only feedback source is the teacher, who is usually rushed for time and might only be able to offer a number or letter as commentary. This is a missed opportunity for richer learning. 
      Invite student passion. This is likely the most valuable lesson of all. Ellen Stewart, a MacArthur awardee in theater arts, voices a virtually unimpeachable truth from the lives of successful adults when she says in Shekerjian's book, "Let me tell you somethin' baby. … You got a love for what you're doing, and all the rest of (it) just comes" (p. 221). Stewart's life was anything but easy, so she's not suggesting that passion for one's work is a guarantee of ease or fame. What she is saying is that when we love what we do, we are willing to contribute mighty effort to the enterprise, we can sustain concentration, and we are more resilient in the face of difficulty—all harbingers of success. Teachers in the arts are often more vigilant in looking for and nurturing signs of student passion than the rest of us are. If we all cultivated and mentored students' passion, our learners and our world would be on firmer footing. 
      The arts offer us profound insights about our journey through life—and about teaching in ways that equip our students, and us, for that journey. 
      End Notes

      1  Shekerjian, D. G. (1990). Uncommon genius: How great ideas are born. New York: Penguin.

      Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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