Friday, May 18, 2012

Not About the Brain

The last eight months of my life have been consumed by a project called the Right Brain Initiative (RBI). The mission of RBI is to bring art back into schools by sponsoring artist residencies in theater, dance, visual arts and music. My job is to facilitate the selection of artists, planning between artists and teachers, observation in classrooms, and documentation of outcomes. Whew! Dozens of meetings, over a thousand emails, and hundreds of hours of work - who knew this would be so complicated.

Today I've been wondering if RBI is more complicated than it needs to be. There is a written procedure for every aspect of the program - conversations with an artist on the phone, planning meetings between teachers and artists, documentation of outcomes, reflection meetings, and even a protocol for looking at student work. As one artist said to me this week at the Spring Colloquium, "for a program that calls itself Right Brain they are certainly rigid."

Don't get me wrong. There is a lot of creative work happening in the schools because of this project. I've been moved to tears more than once. Magical student performances of stories about friendship; an art night where proud student docents dressed in suits and party dresses explained projects papering long hallways; eighty third, fourth, and fifth graders expertly navigating the complexities of the Virginia Reel while an artist played the banjo and another eighty students kept time clapping and playing spoons on the sidelines. These are unforgettable experiences.

The RBI mantra is to focus arts residencies on 21st century skills which they refer to as the five "Cs": creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and community building. Brain research points to the arts as a way to build these skills and prepare students for our evolving tech based society. All good and well, but what about art for art's sake.

The problem with art for art's sake is that funders want measurable outcomes. More money and time goes to left brain rubrics, protocols, and assessments than to arts activities. Instead of playing by left brain funders' rules, what if we bring them into the schools, introduce them to student artists, immerse them in the magic. Deep (impossible to measure) learning happens every time a child picks up a paint brush, moves body to music, poses as an imaginary character, raises voice in song.

The arts don't just expand minds. The arts build souls. The arts make us human.

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