Transcript – Episode 26


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Eric Booth:  A kind of midlevel teaching artist at this point, knows how to lead a professional development program, knows how to articulate the outcomes that schools and teachers need. And that just comes with the package at this point. No wonder they’re jumping to get those teaching artists. They have recognized it is a learning catalyst.

Anita Walker:  Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. And our guest today is Eric Booth. Now, let me tell you about him. I have gotten to know him oh about three or four times we’ve met over the last couple of years. He is probably one of the foremost experts in the world on teaching artists. He considers himself one of the oldest teaching artists that we have. and he has also really studied the work of teaching artistry exploring what makes it successful, what’s good for the artist, and what’s good for our field. And we are so happy to have you here, Eric.

Eric Booth:  Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

Anita Walker:  So I know you’ve traveled the world. You host an international conference for teaching artists. What is the state of this work?

Eric Booth:  Well, it’s growing. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s boom times for teaching artistry but not in the way people may initially think of it. Let’s just look at the U.S. first. In the U.S., the main employment, I would say, share is teaching artists who go into schools. That sector is actually remaining static in these days. It’s practice isn’t being very well funded. It isn’t growing. It’s still the largest share but it’s kind of struggling to grow against the many pressures. However, around the periphery of that main share are really fast growing areas. Probably the fastest growth is in creative aging, where teaching artists they can’t get them and train them fast enough because they have discovered, thanks to new research, having seniors in senior villages and senior housing engage creatively saves money. It reduces hospital stays. It reduces prescription drug intake. It increases morale. It increases longevity. And all of these are highly positive both financially and personally with teaching artists as the agents that now research can be accepted at the federal level. So for the first time we even have federal agencies that are now able to support the growth of teaching artistry in creative aging. We have a lot of growth in artists in healthcare. Arts and healthcare is exploding around the country in all kinds of different configurations that’s both in terms of the therapeutic but even more broadly the training of doctors, both in observational capacity and empathy, the use of artists in clinical settings. So there’s an explosion in this regard. There’s a lot more artist going into businesses these days. A lot of artists are working in new ways in communities. They’re becoming parts of planning commissions. Some are even, as in Boston, becoming parts of governmental functioning. They’re having artists is residence within government. So there’s this recognition of the potency of this idea of teaching artistry. As it spreads around the world, the words teaching artist aren’t actually the words that are used in most other countries. And when we had the first international teaching artist conference six years ago, all kinds of people came that they didn’t know if they were one or not. They were artists and they were working in communities and working in educational settings but they were called something different. And both at that conference and increasingly in the subsequent ones there’s this recognition of a gigantic global workforce that never recognized it was connected to one another.

Anita Walker:  Or that it was a specific field of practice. So with this explosion in, a sense, demand or applications for this work, how are we preparing this workforce to be ready to serve all of these needs?

Eric Booth:  The answer is badly. As a field, again, let’s start in the U.S. the development of teaching artistry has been all but ignored by the funding sector. We were able to have a conference, “The Grant Makers in the Arts” last year where there was something like 30 funders together who fund in the area and they recognized none of them had ever funded the development of teaching artistry. They completely rely on teaching artists to do all of the important work that they’re investing in. But they just took for granted that teaching artist would somehow get better, or they were good enough as they were.

Anita Walker:  The idea that art plus kids, art plus the elderly, art plus the sick equals success. There’s more to it than that.

Eric Booth:  Really. I mean really through an artist in those settings, a few of them have magical capacities. But in fact, we’re starting to be able to articulate the skillset, the fundamentals that can be customized to different kinds of learning ends. And the field is becoming articulate in this way and only now are funders starting to recognize, wow, we’re completely dependent on this workforce. And we’re completely not investing in this workforce. So there’s a waking up that’s starting to happen. And it’s to the credit of organizations and teaching artists themselves that they’ve continued to improve their practice and their capacities over these years even while being largely ignored.

Anita Walker:  So there’s been a little awakening here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. And one of the reasons that you are here with us today is the fact that we’re launching a new program that is specifically about providing professional development, new teaching strategies, support a community for our teaching artists. So talk to me a little bit about what the research is telling us about the effectiveness of the teaching artist? And how they can be effective?

Eric Booth:  Well, before I get to the research I’ve got to praise this program a little bit because it actually plants a stake further out than almost any other program I’ve ever seen. It’s mixing teaching artist with music educators as equals. The silos are coming down. They’re coming down all around our field, silos of discipline-specific work, silos of teaching artist versus community artist, silo of music educator versus teaching artist. These really convenient ways of organizing things that have kept this workforce much weaker than it actually is they’re coming down. And to actually have this program that mixes teaching artists with school educators mixes large programs with small programs to say we all have the same goal here. Let’s be a learning community together and align what we do, learn together and become more effective together.

Anita Walker:  And I should say the program, by the way, the fellowship, it’s called Music Educators Teaching Artists. And it’s supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Klarman Foundation. And it’s an amazing partnership and the enthusiasm of the fellows is contagious.

Eric Booth:  Well, I mean to be supported to learn, to be the designated learners for a field, to be supported to identify what new practices you want to bring into your own learning life and your student’s lives and to be supported to share it as a learning community. That’s exactly what we haven’t been doing all of these years.

Anita Walker:  So no one has studied this work more than you, I think on the planet. I think that’s fair to say and I don’t exaggerate. What do you know now from your research and your looking into this field, what makes the best outcomes for a teaching artist?

Eric Booth:  Well, teaching artists have not been as well studied as a field as it should be. There’s really only been one research study. And it was a little inconclusive in terms of what practices are effective. There are some things we know. That, in fact, what teaching artists need to be successful is they need to be in conversation with others. The more isolated they are, the less effective they are and it’s a pretty isolating profession. They are, in my view, pretty abysmally underpaid, in general. There’s an accepting of kind of low end. They feel that they’re replaceable. There’s a serious problem in not– basically there’s nowhere to go in terms of career laddering. Once you become an effective teaching artist, what are your options? You can become an administrator in some cases if you have that particular gene. Or you can maybe get involved in another project and do more than just teaching artist work. But we really haven’t created growth pathways for the expertise that has been developed. People have been doing this work twenty, thirty years are in the same category as people who have been doing this work for one or two years. So what they really need is to be fed good challenges that are commensurate with their understanding, and their skills and what they can deliver which is why there’s so much excitement around the periphery of school programs because that’s where they really get to muscle up. Take what they know, create new programs, go create different kinds of learning results and interestingly, most of those peripheral programs are much better evaluated so teaching artists can learn what they’re learning. They can be guided by good, solid data more than in our main programs which have program evaluation but not so much real focus on the effectiveness of the individual teaching artist.

Anita Walker:  You know, it’s stunning when you really think about it. When you think of the impact and the power of the teaching artist, how little we’ve done to support those artists. And I want to share something with you. We have a program that supports teaching artists in the schools. It’s called our STARS Program. And every year we open up for application. The applicant is the teacher, the classroom teacher. They apply to have a teaching artist come into the classroom. This year our money ran out in 37 minutes. We opened up at 4:00 P.M. and the money was gone at 4:37. Now, what does that tell you?  That tells you these are teachers. These aren’t artists saying give me a job. These are teachers saying, “I want a teaching artist in the classroom.” And you know as well as I do the demands on time in a classroom and all of the things that our classrooms have to accomplish and measure and count and test for. And that they are saying, “And give me a teaching artist.”

Eric Booth:  Well, we still think the way– many people still think the way they felt twenty years ago, which is, “Oh, teaching artists bring dazzle and magic into the classroom.” The field’s capacity is way developed beyond that. Just your standard– you know your kind of mid-level teaching artist this point not only knows how to plan well, not only knows how to target her intervention to advance a curriculum, knows how to lead a professional development program, knows how to articulate the outcomes that schools and teachers need. And that just comes with the package at this point. No wonder they’re jumping to get those teaching artists. They have recognized it is a learning catalyst. And arts integration which is probably the largest arts education experiment going on in the U.S. teaching artists are essential to make sure that balance. It’s a delicate balance, that it’s not just arts to pep up a boring curriculum or it’s not just an arts project that uses curriculum as a fig leaf to cover artiness. But really to endeavor to have both go further as a result of bringing them together.  And I must say with this as the largest experiment in in U.S. arts education, it’s not all going that great. It kind of lurches to one side or the other sometimes. I have seen the “Dance of the Fractions” in which kids did a perfectly lovely demonstration of their understanding of mathematical proportions. But at the end of that project, the kids were no more invested in dance, hadn’t made a single decision that was based on anything other than algorithmic accuracy and yet that school now is proud of its arts integrated math program in which no arts learning happened whatsoever. And the kids’ scores went up. Conversely, at the same time, I saw the “Rainforest Rag” which was a compositional program in relation to rainforest studies. Kids created this amazing composition, notation they invented, covered the whole wall of the classroom. They performed it for the sixth grade and reprised it at the sixth grade graduation. However, at the end of it those kids were no more curious about the rainforest than they were at the beginning. So we did not serve the educators’ responsibilities of activating curiosity within the subject matter. It’s this delicate balance in arts integration where both have to go further as a result of bringing them together. Good teaching artists actually can accomplish that balancing act and are worth their weight in gold for the dramatically increased student engagement that comes as a result of that work.

Anita Walker:  Well, in fact, you were leading right up to the question that I was going to ask, someone referenced that I spoke to in the kickoff forum. And that was I am a teacher and I’m an artist. Which are you more? Which is more important?  Which carries the day?  Which do you lead with? You’re a split personality.

Eric Booth:  Right.  You know what, I’m finding more and more with good teaching artists and good artistic teachers is it’s a false dilemma. That, in fact, my definition of art these days is making stuff you care about. And creative teachers are constantly working with their students to make stuff they care about. And sometimes they use artistic media, and sometimes they use study of the water cycle. Artists are constantly making stuff they care about and sometimes they do it in artistic media. And sometimes they do it in other media. The idea is making stuff you care about which activates the intrinsic motivation of a learner to make stuff she cares about. That is the transferable habit of mind. That’s what actually provides this huge multiplier effect of a teaching artist coming into a classroom. Kids invest themselves in a way that schools generally don’t care very much about. And teaching artists who are good at this work are strategically ingenious at targeting it, quickly creating the learning environment that prompts these kinds of results and doing it with a lot of different kinds of learners.

Anita Walker:  So share your story about in the theater world, how might you motivate some middle school boys?

Eric Booth:  Well, yes, this is talking about what tapping the inherent artistic– esthetic interests of young people. What is it they say, “Don’t try this at home.”  So don’t try this at home but imagine inviting ten-year-old boys to create a play about disgustingness. This is the most interesting thing in the world to ten and eleven-year-old boys. And if you invited that subject matter into their lives, they would exceed the levels of disgustingness that have ever been invited on this planet. They would be lying awake at night conjuring more disgusting things they could put in their plays. They would bust into the science lab at school to create more disgusting goo’s that could be included in their play. That is the kind of esthetic heat that a teaching artist is looking for. Not just compliant students who work with the artistic media and have something nice happen. But artistically hot young people who are making stuff that is the most important thing in the world to them, a teaching artist who can target that group, knows where their hot areas are and can invite appropriate creative processes into that work, lights up a young learner, a young creator, in a way that nothing else in a school can. And certainly, we have found both anecdotally and in bits and pieces of research that are so plentiful you would have to be a child hater, not to recognize its correlative power. Kids when that creative passion is activated, it transfers to other places in their life. Some of those other places happen in school. And those often turn into what we see in schools that become arts rich which are this somewhat unpredictable ripple effect of lots of good things start to happen in that school. Yeah, the grades go up and yeah, attendance seems to go up and yeah, the teachers seem to be happier. And yeah, we’re creating new kinds of curriculum. You can’t say four hours of a teaching artist turns into that. But what you can say is a school that commits to becoming arts rich, a whole lot of positive things are about to start to explode in that school.

Anita Walker:  So with what you’ve been talking about and all of the different ways that teaching artist can make a difference all over the community, what should we doing?  Right now, we’re talking about working with a group of people who are teaching artists, who are in programs, who are in schools, in school and after school. But how do we give this field, more cache, make it more of something that people would aspire to?

Eric Booth:  Boy, if I had my druthers one of the things I would do is the first week that young people in a conservatory, in a university arts program, in a high school of the arts, as young people are starting to make a commitment to join the arts, introduce teaching artistry to them at this point. So they actually see it is not separate from being an artist. It is an expansion of being an artist. You stand on your artistic dime and you open it wider when you are a teaching artist. So I think I don’t know if it’s cache. I want to reduce the separateness of being an artist, and being a teacher. In most countries around the world, most of the teaching artists that come to the international conference from 26 different countries, they don’t understand this discrepancy between being an artist and being a teacher. These are completely suffused in their understanding. Well, how could you be one without being the other? It’s a natural outgrowth of being an artist to engage others, to activate the artistry of others. That’s your job. So rather than bringing more celebrities to say, yay, teaching artists are great. It wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I think it is actually changing the understanding of what it means to be a twenty-first century artist which is you’ve got to use more tools than just playing the hell out of the music or being fantastic with your pliés. You want to be a twenty-first century artist you play the hell out of the music and you have a whole host of ways you can’t wait to get involved to bring in people who normally don’t get inside that music. So that it is just a different understanding not of your responsibility but of your opportunity to be an artist.

Anita Walker:  Eric Booth, fantastic. So exciting. Eric Booth, a creative mind out loud.

Eric Booth:  Oh, thank you. Such a pleasure to be here. And congratulations on the fantastic stuff happening here.

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