Arts & Learning in the News

Feb 6 2020

View the full article on the CBC Radio website.

From engineering to medicine, we have more elaborate and specialized professions than ever.

But the academic programs that prepare people for them will have little impact on the health of society unless we develop a sense of the human condition. That's 'job one' for the classic liberal arts education: philosophy, history, the great books, art, music and the sciences, too — at least according to Santa J. Ono.

The president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia argues that these disciplines are often underfunded and under-promoted, a refrain he's made repeatedly over the years because he feels he has to. The reason: he's seen a steady decline in the study of, and support for, the liberal arts over the past 10-15 years.

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Feb 1 2019

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After the recent report by The Children’s Society that a quarter of 14-year-old girls have self-harmed, many campaigners have called for the root causes of the adolescent mental health crisis to be tackled – rather than just firefighting the symptoms.

Resilience lessons, peer mentoring, awareness campaigns and provision of early intervention may be valuable initiatives. But they do little to challenge the main causes of mental health issues – which are likely to be integral characteristics of a neoliberal economy, including austerity, global uncertainty and a highly pressured education system.

The British Psychological Society’s recently published Power Threat Meaning Framework also supports this viewpoint. It sees mental distress less as an individual medical issue, and more as an intelligible response to the social, material and cultural pressures acting on people.

Much of my experience is as a storyteller and community artist, and I coordinate the Things As They Are network for young artists with experience of mental ill health. I have found that young people with mental health conditions often have a keen perception of how the media, economy and society contribute to their problems. These large-scale issues are often beyond the scope of schools to address, but with a change of focus, the educational environment could move beyond firefighting problems to play a more fundamental role.

More time for play

A vital first step would be measures to reverse the shrinkage of what might be called the “youth public sphere”. By this I mean the space and time that is allowed for dialogue, self-expression, playfulness, exploration, development of personal initiative, and just plain chatting, between young people and caring adults.

These opportunities enable young people to understand the world around them and thrive despite adversity. But they have been dangerously eroded by closely specified curricula, performance-focused education systems and the decimation of the youth service.

Less than one in 20 pupils took music GCSE in 2017. Shutterstock

The Pupil Referral Units to which ever increasing numbers of young people are being sent – because they cannot cope within mainstream schools – make an interesting contrast. These units are frequently criticised, but they do allow space for dialogue and responsiveness to young people’s needs and interests.

I have witnessed conversations between young people too anxious to attend school sharing tips on how to get referred to a unit – because “they treat you like a human being there”, unlike in mainstream school.

Space to grow

At the risk of sounding bitter, I could also cite my own frustrating attempt to establish a lunchtime storytelling club with a group of keen, and vulnerable, young people in a local secondary school. The teachers were supportive – we wanted to establish a space where different “tribes” of young people could make friends and collaborate creatively outside the constraints of the curriculum, which allowed little space for creative writing or group work.

Yet with lunch breaks cut to 35 minutes to maximise lesson time and manage behaviour, and further shortened by frequent detentions, it proved impossible to build up a stable group, and teachers lacked the time to support the ideas for performances and projects from pupils.

Schools are cutting time spent on PE lessons because of exam pressure. Shutterstock

It is widely agreed that education systems centred on exams place stress on young people, yet there is less understanding of their more insidious effect. That is, their tendency to reshape every exchange between teachers and pupils into something directed at an assessment goal.

They also squeeze out of the school day anything that does not contribute to this. Arts and sports activities dwindle away from the curriculum, and teachers find themselves less often in the informal, supportive roles of mentor, facilitator, and guide.

Meanwhile, outside schools, austerity has led to open access youth clubs being gradually replaced by targeted provision to improve “outcomes” for school refusers, teenage parents, or young people in care – and even these are being cut in most areas. Mental health and well-being are also effectively being converted into goals which young people must individually achieve through learning strategies.

Beyond league tables

To thrive emotionally, young people need their own time and space, that is not explicitly directed at particular outcomes. This should be an arena in which diverse groups of young people can form their identities and agendas – perhaps with the non-coercive oversight of sympathetic adults. The arts provide some of the key forums for this – I gratefully remember the music teacher that helped me and my friends set up our band in the lunch break.

To try and tackle the challenge young people are facing, the government could start by mandating time and space in schools for exploratory, informal, and pupil directed activity. This could be done by reinstating leisurely lunch breaks and allowing for extracurricular activities within them. Arts and sports lessons also must be restored where they have been reduced within the curriculum.

The education sector should pay attention to solutions to the mental health crisis which arise from young people themselves – I’m thinking of the group of GCSE students whose protest on London’s tube trainsproclaimed the human cost of pupil exclusions in a system focused on exam results rather than compassion and support.

As mental health campaigner Natasha Devon points out, self-harm is frequently a way of being heard. Perhaps then, if we help young people find other, more creative outlets, we might find it easier to hear what they’re trying to tell us.

Feb 8 2018

Read the original Toronto Star article here

Is it time for Canada’s theatre instructors to go back to school?

Actor training is under the spotlight, as an instructor at George Brown Theatre School, and the founder and director of the Randolph Academy have left their posts following allegations of inappropriate conduct toward students. Meanwhile, the crisis at Soulpepper Theatre, which runs its own training program and shares a building with George Brown, is raising related questions about power, authority and responsibility in the Canadian performing arts.

What counts as best practice in Canadian theatre training? Alisa Palmer, an artistic director at the National Theatre School in Montreal — the country’s flagship theatre academy — points to “agency and independence” as a core ingredient of its approach to actor training. The NTS “supports young artists-in-training to be in charge of themselves so they can identify and contribute to a safe working environment, and by this I mean an environment where it is safe to tackle challenging material, to dig deep and aim high, and to take creative risks,” says Palmer.

We put the question to five other professionals in the field: What needs to happen to improve actor training in Canada?

1. Jennifer Wigmore: Teach the teachers

Many acting teachers have little or no formal training as teachers. They tend to be actors who have cobbled together a pedagogy based on their own professional practice and their memories of theatre school. They can be terrifically dynamic and creative, but they can also bring with them toxic behaviours that can make the classroom a dangerous environment, especially for vulnerable first-year students.

Teaching students to take risks and step outside their learned comfort zones makes the teacher/student power-imbalance ripe for misunderstanding and abuse. Teachers may not be current with their language, their use of touch, nor understand their gender bias or privilege.

Institutions bear the responsibility to ensure teachers are trained in current best practices in acting training; otherwise the cycle of harassment will continue.

Jennifer Wigmore is an artist and educator who has taught in multiple institutions and is working with the groups Got Your Back and Actors’ Equity to address systemic problems in Canadian actor training.

2. Christine Brubaker: Lower the pressure

My experience in conservatory training is that there is little agency for the actor, very little encouragement to think or respond critically about the process they are engaging with — in fact, it is often openly discouraged: “We have little time and this is how the profession works.” And the stakes are high for the students to step in line. It’s often highly competitive to get in and to stay in. For most schools, continuing through the program you either have to be “invited” back for subsequent years, or you need to audition to continue to the next level.

How do you navigate the minefield of challenging the structure and retaining favour all at once? We’ve seen how these power dynamics play out in the professional world. Schools need to be shaping the profession and not the profession shaping the creative learning process.

Christine Brubaker is an actor and director, and assistant professor in the School of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Calgary.

3. Michael Greyeyes: Out with the old

Actor training in Canada, and certainly in my department at York, has changed significantly over the past five years. The change occurred because we, the professors who create and deliver the curriculum, have reshaped it in our own images, our own histories. Theatre and training for it is a tradition-bound institution, despite our reverence for innovators and innovative productions. But as younger faculty reimagine pedagogy to reflect our own artistic practice and processes, I’ve seen a marked shift away from canonical/traditional bodies of knowledge.

If the crisis of abuse that is overtaking our theatre is any indication, old systems deserve to be abandoned. That means tired thinking (and practice) must be abandoned if we are hoping to attract students and prepare them for a future not built on old fault lines.

Actor and educator Michael Greyeyes is an associate professor of theatre at York University.

4. Marcia Johnson: Careful what you say

Comments on physical appearance (usually weight) have to stop. Teachers have been known to talk about “creating a brand” and “being castable” as a pretext for making negative comments. The focus should stay on the work. There is no predicting how a person can change as they get older or to predict what will happen in the industry. I know of a male teacher who kept telling female students to wear dresses and high heels. Some students complained that his request had nothing to do with professional expectations but his own preference, especially since he made no comments to male students about their clothing.

Actor and writer Marcia Johnson has taught an introduction to playwriting course at Sheridan College.

5. Kathryn Shaw: Encourage students to speak out

Theatrical training institutions need to ensure they create a safe learning environment free from bullying and harassment. To that end, Studio 58/Langara College is the first theatre school to adopt the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association’s “Not in Our Space!” campaign. A statement is read out loud at the beginning of every rehearsal period with the guest director, designers and students present emphasizing that any form of bullying or harassment is not acceptable at Studio 58. This statement is also read out in classes, and “Not in Our Space!” material is posted on our call board. We encourage everyone to speak out if they experience or witness unacceptable behaviour. Our hope is by instituting this policy during their training our students will carry forth this standard into the profession as the next generation of Canada’s theatrical practitioners.

Kathryn Shaw is artistic director of Studio 58/Langara College in Vancouver.


Jan 31 2018

New music curriculum about bringing 'joy in your daily life

P.E.I.'s Department of Education will start on a process in September that will bring a new approach to music education to the whole school system.

"Music is really about a lifetime of enjoyment and being able to express all sorts of things that they see around them," said Vicki Allen-Cook, the department's arts education specialist.

The curriculum will be launched in kindergarten next year, and will work its way up through the grades all the way through high school in the coming years. Curriculum development staff at the department spent the last two years studying curricula across Canada and around the world, as well as the latest research on music education.

The resulting curriculum is expected to have an impact on a broad range of education goals.

"We're looking at music, using it through speech and language development, and physical coordination, and we're looking at how they relate to each other and working in groups, and we're looking at them being able to self-express," said Allen-Cook.

New instruments

As part of the new curriculum, the province has invested $300,000 in new instruments.

That will include rhythm instruments for the younger grades, and ukuleles, electric guitars and drum kits for the older elementary students. Allen-Cook said the success of the program will be measured by how the students are behaving in the schools.

"When we go into a school and we see that the children are singing and dancing, and we see that they feel self-confident," she said.

"We're looking at all those social skills. We're looking at being able to express and understand that music brings joy in your daily life for the rest of your life."

Some teacher training for the curriculum has already started, and will begin more intensively in the fall, she said.


Read the CBC Story here

Jan 3 2018

IICRD is undertaking a global review of good practice in arts-based programming for migrant and refugee children and youth, for Terre des Hommes.

The focus is on youth-led programming or programming with strong child and youth participation that supports young people’s psychosocial wellbeing. Since these are quite specific categories, we are open to learning about general arts-based programming in any adversity setting. 

We are in search of good practice tools and training manuals, academic articles as well as suggestions of projects and organizations that might be open to partnering with us in this learning. The information will be used to inform Terre des Hommes programming, at first as a pilot in Iraq and Egypt, but later more globally. 

For more information, please get in touch with me directly at 

Sep 3 2017

As featured on Artsy.Net ... by Casey Lesser

“What the heck does Impressionist art have to do with medical communication?”

It’s a question that Dr. Michael Flanagan often gets after telling people about “Impressionism and the Art of Communication,” the seminar he teaches to fourth-year medical students at the Penn State College of Medicine.

In the course, students complete exercises inspired by 19th-century painters like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists. Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.

...

May 10 2017

An American study by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

As a nation, we are close to reaching a collective understanding that all students benefit from the opportunity to learn about and experience the arts. Study of the arts in its many forms—whether as a stand-alone subject or integrated into the school curriculum— is increasingly accepted as an essential part of achieving success in school, work and life.

Yet, at the same time we celebrate the arts for the value they add to learning and to life, study of the arts is quietly disappearing from our schools. In schools across the country, opportunities for students to participate in high-quality arts instruction and activities are diminishing, the result of shifting priorities and budget cuts. Poor, inner-city and rural schools bear a disproportionate share of the losses. Studies show children from low-income families are less likely to be consistently involved in arts activities or instruction than children from high-income families.

Put simply, our rhetoric is out of sync with the reality. Why is it so important to keep the arts strong in our schools? How does study of the arts contribute to student achievement and success?

Read the rest of the study here: Critical Evidence