As I recently watched three dancers, one from New York, one from Richmond, and one from Washington, DC, dance seamlessly to a haunting melody though having met only two hours earlier to choreograph, I was struck by the ability of artists to improvise. They are like jazz musicians, who take the cue from the drummer, each instrument joining in until they create a song of beauty. Or comedians, whose words and actions in a sketch or performance bounce off one another with increasing hilarity.
I recently heard NCTE member and 2015 Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples speak and was struck by her statement: “Teaching is a skill in an art form.” She reinforces that concept in her blog: “Teachers are artists of human potential. And like art, learning is messy.” Shanna’s colleague, Elaine Loughlin, in her letter of reference for the Teacher of the Year award, described Shanna this way:
Shanna Peeples is a reflective practitioner of the art of teaching. . . .
Watching her teach is like watching a skilled conductor: She knows the score, yet has an ear for each musician’s strength or weakness. Not only will she use a children’s book to tackle a difficult concept, layering levels of difficulty to create clarity for advanced students, but she can also take a difficult passage or test prompt and provide her ESL students with a set of tools to deconstruct the text and make meaning. Few teachers have such a wide range, and that is her gift. She can process a task metacognitively and design a lesson that challenges her students at their levels of readiness. This is the true definition of rigor — having the belief that her students can gain access to difficult material through her guidance and expertise.
This description of Shanna resonated in a recent English Journal article titled “Art as Meaning-Making in a Secondary School English Classroom: A ’Secret Compartment’ Book Project on Toni Morrison’s Beloved.”
In the article, Elaine Wang explains how she changed her course of instruction: “I learned that while students are well-trained at discovering meaning in literature, many of them often struggle at making meaning. Such observations led me to explore art as a way for students to interact with literature and represent their understanding.”
As Jennifer Sanders and Peggy Albers write in Literacies, the Arts, and Multimodality:
We also understand that as teachers, we have the responsibility to provide students with a range of opportunities that enables them to expand their repertoire of ways in which they can communicate what and how they know. We know that when people are actively engaged with inquiry, have a desire to learn new things, and try out different digital, visual, musical, spatial, dramatic (and so on) tools and techniques, they have the potential to say and do things that we have never before imagined.
Each and every day, teachers, like dancers, musicians, painters, and performers, introduce a concept or lesson and then move according to their students’ passions and interests. Teachers are the ultimate improvisers, and thankfully so. It is their ability to adapt, create, provoke, and guide that inspires and educates our students.