Wolf Trap, Aesthetic Education, and Artistic Literacy as Experienced by an Old Teaching Artist

This week, we’re thrilled to share a guest post from Nashville-based performing artist, teaching artist, and education consultant Carol Ponder. Carol was a vital participant in our original Artistic Literacy Think Tank, and her expansive work as a teaching artist has given her rich perspective on some of the best-known models of education in and through the arts. In this post, she helps us define and situate Artistic Literacy—particularly as defined and supported by our Cal Performances team—within its larger contexts and influences. She’ll also be joining us as a facilitator in June!

The development of Artistic Literacy in the Education Department of Cal Performances at Berkeley is deeply grounded in the work of two venerable organizations who, arguably, led the development in this country of education in and through the arts: The Kennedy Center’s Wolf Trap Early Learning through the Arts and the Lincoln Center’s Aesthetic Education. Working in both pedagogies for over 30 years, I’ve found it helpful to imagine these two approaches to arts in education at either end of a continuum.

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Let me clearly state now that the work of both organizations is equally valid and vitally important. They are both helping to change and shape our world for the better through engagement with the arts and artists in education settings, and equally brilliant at spreading their good works to change lives across this country and beyond. They just do it differently.

Nashville was an early adopter of both Wolf Trap and Lincoln Center approaches – and I was lucky to move here in 1985. It was exciting to feel as if I were in on, if not the ground floor, at least the second floor of experiments that had the potential to change lives, minds, and hearts; and to help strengthen this country’s complex culture, a pastiche of such diverse roots. Encountering and exploring multiculturalism through the arts was implicit in both practices.

I officially began my life as a Teaching Artist (TA) in 1987 (before we, as a field, had a name) with Wolf Trap. In Wolf Trap classrooms, I used my knowledge and skills in the performing arts as an actor / singer / dancer / guitarist / spoons-ist to engage students in the skills and processes of the arts with their curriculum as the subject of our investigations. With 3-5-year-olds, curriculum embraces things like brushing your teeth and pre-literacy skills like following and predicting storylines. Arts processes were and are used to engage students and teach academic curriculum. Wolf Trap as it was then is at one end of the continuum—the arts as a valuable teaching and learning tool for other skills.

In 1988,  Barbara Shepherd, the Director of the new and burgeoning Aesthetic Education Institute in Nashville, TN, came to observe me in a few Wolf Trap classrooms and allowed as how I was a right good TA who put lessons together well, had adequate classroom management skills, hit all the marks, had a good rapport with children, and was always mindful of what was best for my host teacher; but, in our follow-up conversation, she led me into admitting that my work was lacking. I don’t remember the words we used so long ago, but what it came down to was inspiration, perhaps passion, and a sustained sense of magic in the arts. (A few years later, I did find that passion in Wolf Trap classrooms and it was wonderful to engage the little peepers and watch them thrill themselves.)

Barbara told me she thought I might find a good fit in the new program the Institute was adopting, Lincoln Center style Aesthetic Education. Our teachers from Lincoln Center that summer, led by Eric Booth, introduced us to the processes of Aesthetic Education (AE). Rather than putting the arts in service of the curriculum, in AE at that time we used arts processes, skills, and activities to open up a particular work of art so that the students of all ages would have the tools to engage with and own sophisticated, complex works of art, live in a theater, concert hall, or museum. We wanted them to know where they were going, why they were going, and to come back affected in mind and heart by that work of art. This work immediately ignited my artistic and personal passions and laid the foundation for all my work as a TA and Consultant in education in and through the arts.

AE lessons gave students the opportunity to work as artists do, immersed in the same skills and processes of an arts discipline as they pertained to the specific work of art under study. The AE inquiry-based practice evolved to include the goal of helping each student and teacher find the artist within; to tap into their own artistic competence, a birthright of being human; and to support the idea that every human being has the capacity to create in the arts.

Classroom teachers committed time and energy to the process. They attended Summer Sessions that were intense immersions in AE and the study of selected works of art. In these teachers’ classrooms during the school year, we TAs designed lessons that gave students the opportunity to create short thoughtfully shaped works of art of their own – in response to the themes and artistic elements of the focus works. Ideally, each lesson was carefully crafted so that the students were doing most of the intense work – as artists – and TAs were facilitators and never, ever lecturers. Lincoln Center Education as it was then is at the other end of the continuum—the arts as worthy of study in their own right, as invitations to imagination and the artist in every individual.

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Through the 1990s, these two approaches remained firmly grounded in their separate goals and practices, exploring and growing into programs that have enriched countless lives. Then, in the 2000s, some sites began to experiment. I know that, in Nashville, elements of AE were introduced into Wolf Trap classrooms. These preschoolers, in addition to learning how to count and how take turns through songs and stories, were also taken to performances for which they had been prepared. The works were age-appropriate, but they were not “kiddy” art. At that time, many people did not realize that very young students were able to engage with more complex works of art IF they were given tools for engagement.  AE provided those tools. At that time, we were unbelievably fortunate in Nashville to have Scot Copeland, who helped change the very nature of theater for young audiences in this country, in charge of Nashville Children’s Theater. He produced theater whose themes were age-appropriate, whose sophisticated scripts were the blueprints for good theater, and whose production values were as high as those in any Broadway Production.

A decade later, as the “arts integration” and “arts at the center of the curriculum” movements gained momentum, Nashville and other AE Institutes began to incorporate elements of school academic curriculum into the design of TA practices and lessons. AE TAs began collaborating with teachers to integrate other academic curriculum with the arts, though they never lost the primary focus on complex works of art and fostering the artist within. Over the last 15 years or so, both Wolf Trap and Aesthetic Education practices have moved somewhat toward the center of the original continuum.

By definition, both Wolf Trap and Aesthetic Education goals and practices demand significant investments of time: planning time for TAs and teachers; classroom time for TAs to be with students; time for the teachers to enact their own lessons toward the focus work of art; time to engage with works of art, either at schools or bussed off campus; and time in follow-up reflection and activities to bring the students’ experience to a fruitful and satisfying close. 

As our education system evolves, there are more and more demands on teachers’ time and it remains difficult to find time to include the arts as primary subjects, much less through integration with another core discipline. And beyond school age, it is more and more difficult for adults of all ages to find time to pay attention to the arts at all, much less make a habit of deep engagement with them. Yet, many of us believe that regular engagement with the arts is vitally important to the evolution of our world. It is through the arts that we come to understand ourselves – and each other.

With limited time comes greater challenges for audience engagement at any age. Time for another another approach.

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Artistic Literacy at Cal Performances has emerged as a framework that aims to empower audience members young and old to draw personal meaning from works of art that might otherwise seem impenetrable. It is focused primarily on encouraging active curiosity about a particular work of art. TAs strive to give participants a way into a performance by focusing on a core artistic concept in the work, stripping down to an essential element that can give insight into the artistic process that created it. The tightly designed pre-performance session homes in quickly on a specific piece of knowledge about the arts discipline, along with tools for using that knowledge to make an individual connection to that particular performance.  On the continuum, Artistic Literacy is closer to the AE end, opening interpretative possibilities to help audiences “own” a performance.

But where AE aims to tap the artist within, Artistic Literacy aims to tap the receptive audience member within, to cultivate a capacity for comfort and familiarity with a work of art that is new to them. Artistic Literacy is an invitation into a work of art as a way to see ourselves, to see one another, and to connect our own humanity.

At Cal Performances, Teaching Artists design encounters to prepare people of all ages to approach a performance with a way to recognize something familiar in the work. Building on the frameworks of Wolf Trap and Lincoln Center (as well as on other best practices in educational inquiry, Visual Thinking Strategies, and constructivist learning models), Sabrina Klein and her team are developing ways to offer single, efficient, engagement experiences for audiences so that they are invited to cultivate in themselves a willingness to explore the unfamiliar and the challenging—so that they making meaning of artworks in a way that connects personally.

I believe that means that, as audience members, they are actively creating their own response to the work of art, using the same tools and understanding as the artists on stage. It is an artistic process-centered exploration.

Artistic Literacy is a birthright. Cal Performances claims that it is a human right, on part with language and numerical literacies, and I agree.  The Artistic Literacy model offers all of us, young and old, the opportunity to engage deeply in the arts as we are meant to do – fulfilling a need that is as necessary as food, shelter, sleep, and companionship.

I am excited and honored to be participating as a Teaching Artist in the first Artistic Literacy Conference at Cal Performances in June of 2019. I can’t wait! There is so much to learn and feel and do and share, as an old Teaching Artist who’s been around for a while. I hope you get to join them, too.

Since 1987, Carol has worked as a multiple award-winning Teaching Artist and consultant in education through the arts. In 2007, she received the first national Teaching Artist’s award, the first Fellowship at the Montalvo Arts Center, CA. A published author, she has worked with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Lincoln Center Institute; the Association of Aesthetic Education Institutes (including six individual Institutes); Borderless Arts International and Borderless Arts Tennessee (formerly VSAarts); The Empire State Partnerships project in New York State; Big Thought in Dallas, TX; the National Organization of Aesthetic Education Institutes; The Tennessee Performing Arts Center; and a plethora of other clients across the country. To reach out to Carol directly, write to myfatherswar@aol.com, visit her website, or give her a ring at (615) 227-3876. This musician, performer, and all around old-timer would love to hear from you!

Carol PonderComment