Narrative Overview and Theoretical Frameworks of My Practice
I took a circuitous route to becoming an art teacher, beginning my teaching career well into my thirties. When I was growing up, visual art had always been central to my life, and after I graduated from the University of Guelph in Biology (1978 Ecology), environmentalism was added as an important thread going forward. As an affective learner, I found that the methods of my investigation into the natural world shifted away from scientific methods into art-making. I began to study art formally, but it was almost fifteen years later, in teacher’s college, that my cause expanded. I awakened to the hidden curriculum of bias that maintains the power and injustice embedded in our education system, culture, and institutions. The experience of teacher education at York University in 1993–94 was transformative. Two of my professors in particular (Carl James and Lous Heshusius) cracked open my world view, fuelling my passion, and I began to see education as a means of addressing the pressing issues of our time.
I initially began a Masters in Education at the Centre for Transformative Learning at the University of Toronto in 1995. Reading authors such as bell hooks and Paulo Freire, I began to see art as a vehicle for transformation and anti-oppressive education. My art became consciously political. I saw the importance of integrating socially and politically engaged art-making into my classes and beyond. I developed a critical perspective. After reading the work of Vandana Shiva and Maria Meis (1993), I saw myself as an eco-feminist, a philosophy that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones, regarding both as resulting from male domination of society. Offering transformative learning experiences became a goal of my teaching, challenging values and assumptions for a more just world.
Now, tracing my professional development in my experience as an adult educator, I can see how the struggles I experienced were imbued with learning. My teaching career began in a mainstream public high school, known for its athletics. I would describe the school as having a Darwinian culture – that of survival of the fittest. For the most part the students I worked with did not enjoy either being on centre stage or competition. Many were on the margins of the school population and struggling with issues of gender, culture, and sexual identity. I started a “Diversity Club” to support these students and voice their issues. It took courage for students to participate in a gay-straight alliance in 2002, and our group was very small. As an art teacher, I found it quite logical to implant art in our initiatives. I instinctively put an effort into amplifying our presence through school-wide assemblies, informative posters, publishing a zine (as in a homemade magazine), and painting murals. We were a small group with a visible presence. Early in our second year a gay student belonging to our group was trying to come out of the closet. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the river. I organized a school-wide healing circle with a colleague who was an ex-priest. The anguish and urgency of working with the school’s marginal population intensified in me.
I learned about the concept of service-learning from a student teacher I mentored, and I reached out to find service organizations that I could connect with to do work together. By taking up projects for them in class, we were both supporting them and learning about various social issues at the same time. These projects garnered media attention and strengthened the ties to our local community through partnerships and public exhibitions. For example, in 2004 Carole Roy and Krista English founded the Travelling World Community Film Festival (later renamed ReFrame: Peterborough’s International Film Festival). They invited me to display my students’ work publicly in the venues as part of the annual festival. An opportunity like this was extremely validating, and I learned so much by connecting with this grassroots orgainization. My connection with ReFrame over twelve years encouraged me to seek other partnerships to showcase socially engaged art.
The Diversity Club merged into a Global Issues Club. The change was an experiment to see if the new name would reduce the stigma associated with difference. Also, by addressing a broader spectrum of issues I hoped to draw in more students and support from my colleagues. I wasn’t sure why it remained a small group. Was it me … was it the school ... was it the time? A touring drama troupe visited our school and told us the story of peace and reconciliation after the civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa. We raised money to buy the troupe a generator and sent school supplies to help the amputees and other victims of the war. In 2005 Cameron Douglas and Andrew Bigg, two teachers from Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School, ten students, and I went to Sierra Leone for seventeen days. It was the trip of a lifetime. Along with the time and money invested we made a promise to share our experience, understanding, hope, and questions to other students and our community upon our return. We created a theatre presentation and presented it a dozen times over two years. There was an ongoing effort to raise money and support various initiatives in Sierra Leone.
At times the challenges in this work remain overwhelming. Culture shock after the trip to Sierra Leone was brutal – I often ate lunches at my desk between sobs of despair. My group was dwindling as students graduated and I found myself disheartened and going against the grain in a mainstream school. I felt isolated and disconnected from many of my colleagues, some of whom expressed their discomfort with my political actions. How could I make sense of the scale of injustice in the world? Sometimes I wanted to quit, but I could not I stop caring.
At that point I decided to immerse my activism in joyful and celebratory activities. As the Lithuanian-born writer, feminist, anarchist, and atheist Emma Goldman (1869–1940) is reputed to have said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”. Personally, I created paintings over three years and called this body of work Finding Joy, a series of twenty-seven paintings that were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Peterborough and later purchased for installation in the mental-health wing of the city’s hospital. At school I worked on colourful activities that included humour and uplifting music, energized participants with smiling faces, and were well documented and shared publicly. I went wide instead of deep for the most part. Examples – seen here on the page “Celebrating Diversity” – include “Inclusion Week,” “The Happiness Project,” “Queer and LGBTQ2S Positive Actions,” and “Day of Pink Photo Booth.” I began to meditate and discovered a different approach to activism through Engaged Buddhism and Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhất Hạnh. I felt like I could continue.
More recently, locating myself in the field of Adult Education has given me a place to call home. It is affirming. I take pride in being part of a field of study that aligns historically with emancipatory goals that I embrace. The inspirational examples include the Antigonish Movement, in which poor working people were empowered – brought together in their communities and told that they had the ability to make their lives better, a movement that valued and included women (Weldon, 2013). The need is greater now than ever to counter the sophisticated, often invisible, though ubiquitous, threat of the neo-liberal agenda (Klein, 2014). I feel part of a larger community, sharing the values of the authors I am reading.
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS OF MY PRACTICE
Linking theory with my practice, through my study of Adult Education, I have learned that I borrow from many teaching and learning theories depending on the context of my teaching: my specific goals, in a publicly funded school, the curriculum, and the students. As I read the foundational literature, I recognize the importance of andragogy, of how adults learn (Knowles, 1970). Linking my beliefs and intentions with theory helps me become more conscious about the choices I make in my practice. I find my work fits into the principles of effective adult learning (Vella, 2002).
After reviewing the text Adult Learning (Mirriam and Bierema, 2014) I feel drawn to humanist and constructivist orientations to teaching and learning. This stream sees the construction of knowledge as an agent of social change; and the role of a teacher is to facilitate the learner’s negotiation of meaning. Framing the learning in this way helps make meaning out of our socialization and power relationships. Art is experiential, and I encourage self-directed learning, but if that is not happening, I try other approaches. As a humanist, and as someone interested in non-traditional ways of knowing, I see learning as the development of the whole person. I am concerned with the affective and cognitive needs of the learners, as they become independent thinkers. I see self-esteem and self-actualization as being connected to art-making and the knowledge coming from the body. Emotional learning is just as important as other forms of acquiring knowledge, and it is part of developing trust so that learning is on a deep level to involve attitudes, values, and beliefs. A compassionate pedagogy supports that goal also.
Even older pedagogical methods such as behaviourism – the basis of much of my own early learning – have useful aspects given the right situation, and I may sometimes resort to them. For example, I do assign marks or credits (a reward) in my courses, although I prefer ongoing discussion and feedback throughout. When dealing with class management issues I am sometimes looking for changes in the behaviour of individuals, and some of my teaching is competency-based (how to … mix colours, clean a silk screen, fire a clay sculpture, for instance). When holding group discussions about issues, I recognize social-cognitive aspects to learning: the interactions of people, behaviours, and the environment. I model compassionate interactions so that students see how to treat one another with kindness. I hope that the learners in my class are developing cognitive skills such as critical thinking and analytical skills while researching and pursuing an understanding of issues and social phenomena.
These are not my stated goals, but they arise out of the learning experiences. From a cognitivist perspective, there are times when I structure the content: learning in steps or stages has its place for certain individuals, media and projects, building from the simple to the complex, although typically I am quite flexible about how students tackle a problem in class. Although I want learning to be driven by the students’ curiosity and interests, I try various forms of motivation and strategies if that does not happen. After all, I do not teach in isolation, and learning how to learn may be what some students need to build confidence in themselves. I help my learners in a pragmatic way when they need that approach.
Learning, I believe, is about making meaning out of experience. Contextual learning, as in constructivism, is a collection of perspectives that support this theory. As a reflective practitioner, I find that my activities, classroom environment, and justice work using art provide an experience that supports the perspective transformation of the participants. I watch out for top-down thinking, celebrating and honouring the wisdom and skills of my students. We learn from each other, building on our collective experience, skills, and knowledge, and I am in awe of their abilities and insights.