HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Gifts of Seeing: Making Excellence Visible in Arts Education

by Sharon Marson Issue: Educational Innovation SAR High School, Bronx, NY

How often do we hear that an artist, whether a painter, sculptor, musician or writer, is gifted? Indeed they are, and certainly we all have predispositions and abilities, yet inherent in that assessment is: They are gifted therefore they can create masterfully; someone else is not. The haves, so to speak, and the have-nots. Do we leave it at that, and not strive to nurture what could be possible beyond the obvious?

As I drive my three-year-old granddaughter to SAR Academy each morning, we pass a doghouse, yellow on the bottom, blue on top, with an arched opening. It’s just the right size for a little dog, one she imagines is soft and can curl up in her lap.

Approaching the home with the doghouse, my car fills with anticipation. Maybe one time we will even spot the dog who lives there. Then one morning, the doghouse is gone. Oh no. What should I say to my granddaughter? Before I could figure that out, she emphatically announced, “There’s the doghouse.”

“What? You saw the doghouse?” I ask.

“Yes. It’s yellow on the bottom and blue on top,” she answers.

The same reaction the next day, and the one after that. That doghouse means so much to her that she still sees it. Magical thinking? Her imagination rearranged memory so the past is also present and perhaps even future, all at once, converting linear time into what eternity might look like, a resurrection of sorts. What a wonderful world.

Children are dreamers, and great educators are the keepers of those dreams. Pedagogues are also cheerleaders, guiding lights and visionaries, reminding students what is possible to express on their evolving canvas.

SAR Academy’s arts departments practice nurturing excellent student work and embed gifted education pedagogy into our study. Our adherence to a broadened conception of giftedness and human potential debunks the myth of art-making as an elite conception, that real art is produced only by a gifted few and appreciated by an audience only slightly larger.

When we paint a painting, create a musical composition or write verse, we have adopted what European art educators instill. Central in their approach is making greatness in the arts visible through explicating qualities of excellence in each particular discipline, rather than thinking this reconnaissance stifles creativity. This conversation is foundational in building a framework to utilize tenets of gifted education pedagogy.

We pointedly ask, “What makes this portrait, this landscape, this symphony, this fable, these lyrics, excellent?” Suddenly, it is no longer just a stunning painting, or just a beautiful song or poem, though most of us would agree that van Gogh’s iconic “Starry Night” or Franz Marc’s “Dog Lying in the Snow,” Claude Debussy’s “La Que Plus Lente” and John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” are indeed masterworks. Mysterious as they all may appear in their mastery and often magical in their ability to move observers/listeners emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, or all three at once, with clinical assessment they are also decipherable compositions comprised of tangible elements and quantifiable skills. Gifted is now qualifiable.

The arts indeed can raise a person’s sensitivity to seeing, to hearing, to understanding, yet we don’t leave our experience of the arts to only art appreciation. Rather, we converse about greatness and try to understand it. Ron Berger, founder of Expeditionary Learning, writes, “When young athletes work hard at their sport, they watch older students, Olympians, and professionals and imprint that vision in their hearts and minds. Unfortunately, when young students are engaged in academic work in school—creating a scientific report, persuasive essay, geometric proof, or architectural design—they typically have no idea of what would constitute excellence, no provocation, and no vision. We give students written assessment rubrics, but absent models of excellence, those rubrics are just a bunch of words. Picture the difference between reading a rubric of proficient play in soccer, and watching a World Cup soccer game. But models alone are not enough. We need to analyze models together and discuss and debate the criteria for excellence.” George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, says, “If you want to be great at something, learn from someone great.”

In faculty discussions about qualities of excellence in music, art and literature, we make transparent to ourselves what greatness looks like. In the process, we become further equipped in leading those conversations with our students, in music and art and library class in the early elementary grades and in our Voice & Choice program in the upper elementary and early middle school grades.

Generated from those discussions, our arts team built an anchor document for our protocol, “Qualities of Excellence,” that continuously evolves, listing qualities of excellence in art, music and literature. All this conversation about greatness, about what is excellence is significant in raising the bar for students in how they consider the arts and is employed to help deliver gifted education pedagogy, the overarching framework for our work in the arts. Our discussions about what is excellent include consideration of components of gifted education as spelled out by the National Association For Gifted Children and in the research of Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut. We utilize gifted education elements in our work through disseminating advanced content, integrating historical perspective, having concern for advanced methodology, escalating student performance, familiarizing advanced vocabulary and providing organic experiences to use that vocabulary, encouraging application of skill, pursuing high-quality product development and creating opportunities for students to present to an authentic audience.

Children begin to hone the capacity for considering what comprises a masterwork and what applicability there might be to their own endeavors. When children were asked, “Why look at masterworks?” they responded:

  • to discover what makes an artist’s or musician’s work great
  • to be inspired and then do your own unique work
  • to use as a model
  • to copy some parts to learn
  • to observe technique

And when shown van Gogh drawings, our fourth grade students made these observations:

  • Space is used to give perspective.
  • A variety of lines are used and a lot of lines.
  • There is so much detail from just lines.
  • Van Gogh creates mystery and surprise by having houses without windows or a door.
  • Even without color there is use of value by having lighter drawing and darker drawing.
  • The artist shows light by leaving space between lines.
  • There aren’t specific leaves drawn but there’s the look of leaves from lines loosely representing them.
  • He uses representational drawing instead of drawing completely realistically.

We do the same with musical composition and literature, and in addition to considering masterworks, we guide students by structuring their study with a mastery objective, learning targets, criteria for success and rubrics. As their work in the arts progress, we introduce descriptive peer feedback and critique, drafts and redrafts, all toward nurturing exceptional student work.

Steve Seidel of Harvard Graduate School of Education and Project Zero writes, “Quality is best viewed not as an end-state, but as a discussion. A stellar symphony orchestra or sports team can only keep quality high by constantly analyzing and critiquing—discussing quality during rehearsals and practices and after performances. If the analysis and discussion stops, quality will deteriorate.” We discuss, we analyze, and students work rigorously, with engagement and joy. Through these efforts, excellence becomes achievable.

Having said all this, I would be remiss to conclude that Qualities of Excellence refer only to academic or aesthetic components of arts education for students. It refers also to us, qualities of excellence as human beings, as educators. Our delivery and approach, our structure, how we communicate and encourage and engage students and conduct ourselves is itself a work in progress, as we too, are works in progress.

Our sages knew something of this, I suspect, when those versed in Mussar tradition suggested we live, “as-if.” As-if we already are all we can be, all we hope to be, all of the transcendence that is possible.

We are right here right now, but if we visualize greatness well, as we are instructed to do, we can bring the future into the present. Everything that limits us we have to put aside. The trick, they say, is to begin by seeing ourselves as having already arrived, in a place where we, our work, our characters are excellent. Time travel for transformation.

So much is in seeing, and when we perceive possibility, “as-if” is angled inward like a mezuzah’s blessing on an arched doorway opening to where, as Louis Armstrong sings, “I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed (yellow) day, the dark sacred night.”

Greatness. Now we see it... Abracadabra: Now children see it. Giftedness, made transparent, discussed and deconstructed into its decipherable skills and abilities, enables magic to happen. “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

 

Qualities of Excellence

Literature

  • Uses questions
  • Uses dialogue
  • Puts readers in the minds of characters
  • Celebrates language
  • Takes readers on a journey that touches the heart
  • Is well-crafted, using accurate interesting words, spinning sound, alliteration, rhythm, simile, metaphor, no superfluous words
  • Presents powerful images and new perspectives
  • Is well-organized and shows clarity of thought
  • Tells a story with a distinct style and voice
  • Builds concrete and vivid images, and makes things happen in the mind of the reader
  • Evokes a response and connection to the work; is impactful
  • Has staying power, making the reader feel compelled to return to the work again and again
  • Can convey values

Art

  • May include symmetry and show perspective
  • Uses materials well and/or in unique ways; masters the medium
  • Strokes are well-planned
  • Evokes emotion and invites the viewer in unexpected ways
  • Tells a story, often pointing to something not to be missed; revelatory
  • Offers a satisfying composition, cohesion and rigorous beauty
  • Provides intellectual content; uses metaphor
  • The color palette is pleasing and evocative
  • The viewer’s eye moves through the piece
  • Evokes a response and connection to the work; is impactful
  • Leaves a memory and has staying power. The viewer feels compelled to return to the work again and again

Music

  • Gives the audience a sense of familiarity (form has some predictability) combined with an element of surprise
  • Harmony, melody and rhythm work cohesively
  • Evokes a response; triggers a memory
  • Audience can hear musicians listening and responding to each other
  • Has texture/timbre
  • Is technically well-executed; there is consistency of tempo, melodic, rhythmic
  • Communicates musical ideas
  • Appeals intellectually, emotionally and spiritually
  • There is an inherent sequence and development of ideas
  • Has appeal after repeated listening
  • Listener feels stimulated and enriched after having heard a piece
  • There is a satisfying conclusion
  • The works is impactful, evoking a response and connection to the work
  • Has staying power. Listeners feel compelled to return to the work again and again

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