Thoughts About Arts Education


The Arts and Mattering

Over the last year, I have been fortunate to be involved in a series of projects that directly link arts education to wellness and belonging.  When asked to summarize how arts education promotes belonging, mattering and wellness, I went straight to the words of my students:

“I chose the arts because it gives me an outlet to explore my creativity and pursue my passion.”

This quotation has not only become the motto of my instructional program, but summarizes my beliefs about arts education, curriculum design, and leadership.

However, this quote cannot exist without supportive communities that uphold critical thinking, risk taking, and collaborative practices.  Mattering and belonging are key to all of the above in order for students to feel confident and comfortable engaging in the practices that allow them to express their voices through an artistic medium. 

And, I’m now aware of the time of year.  How can we continue to uphold these belonging communities in a time of stress and anxiety.

I really honestly think the key is culturally relevant pedagogy and remembering that, although there is a curriculum to “get through”, that students are people who all learn at different rates with different needs.

As the coordinator of  a specialized program, I work in collaboration with a team of teachers to build a culture where all students feel comfortable to use the creative process as a vehicle to understand and articulate their voices. Because well-being is at the core of all instructional activities, negative mathematical mindsets are broken down through music education, language skills are developed in our visual arts studios, and resiliency techniques are demonstrated through the performance process.

My students have had numerous opportunities to showcase their learning.  This is because I firmly  believe that performance courses need to have real-life, diverse opportunities to not only engage an audience, but to engage the students in authentic learning tasks.  An audience that goes beyond the 28 students in the classroom environment provides a new dynamic where fresh perspectives and voices of feedback can push the work/thinking further. 

The secret to achieving this is rooted in belonging.  The students feel like they belong in the community, and therefore and willing to take risks because they are confident in their choices. 

How do we achieve this sense of belonging through our discipline specific techniques?

  • relevant content that relates to their world

  • choice regarding roles while providing opportunities for everyone to succeed in all aspects of performance (i.e. not everyone is an actor in the company; students can choose to play the roles of directors, writers, or engage in technical theatre)

  • invite focused, positive feedback that pushes the work forward and is not personal

  • clear and consistent deadlines/daily tasks so the students know exactly what they are working on

  • a system for dealing with conflicts when they arise with multiple entry points for voices to be heard

Throughout the year, my students articulated the impact mattering and mindset has on their sense of belonging through leading workshops, presenting performances, and collaborating with conference participants to create original work.   My students consistently the world that building positive relationships while engaging in artistic projects that provide the opportunity to individualize the learning experience is a key factor in their success.

My year started with a new split class. I gave them the framework of wellness as a topic for a performance piece and encouraged them to use their strengths and previous experiences in performance to build something new. This set-off a year of curious creativity. Now it ends with two performance projects, designed by the students, supported by my understanding of the curriculum. As we move through these final weeks, I will adapt and adjust plans accordingly to encourage their success with the learning task.

Here are some tips for encouraging student voice and belonging in your classrooms. Try to be mindful of the in these final weeks, especially going into presentation season:

  • give students a safe space to talk and get to know each other as people. A variety of think/pair/share activities with generic classroom prompts (e.g. talk about something that you are obsessed about in the media right now) will allow the students to get to know each other as people

  • insist that the students know each other’s names and work with everyone in the class on multiple occasions. Be mindful of groupings.

  • involve students in the assessment process by giving them choices in how they learn and show content

  • be present and consistent in your feedback

  • check-in with the students consistently around their successes and challenges in the course

As Ontario educators and students go into the final month of school, I think it’s important to keep present and uphold belonging communities using arts education techniques. With exams and final assessments, students’ wellbeing can be helped or hindered by the approach of the educator in the classroom. My colleagues: keep focused, and to keep encouraging student voice and choice. Students need to continue to chose the arts as an outlet for creativity and passion, and a supported environment where they feel like they matter will make their final projects and assessments 100% stronger.

Don't Erase the Results of Your Break By Adding Stress To Your Return To Work

Go back to your school communities with a strategy plan that encourages a mindset of well-being and actions aligned with your priorities while saying good-bye to bad habits that increase stress.

Starting back after a break/vacation shouldn’t be stressful, but the reality is that many people are anxious with the return for a variety of reasons.

Below is my sixty-two minute reflection guide/strategy planner to help you identify priorities, develop a plan for aligning action, and identify any bad habits that will erase the benefits gained from the break. Let’s make it to the first day back without any additional stress.

Note: although there is a sixty-two minute individual reflection task, the key to this strategy working is realizing that we collaborate and work towards our goals together as an educational community.

This strategy plan isn’t about you spending the weekend working in isolation, rushing to fulfill tasks.

This strategy is about reflection and getting an action plan together so you can facilitate your curriculum tasks with your students/department/school community while keeping your well-being as a focus.

With clear priorities and self-reflection, the work week is less about “getting stuff done” and more about working together to fulfill goals.

May your return from break be focused on solid pedagogy and wellness and not filled with counterproductive stress.

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An Educator’s Sixty-Two Minute Reflection Guide To Prevent Erasing the Results of Your Break

Grab your notebook and let’s reflect.

First Twenty Minutes: Prioritize Your Priorities

Three questions:

  1. What are your priorities?

  2. What things are taking away from your priorities?

  3. What actions will you start/stop/continue to help you align your work with your priorities?

Remember: the educator is a whole person. It’s necessary to have your well-being, and a work/life balance, be a priority. If we are truly educating 21st Century learning competencies, we need to be full participants in our world.

Second Twenty Minutes: Sketch Out the Rough Plan

Now time to put some timelines to your priorities and actionable items.

This planning will be very you specific. My context: secondary teacher entering into exams. My students need consolidation time to demonstrate their learning. They also need instructional opportunities to help them navigate course selection, applying to post-secondary, and managing their wellness during a busy season.

I start with sitting down with my classroom planning calendar and the school calendar for the month and plan backwards, making sure to give some buffer days before the students go into exams just in case weather (yay Canada) causes bus cancellations. Always give yourself flexibility to be proactive about timelines changes beyond your control.

Apply this same practice to all of the initiatives that you participate in. Does your professional learning committee have a presentation at an upcoming staff meeting? Are there promises that you made to produce data or material towards a specific project? Sit down with your calendar and make a plan for accomplishing the tasks without feeling guilty. Remember: a break is a break for educators too.

Final Twenty Minutes: Have That Hard Self-Awareness Talk With Yourself

Look into the future and consider if you might engage in some of these behaviours.

  • After spending time on break, do you enter into Monday with a mindset of guilt?

  • Do you feel like you need to work throughout your lunch period and/or into the wee hours of the night to “make-up” for “lost time”?

  • Do you start every e-mail apologizing for being away?

  • Are you going straight into well-being debt by staying up too late or ignoring your nutrition and/or fitness because all of a sudden, you have become “too busy”?

  • Are your plans aligned with your priorities? If not, why and what might prevent you from changing so your plans do align with your priorities?

If you have ever exhibited any of these behaviours, acknowledge and then stop the cycle. Go back to your priorities. Go back to how your actions align with your priorities.

And, be kind to yourself. Find the root of why you might be exhibiting these behaviours and deal with them. No judgment. No emotion. Have the courageous conversation and then move onto setting actions in place so you don’t fall back into negative work behaviours.

Final Two Minutes: Declare a Transition Period

Now that you have your priorities, and your plan, declare a transition period that fits your educational context and share those prioritizes and planning work with your community.

NOTE: Make sure to dedicate some time for your transition day so everyone can participate in, and align their actions with, the next steps for your educational community. This strategy does not have the same impact without the transition day and co-constructing plans with your community members.

In a classroom context, that might look like co-constructing deadlines with your students, going through the look-fors of the final assessment and identifying, together as a classroom community, where the gaps are and how the gaps will be addressed.

My transition period will be the first day back. 75 minutes decided to co-construction, alignment and being proactive towards our end of semester tasks.

In my theatre courses, the students are working towards their end of semester final performance and reflective exams. On Monday, we will co-construct a calendar that identifies our checkpoints. We will use the criteria from the Ontario Arts Curriculum and co-construct look-fors/next steps using evidence from our class’ portfolio of previous work.

Apply the same concepts to initiative work. How are you using the data, and aligning your data sources, to fulfilling the departments/team/school’s goals? The transition period for facilitating the administrative tasks that I have to do will be extended to a week, where I have identified tasks that need to be finished by certain dates to keep on schedule with facilitating the specialized arts program.

And remember: the students and your colleagues are coming off of break too. Some of them travelled the world. Some of them had a break wasn’t “exciting” or “filled with positive memories.” This transition period will allow everyone to get back into the mindset of your educational community.

Two minutes left in your reflection session. Decide on length, how you’re going share your priorities and co-construct a plan together to align action with practical impact.

Congratulations! That was a good sixty-two minutes of reflection that will have huge impact on your own and your school community’s well-being.

Now that you have this new sense of clarity and alignment, get out there and enjoy the rest of your break.

Less is More | Minimal Scripts As An Entry Point Into Character

Today I just spent some time planning the ADA 10 Grade 9 Dramatic Arts course with a colleague.  It was an excellent exercise in reflecting on what works best for our student learners, focusing on how the dramatic activities will bring about our key learnings in the course: communication, collaboration, confidence and critical thinking.  

As we were going through the course and outlining the units, we landed upon minimal scripts as an entry point into character and script work.  Starting small but using clues in the text to develop: 

  • character relationships

  • character building based on the facts found in the script

  • confidence in lines and memorization

As an arts educator, I'm gearing my lessons everyday for my students to build confidence.  I honestly believe that we need to help students learn their parts.  By encouraging students to be "off book" from the beginning of the year, especially with short burst activities such as minimal scripts, it will help the students to gain confidence in longer sections of material.  For memorization has two main components: confidence and accuracy.  Both concept are rooted in the idea of knowing one's character, relationship, objectives and motivations inside and out.  

I have linked a handout and activity to minimal scripts to the Dramatic Arts resource page.   In terms of planning where minimal scripts could go in your curriculum, consider the following: 

  • at the beginning of a script writing unit to study character voice and what needs to be said in order to get the message across

  • during the elements of drama units to bring out concepts of physicalization, staging, communicating character's reactions between the dialogue lines

  • as a warm-up activity to extend characterization

  • anywhere else where it fits.

Remember: minimal script doesn't have to be a beginning activity.  It could be used to dive into characterization at any point in the process. 

Also remember that this is a great technique to develop student voice and confidence.  Give the students prompts and encourage them to place these lines into a context that is relevant to their lives.  When you are reflecting on the activity, how did the text allow the students to enter into situations that matter to their lives?  What is the difference between what is said on stage and what can be inferred by body language?  What context does the audience need to understand the storyline?  Be direct with your reflection questions and prompt the students to develop their literacy skills in their response to the activity (both as performers and audience members). 

A warning to all of my fellow drama teachers and directors out there in the world: be careful of timing with minimal scripts.  You need to schedule enough time so the students feel confident in their decision making and choices, but not too much time so rehearsal becomes unproductive.  In an Ontario curriculum 75 minute lesson, you could totally use this sample lesson as your action portion of the lesson plan with a characterization minds on and a performance reflection at the end.  

Less is more.  How can you use minimal dialogue and have maximum impact on stage?  Encourage your students to round out their characters using physicalization.  


Active Reflection Linked to Authentic Need, Not Dictated Activities

"It's time to reflect." 

Sometimes those words, especially when they arrive during a formal meeting, can be a curse.  Forced reflection, or "top down reflection" is reflection for the sake of doing the activity because it has been prompted by someone else or a necessary checkmark on the completion checklist. 

How many of us actually act on the reflection work?  A conversation a gets captured on an exit card and then forgotten.  

But, what if reflection was ingrained in our daily practice as educators.  Not as a staff meeting activity but as a part of daily planning.  

And you might read this and say, but Cathy, I do reflect daily. 


My follow-up question is: how do you take those reflections and then turn them into action?  How do you drive the learning forward in away that will not only uphold strong pedagogy, but be best for the learners in front of you?  And not overwhelming? 

"There isn't enough time" is a common phrase that I hear in the staff work spaces.  The "enough time" phrase has been echoed consistency for years, from teacher's college private school placement to current day leadership role in the public system.   

We know that there will never be enough time.  What if we switched it around and made time and scheduled in time for reflection.  Put it directly into your planning time with a monitoring system that works for you.  And make it a priority and not something that gets filled with other tasks.  

I don’t have any answers when it comes to monitoring.  I’m a journal writer - I have books and books of reflection.  What am I going to do with that information?  It is providing a guide for the revamp of my courses.  However, this is afterfact.  My current practice in my Principal’s Qualification Program is to set aside twenty minutes at the end of the day to put down point form notes of reflection with action items and timelines.  It’s early days, so I have no results, but it’s a start.

What would the impact be on our professional practice if you had daily reflection time linked to active implementation during the year?  How would it impact your learning, your approach to teaching and learning, and your school’s community’s experience?