26 May 2010

Common Core Arts Standards

How are the new initiatives in standards-based reform, particularly the Common Core Standards, affecting the arts and other parts of the education sector? Is this national standardization the right approach towards curriculum and assessment for arts education?

The release of the
Common Core Standards for Math and English by the National Governors’ Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers as a part of the blueprint for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) has impacted the way that local, state, and national governing boards and other organizations consider the question of how to address the problems of our education system.

blog posted on 25 May by Lynn Tuttle, director of arts education for the Arizona Department of Education, summarizes the findings of a meeting held on 11-12 May between the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) and key arts education stakeholders. The group assembled voted overwhelmingly to pursue assembling a new set of national arts education standards called the Common Core State Standards for the Arts.

Since 1994, teachers across the arts sector have followed the voluntary
National Arts Standards, a document formulated by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations. The document outlines recommendations for fundamental arts learning objectives and outcomes expected of every student in the US K-12 education system. However, the current National Arts Standards were established as guidelines to “provide a vision of competence and educational effectiveness,” but allow for freedom in implementation at the state and local levels.

According to Ms. Tuttle, the next steps for the stakeholders involved in the current meetings is to survey teachers, teaching arts, local arts organizations, and other institutions to learn their concerns and priorities.

As a writer who supports the arts and education sectors, I find the current drive towards a national-based set of educational standards an interesting facet of the education reform movement.

From an assessment standpoint, in spite of the drive for personalization in large-scale state assessments, which should in part produce comprehensive tests tailored to each state, educators, administrators, and other parties face problems of setting their own standards based on the national norms as well as enforcing their own accountability system.

The issue at stake with our current education system boils down to the degrees of conformity with or variance in implementation of the rules set in place by No Child Left Behind. In this way, having better standards, or at least establishing a common grounding by which to gauge student learning and expected student learning outcomes, seems a solid way to move discussion forward and to give educators and other stakeholders the tools and vocabulary they need to begin to tackle problems of failing schools, high dropout rates, teacher retention, and college/career readiness.

Yet, for the arts, I wonder how much debate this will create in terms of the necessity of flexibility in program design and evaluation for a host of reasons, including artistic freedom, demographics, and funding. It is my hope that the renewed emphasis on college/career readiness help stimulate funding for arts programs in schools to help us prepare the next generation of performing artists, musicians, fashion designers, arts educators, administrators, and policymakers.

In all, I am encouraged by this attention to arts education and look forward to seeing how these standards come together.

25 May 2010

Essay: Confidence

I find myself musing this morning on confidence. I have just started my own consultancy and am trying to use social media (i.e. this blog, Twitter) to market my business.

This all puts me in the public sphere, inasmuch as my business is me (metonymically, for we literary nerds), which is exciting but unnerving. This makes me wonder about confidence and what it means.

A contact, to whom I am grateful for my improving fluency on social media, suggested to me that the rules of online social etiquette are more flexible, yet brutal. As many of you know, people on Twitter will eagerly follow or unfollow you at will.

Confidence, it seems, is key to navigating through the mire of the world of communications and, in turn, the world at large.

It has always perplexed me that the word “confidence” means both “self-assurance” and “trust or assurance in someone else.” (There’s that trusty dictionary again.) But, for me, the whole concept of confidence as believing in oneself has connotations of independence and self-reliance that seem antithetical to any definition that includes putting trust in other people.

All of my favorite characters from literature, history, film, and opera exude confidence, though in vastly different ways.

Take Tosca from Puccini’s opera of the same name, for instance. A textbook diva (literally, as a singer), she is fiery, complex, and determined. She acts with confidence and self-assurance. When given the chance, she stabs the evil Scarpia without thinking. Out of superstition, she then sets up a Catholic funeral around his dead body, complete with crucifix and candles. Tosca is indubitably impulsive and passionate, is she truly confident? Yes, I would argue, but she is too vulnerable to be fully self-reliant so is confident only out of trust in her love for Cavaradossi.

In literature, there are heroines of all sorts who display a common independent will, alluring and confusing men, starting wars, or, shockingly, having their own opinions about the world. However, outside of a few exceptions (the works of Ayn Rand come to mind), literature is the same as opera in resolving confidence, particularly for women, as a combination of self-awareness and trusting in other people. If your life has no external reference, literature punishes you (e.g., Narcissus, the poet in Shelley’s “Alastor”).

But, then there’s Mozart’s Don Giovanni (on whom I’m giving a lecture on 3 July at 6:30 for Ashlawn Opera, if you happen to be in Charlottesville, VA). Self-reliant, self-made, he is fearless. Even being haunted by the ghost of the Commendatore he killed doesn’t seem to bother him. Don Giovanni is confident in a defiantly self-assured way and is, of course, sent to hell for his arrogance. Yet, he does so laughing all the way, sometimes with a bikini-clad hell-babe with him (as in a Royal Opera House version I saw in 2002).

Yet, if art is for the living, what of consequences? Don Giovanni realized his own mortality and decided to live his life as his own. He was confident. He had money and no responsibilities (Leporello doesn’t count), but he also fully accepted his ultimate fate.

Didacticism aside, all I can say is that we should all be a bit more fearless and a little less superstitious in our confidence. Being part of a human network is fabulous, of course. Yet, there is some logic to striving to be a happy human first and then networking.

Confidence, then, only without apology for the self-assurance that makes you curious and moves you forward.

21 May 2010

Essay: New Beginnings

I have been obsessively highlighting dictionaries since I was around 8. To me, the dictionary is like an enormous storybook, full of secret messages and historical intrigue.

It is an adventure to discover the interconnectivity of words and, in turn, ideas. I find it fascinating to uncover the common origins of words, particularly when the meanings refer to completely disparate things.

But, mostly, I love the way words sound. My favorite word in middle school was “prodigious.” It seemed a regal word, as it smoothly rolls off the tongue with its combination of soft consonants and vowels.

To me, taking words and organizing them into sentences is somewhat the essence of being: it is our method of control in a chaotic world yet its fundamental value lies in expression and its relation to thought. Words are the building blocks of how we express what we understand about the world, ourselves, and each other.

Like music, words are the most powerful when we allow ourselves to be moved by them, get lost in them, and allow them to directly stimulate our thoughts and imagination. According to Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Shelley (whom you'll end up hearing a lot about if you stick with me), this is the moment at which artistic inspiration occurs.

This passion for language, art, and learning is why I’ve started this blog and why I recently started my own company.

I’ve seen too many people, including myself, floundering in professional and personal limbo. Why? They feel trapped and therefore unmotivated. The job market is tough. But, I firmly believe that people, both children and adults, are happiest when they exist in an environment that encourages continual learning, curiosity, and individual expression.

Finding your outlet is possible even within the confines of an extremely stressful job or life situation. Sometimes, you just have to step back and evaluate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what it means.

In my mind, everything comes down to messaging. We live in a world of language that is driven by content and delivery. When you fire off a quick text to a friend, you’re taking an idea and presenting it to your friend in a particular way. When you send off a “no” to the wedding invite of your ex-boyfriend, you’re making a decision and communicating it.

For professionals, the importance of messaging is why resumes are critical (see my article on multiple resumes). For individuals, we message ourselves, our beliefs, and our intentions every time we say, write, or gesture anything.

This is all what makes words fundamental but also dangerous. Drive your words carefully: they are powerful.