Experiencing the Arts with the Creative Arts Laboratory ☆

Photo by Liz Hoelzle.

During the Creativity, Imagination, and Innovation Symposium, the Music & Music Education program’s Dr. Lenore Pogonowski presented a session titled “Engaging in Multi-Disciplinary Artistic Experiences” to a diverse class. The audience, consisting of men and women who taught a variety of disciplines, seemed to not know what to expect at first, though a 5 minute looped video that played before the session began served to hint at what was to come. This video, produced by two of Dr. Pogonowski’s Creative Arts Laboratory (CAL) team members, depicted scenes from the 2010-2011 edition of the CAL course taught in Arts & Humanities and is open to Teachers College students in all departments who are interested in learning how to apply dance, music, and drama to the classroom experience. After explaining that this session was an attempt to give the audience a taste of the day-long (CAL is held on 5 Saturdays in the Fall semester, then 1 in the Spring) session in 2 hours, Dr. Pogonowski began in earnest.
As the CAL Teaching Assistant, this 2 hour session was composed of exercises that were familiar. Watching as Dr. Pogonowski and her CAL team, represented by Tom Slot and Jose Sandin, encouraged the audience to step outside of their comfort zones and engage in purposeful exploration, further solidified my belief in the idea that creative experiences can be a worthwhile way to enhance any teaching. All of the exercises, ranging from finding new ways to play a bass drum, creating an impromptu group musical composition to convey a stanza of poetry, and using the entire body to embody a character, are based around the idea of designing experiences that encourage thinking out of the box and building on your implicit knowledge about what one can and cannot do.

How are some ways in which you can use the arts to supplement your teaching? Jose emphasized how you can use musical composition and improvisation to communicate ideas without words. As with all of the exercises that utilized this kind of creative strategy, the important word to keep in mind is “purposeful” – this kind of work can only be at its most effective when the explorers (in this case, the session’s audience) are able to isolate the theme or idea they are attempting to convey, then think about the instruments at hand and how they can be used to express the idea. The musical exploration is guided by an expressive goal, and an understanding of the message the music will signify is key. Similarly, Jose then asked the rest of the group to guess which stanza each short composition was meant to represent. This requires the entire group to understand the poem in its entirety in order to answer correctly. This can be an ideal way to supplement the teaching of a poem, short story, or even a topic in a subject like history or social studies.

Similarly, drama can be an ideal way to make a theme, idea, or story come alive. So much of education today requires the students (and, sometimes, even the teacher) to sit passively; getting up and experiencing the lesson using the entire body can be a great way to add variety to the day. Bringing play and fun back into the classroom can also make the learning experience more memorable for the students. By using the voice and body with purpose, thinking about how you move around the classroom space and the meaning and thoughts that you put into every word you say, you can make your lessons come alive for your students and, by encouraging them to engage in these kinds of purposeful creative experiences, present the ideas and themes in meaningful ways.

Something that always strikes me whenever I TA for CAL or sessions like these is how much fun everyone seems to be having as they work through the exercises. The session’s audience volunteered things like “uncomfortable, yet comfortable” to describe how they felt while they were engaging in the activities. The idea that creativity and fun are things that we are “not ‘supposed’ to be doing” in the classroom speaks a lot to the system of education in place today, but the absolute joy I saw on people’s faces while they were working in the session speaks to the kinds of positive benefits that this could have for your students. Indeed, all of the participants were constantly engaged, always moving, and always smiling. Also, what was especially key to note was that “without discomfort, there’s no change, and without change there is no learning.” While physically experiencing or communicating the ideas and themes at the heart of your subject may be, initially, uncomfortable, by stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, a lot of learning can take place.

The session ended with a short panel of alums of the CAL class. The panel members had nothing but positive things to say from the experience, adding that this kind of interdisciplinary work can give your students an opportunity to share their voices and also encourage stronger connections between you and your colleagues. Going back to experiencing new things with your senses goes back to the fundamentals of human experiences and the initial shock of engaging in something new can really bring a group together. Indeed, after two hours, the session’s audience had come together and learned how to trust each other and work together. Everyone left the session looking satisfied with what they had been able to accomplish and, with all of the fun and excitement, the 2 hours felt like they had just flown by. On behalf of the Creative Arts Laboratory program, I encourage everyone interested in incorporating this kind of work into their classroom to sign up for the 2011-2012 class and work with Dr. Pogonowski and her team!