Thursday, February 17, 2011

Art as curriculum

There’s a great deal of discussion and worry as well about funding for the arts in America, particularly in schools. Art is a broad term. Art makes one feel. Studying art doesn’t land you a high-paying job. Art often has a liberal label. Yet we have many conservatories, places where art is conserved for free public viewing, places where art is the centerpiece of the curriculum, places where old art is studied, places where people create new art forms and recreate old art in a new way.

Last night, I watched the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s final rehearsal for their play, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Piano Lesson”. I sat with the crew in the audience. Elaine Ismert took photos for an upcoming feature article. With me there were the spirits of over 1000 students whom I taught at the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center a few years ago. You see, despite the fact that Wilson’s play premiers in Kansas City tonight, it premiered for them in 1995.

The Piano Lesson gave us a rich curriculum in so many ways. It’s a story about an American family with a piano that connects them with a dark tragic past. It’s a story about dealing with the past and how to embrace the future. There’s a ghost you can see if you try real hard.

How can a play, a work of art, be the centerpiece for curriculum in school? As I learned from my students, it’s easy if you just make connections and go there. We read and watched the film of the play together, read it out loud, even acted out a few scenes. We examined the art of Romare Bearden whose painting The Piano Lesson inspired Wilson. We talked about Parchman Farm Prison, a place where all the male characters were once inmates; the poetry of the work songs, the oppressive conditions, how Parchman is kind of a ground zero for the birth of the blues. We listened to music by Mississippi John Hurt.

We examined various genres of piano music from boogie woogie to classical to jazz. Since the story takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, we examined the life and music of Pittsburgh resident Billy Strayhorn, whose grandparents encouraged his piano talents, how young Billy saved errand money to buy his piano, how he composed high school shows, how he met this guy named Duke Ellington after a show and got to play for him at the age of 23, how Billy attended this really cool arts-centered school called Westinghouse High School, and how he practiced practiced practiced.

We discussed the migration of people north to industrial towns like Pittsburgh; people from farming backgrounds, descendents of slaves with rich connected recent histories. We talked about Kansas City because one of the characters, Maretha’s great uncle “Wining Boy”, a talented piano player, loved going to Kansas City to play and gamble and see the “pretty little women there”.

Some students memorized lines from the play and shared short performances. Some students wanted to draw like Bearden. Some students found the music the thing. Some students wrote things, wanted to be like August Wilson. We all found the play a real treasure box of connections and wonderful intersections. I learned a lot about curriculum but learned more about the students as I watched them learn about themselves. We learned that we all have a personal piano lesson.

What’s the lesson? I won’t be presumptuous to express that as art has a way of connecting differently with each person. Read or see for yourself. For teachers, consider theatre as a curriculum foundation. For administrators, administer with a bit of art in your heart. For students, practice, practice, practice like Billy Strayhorn at whatever gets you juiced and inspired. For parents, remember that the Marethas of this community are so special. For families, talk about your pianos once in a while and share stories. For funding-deciders, consider how art provides a rich ready-made curriculum of delicious treats. For teachers, check out this play and consider bringing Wilson’s creation into your classroom.

I started this by sharing that I have a personal connection to this play, yet I’m thinking of my fellow 1000 connectors who connected with me over the course of a few years with The Piano Lesson.

…another curriculum in a book – Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God…but that’s another treasure box of lessons, another column here perhaps.

Happy reading, learning and viewing, everyone.

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