Educators schooled by ‘guerilla artist,’ DreamWorks executive

“I was one the system failed,” self-styled “guerilla artist” and high-school dropout Keri Smith warned a crowd of teachers assembled May 5 at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. “I was the rebel, the one who stayed in the back and snuck out for cigarettes.”

Smith, Keri

In high school, she explained, her classes, filled with teachers who focused on technical skills and accurate landscapes, were stifling. So she couldn't wait to get home, where she could actually “create something.”

“Home equaled play for me,” she said. “So I became a clock watcher.”

Smith wasn't trying to chide the crowd as much as convey just how strong the impulse to create can be in a developing young mind—and why an educational system increasingly focused on test scores at the expense of the creative arts may be leaving all students poorer. A defining moment for her, after all, was a teacher recommending art school to her during her aborted senior year, a place where she would discover she fit in—her “hallelujah chorus,” as she put it. “You know how much power you have for one person,” Smith ended. “So thank you.”

At an event titled “Arts, Creativity and Other Outrageous Ideas,” Smith didn't have to do a lot of convincing. Her current success—including a series of illustrated, interactive books that double as part instructional manual and part performance art—elicited excited nods from many of the educators. “My faith in human nature has been strengthened,” responded the event’s moderator, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan.

The other speakers at the free public event echoed Smith's sentiments. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, offered one potential strategy to sell the arts, a growing concern in a time of dwindling budgets. The coming generation, she said, will need six key skills to succeed in the workplace—collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence—and arts training improves all of those. “Arts and playful learning encourage the very skills needed in the 21st century,” she said. “Integrating information and innovation are going to be key.”

Educational psychologist Alice Wilder, a producer on the hit Nickelodeon educational show “Blue's Clues” and co-creator of the reading tutorial show “Super Why,” asked the crowd not to think of a choice between “arts or reading, writing and arithmetic, but arts and reading, arts and writing, arts and arithmetic.”

She received knowing nods when she added that her mantra is to ask, not assume. “The only way to understand what children are capable of doing, what appeals to them, and what they are thinking is to ask them,” she said. That strategy was key to both of her video shows, which rely on intensive classroom observation to arrive at their characteristic mix of interactive elements, strong narrative and “play to learn” philosophy.

The final presenter, John Tarnoff, head of show development for DreamWorks Animation, offered an outline of the studio’s movie-development process. Because movie animation is a long, intense and complicated process, he said—each movie involves up to 300 people over five years—DreamWorks breaks down movies into small snippets of a few minutes each, with a single animator responsible for storyboarding out each segment. During the course of several weeks, the animator presents his or her work to the movie team, the director and studio executives to gather feedback and “sell” the segment, refining it as necessary through several rounds of meetings.

This process of iteration, collaboration, peer review and shared responsibility for the end product, Tarnoff said, could also form the framework for more elaborate group projects in schools. “Some of the key elements in our process can be useful for your own processes,” he said. “Some of our best practices have an impact far beyond our own walls.”

The free public event served as a kickoff for “Learning, Arts and the Brain Summit,” an academic discussion the following day about how the brain changes as a result of ­arts education and how knowledge of these changes can be applied in the classroom. The a daylong conference of scientists, educators and policymakers hosted by Johns Hopkin was sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.

Aalok Mehta

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