Classroom Aesthetics: Not the "Art of Teaching" - Teaching As Art

06/18/2015 06:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Sometimes the magic and beauty of the classroom, the soaring beyond simple skills and content, happens in the most unexpected ways. At these moments, we are experiencing a kind of performance art in the classroom. Take the following example.

The Greek tragedies are old and in many ways stiff and odd to modern students. If we get into them closely, however, they are as familiar as the dilemmas and terrible choices of today. During the reading of Aeschylus' Oresteia with my junior English class at Berkeley High, I continually referred to my own experience with the Vietnam war, the destruction it wrought, the curse that came back home. We talked about gang violence, sports rivalries, and loyalties.

In addition, the class watched Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. It is a light and silly movie on one level but it brings students closer to Hellenic forms: it gives us a Greek chorus, and feisty chorus leader and even doom-seeing Cassandra, in an understandable context. Actually, the chorus scenes were shot in Athens at the theater. It also shows some modern dilemmas and complexities (adopted child, mystery of parentage, the danger of trying to play god and control fate) in a humorous way. Students then wrote a quick treatment, an outline for another Woody Allen movie, based on the terrible story of the House of Atreus.

In my planning, I felt it would be enough to help my students understand the perspective on New Yorker critic David Denby: "Aeschylus offers not the glare of righteous vengeance but the anguish of the wounded men and women in conflict. In the remainder of the trilogy, Agamemnon's children take their revenge against their murderous mother and her lover and the Furies, the loathsome harpies of retribution, then hound the avengers - until at last the goddess Athena calls a jury of Athenians to decide the case. Orestes, Agamemnon's son, is freed, the Furies packed off; the city-state triumphs, law triumphs, the dark dream fades away. The Oresteia can be understood, though not complacently (it's too bloody for that), as a fable chronicling the passage from barbarism to civilization, from blood feud to law, from vengeance to justice - from the primitive past, in other words, to fifth century Athens." (Great Books, p. 134).

Or can it? In the hands of my students, the story revealed something different and much more unsettling.

"I'm not sure," said 'Naka. "Now we have a trial. And a jury, probably of wealthy citizens. Certainly if the jury is made up of audience members, then it's those who can afford expensive theater tickets."
"Yeah," added Valentina. "I would never trust the courts. Plus it looks like all male lawyers running the courtroom."
"Yup yup," chimed in Chris, "Clytemnestra was right to get at her man and now you know she'll do time. She can't plead abused spouse syndrome."

In a beautiful moment of synthesis, the students were doing what I had been working months and months to accomplish -- bringing their own lived experience, their own strong critical selves, to the text. Besides doubting the court system, which they see as part of the prison-industrial complex, they challenged us to relook at the history. I realized that those who have been victims of the imperial project do not necessarily accept the categories of "barbarism" and "civilization". When students have power over the discourse in a classroom in America, inevitably issues of race and power, gender and hierarchies, equity and social justice force themselves on the agenda.

As we continued through the plays, students questioned the rational, civic, patriarchal order known as civilization and wondered whether the anger of the women, the revenge of Clytemnestra for the brutal sacrifice of her daughter (the men cut her open on the altar to appease the seas and assure safe passage so they could go on an imperial venture of conquest against Troy) might indeed by justified. New perspectives began to fall into place: the value of the old earth goddesses who were overthrown by the Olympian gods; the importance of tribal spirituality that saw every tree and river as holy as opposed to the history-intervening gods who called for conquest; the value of mother right, women's passion and women's intuition. Aeschylus' chorus chides Clytemnestra for being too manly, the same charge made against Lady Macbeth 2000 years later. But indeed it was her strong woman-power which made the men uncomfortable. The Furies, the old earth goddesses, must be subdued in order for repressive class society to function.

As students started to take ownership of the play, as they began to inhabit it and speak it back, all the suppressed conflicts and battles of their own institutionalized worlds came to light. One student wrote: "The text began to make sense; it went from being forbidding and difficult to poetic and gorgeous." They tacked between making a social critique and looking to how they were implicated in this repression, their own hearts of darkness. They chided themselves for at first avoiding the frightening truths in the Oresteia, pointing out that they had used comforting ignorance, protective ignorance, to avoid confronting the historic and personal struggles that were right there.

This was an ideal teaching situation. We read the text together, stopped to write and reflect often. We saw the play performed at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. And we took our time. Something rather magic took hold of the room. Students came to class eager to start the discussion. New texts and media pieces were thrown into the pot. Students wrote and recited. Essays and poems and polemics came pouring out.

I have written about this particular unit before because it is such a rich story. But only now have I come to see something else about these kinds of teaching moments. I had many teaching intentions going into this unit. At the forefront of my pedagogical thinking is equity and engagement for all students, especially those African American and Chicano Latino students who have been most marginalized by our education system. While this has often taken the form of struggling for a broader canon, more texts and perspectives from oppressed communities, I am also convinced that most "classic" and western texts can also be approached in a critical, relevant, and powerful way.

Those were my intentions, but I had no idea how it would roll out. The path ahead, the classroom exploration, was a story as yet unwritten. What happened was beyond my expectations. For some reason, the themes and poetry of Aeschylus had taken hold of their imagination. Just about every day, new insights, new themes, new questions arose. Whether it was the struggle for women's power or the unbearable pain of lives lost in wasteful cycles of revenge, the students owned the story. This was not a class about decoding a dusty tome. It was a moment of creative outburst - filled with new insights, new knowledge, and new beauty.

The words on the page, the words Aeschylus wrote out 2500 years ago, were just like musical notes on a page. The music only happens when someone reads those little black squiggles, makes some sense of what they suggest, and then performs the piece. Our students were not reading the Oresteia, they were performing it.

Experiences like this have made me conclude that we have to see teaching as art. I don't just mean "the art of teaching." The latter concept is that to teach well you need not only structure and plans and outcomes but you need intuition and creativity to get the job done. I agree with that and certainly there is an art to teaching.

But I'm talking about something else when I say "teaching as art." We generally think of "artists" as creating the texts we study - poets, authors, painters, filmmakers, etc. And we, the teachers and critics, are supposed to talk about this art, appreciate this art, understand this art. I contend, though, that the teaching itself is an instance of art, an art which you can consider in the same way you might think of the art of writing or painting. Something new had happened in that classroom, something that could not be easily codified, explained, or written out in a script for the next teacher. Like other art, it was ineffable, transcendent, and more than the sum of its parts.

Now, does art happen every day in the classroom? No it does not. Plenty of times it is just decoding, just "the boring bits," the obligatory training. And some days the lesson plan simply crashes and burns. This might be because of an emergency interruption from the administration (you'd be surprised how often this happens), an off-task outburst of fights or crises, or simply something funny that got everyone laughing and forgetting where we were.

But it happens, art happens. And it happens in all classes, not only English. It is right there in social science, it rears its head often in science and math, and it certainly is active in international language class. The most fun part of teaching is getting to those moments. And certainly some teachers are more adept at getting there, have learned intuitively how to create the conditions for art to break out; other teachers fear it and nip it in the bud if it starts to appear. But, as in all human culture, art strives to burst forth.

I thought of teaching as art as I read a New York Times review of Harold Bloom's The Daemon Knows. It is yet another volume produced by this most prolific English critic. And, while he is generally identified as academically conservative, I never read Bloom without coming across new insights.

Times reviewer Cynthia Ozick, appreciating the power of Bloom's criticism, says, "If, as Emerson claims, the true ship is the shipbuilder, then is the true poem the critic who maps and parses and inhabits it? Can poet and critic be equal seers?" She is asking whether the critic might indeed have standing as an artist. And if this is true, does not the teacher also? Bloom himself writes with the passion and engagement of an artist, declaring that Whitman "overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others . . . consistently flood my entire being. He also says, "True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir." And even: "I believe there is no critical method except yourself." These are the exact sentiments of an artist, and a strong critic, as well as an engaged teacher.

The particular art of teaching is that it requires the teacher to let others play the music, let them create action. For good education to happen, for education art to happen, students must choose to engage and must affirmatively act. As Bill Ayers says, teaching "is an invitation offered and an act of faith. It is filled with hope and undertaken without guarantees." (To Teach, p 137) It is as much letting go as holding on.

When you look at the elements of art, and what makes a production art, you get into the deeper aspects of aesthetics. Take poetry. Too often we make the mistake of "teaching" a poem by illustrating various techniques that were used, rhyme, assonance, meter, metaphor, etc. Even worse is the poetry teacher who insists that students pull out the "message." If the message is all we're looking for, why not just write the message and dispose with the complications of a poem? Techniques and themes are all there but somehow such a mechanical approach misses the thing that makes a piece poetry.

The best poetry teacher I had was Robert Kaufman who tried to describe what is unique about poetry. He explained that the task of poetry was to take language, something which is supposed to communicate precise information, and make it communicate something beyond language, something that can't be simply said another way. Somehow in the music, the imagery, the resonances that float above the words, somehow in there is the poetics of the poetry.
This is what I mean by the ineffability of art - the feeling tone that is beyond the formal meaning of the words. Helen MacDonald, an amazing naturalist and hawk trainer, spoke about her work with raptors as art. She was asked in an interview:
"You're an artist, a poet, a historian and a falconer as well as a writer. It feels to me as though (your book) H Is For Hawk drew on all those skills. Would you agree?"

Her response: "This question baffled me for a while. Training hawks isn't much like writing a poem or painting - but then I thought about it carefully and decided that maybe in a way it is. In all of them you have to invest yourself in something and work with it until you relinquish all control over it. That moment is deeply satisfying. The point when a picture is finished, when you can't do any more to it or it will spoil. Or when a poem you're revising clicks, fits together, and locks you out. In falconry you put all of your heart and hard-won skills into training the hawk, then cast it from your fist to fly free. Then all you can do is stand and watch, and wonder."
And how is that not like the best of teaching? In teaching too, you have to invest yourself in something and work with it until you relinquish all control over it. In teaching too you put all of your heart and hard-won skills into it, then cast it free. Then all you can do is stand and watch, and wonder.

Looking at formal aesthetics, we also see other elements that are exactly what goes on in teaching. For one thing, in the arts "mistakes" are not something to be avoided but the very heart of the work. Artists make mistake after mistake, imperfect draft after imperfect draft, sketch after sketch, and then as some point transcendence happens, creativity has taken the piece beyond all the skills and baby steps. Suddenly the piece soars. As did the class discussion, a kind of performance art, as we discussed/performed the Oresteia. In that classroom, new things happened, new un-nameable feelings and insights were generated. Creativity flew in the window and flitted around the room, unharnessed and unafraid. It was a moment, an extended moment, a series of moments, of art.

And inevitably, this aspect of teaching, the teaching as art, is precisely what is never captured in the metrics of education "reform." No standardized test or performance data picks up these powerful moments. And yet they are where the heart of teaching and learning reside. When teachers go home after work and find themselves unable to explain to friends and family the incredible, miraculous things that happened during their day, it is because these art moments are hard to explain, even more difficult to share.

I have no idea what to do about this. I have no proposal about how to change high stakes assessment. The best we can do is describe this process of classroom aesthetics, again and again, until it begins to have a legitimacy, until it is visible and honored and sought after. That is how artistic expression is put on the map and gets the respect it deserves.