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Background of the Arts UP Program
Arts UP is a summer art Education program run by a Midwestern university. It began in the summer of 2001 as the result of a bequest to the University to be used for the creation of an art education program for urban high school students. It seeks to foster collaboration among high school art students, community conservationist organizations and artists-in-residence. Through this collaboration, students and artists create a permanent or semi-permanent art installation in a public outdoor space. The program is designed to promote creative and aesthetic development, and also an awareness for cultural and environmental diversity and conservation. Its mission is to: improve cultural and social awareness and participation of teens; use public art as a means for educating people in the community; promote the intergenerational sharing of artistic and cultural knowledge and traditions; and create history while not only preserving but revitalizing cultural and environmental spaces and practices present in everyday life. Students are nominated by their teachers and chosen by an advisory committee based on their art portfolio and a written statement outlining their commitment to the arts and their beliefs about its power to educate and preserve.
The Arts UP program is comprised of four major components all aimed at involving students in artistic and conservation efforts. First, students curate a public exhibition of artwork they created over the last several years. Second, they work with an artist-in-residence to plan, research, and create art for a public conservation organization. Third, students journal about their experiences in the program and in the world. And fourth, students create pieces of personal art in the medium of the major installation. These four components allow students to develop artistic and aesthetic skills, as well as a growing understanding of how art relates to conservation and preservation issues. They also allow them to reflect on what they are learning and its impact on and in the world. Every effort is made to insure that the artistic skills they develop reflect traditional forms of artistic knowledge and have links to their communities.
Each project taken on by the Arts UP group requires extensive research in areas such as aesthetics, art production, animals, agriculture, architecture or history. Students must take site-based concerns into account, and create art that can uphold the cultural, architectural, biological or ecological integrity of the partner organizations, which are deeply committed to conservation. Students spend many weeks researching and working with a resident artist to carry out major installations that not only carry an aesthetic presence, but an educational message. Arts UP is particularly interested in connecting students to the past traditions and cultural art forms of their community, with much of the research involving hands-on participation with partner organizations. For example, one year, students learned about sustainable farming techniques and assisted lead farmers in planting, weeding, mulching and harvesting organic crops. They learned crafts indigenous to the Midwest like felting using traditional tools and techniques. Throughout this program, youth were also introduced to various local and traditional ceramic craft techniques and explored ways that Native Americans from the area used the land for all their basic human, cultural, and artistic needs. The program hopes that once students learn how to create art from traditional methods they will be inspired to renew past traditions and cultural practices in their own lives.
Student research and ideas greatly influence the direction of the art installation and allow students to develop a critical understanding of the purpose of conservationist organizations, as well as the tremendous influence they can have on their local communities. The program is designed to "help them recognize the patterns and activities within their own communities that are still largely based on face-to-face, intergenerational sharing of knowledge and skills” (Bowers 2003, 13-14).
Theoretical Underpinnings of the Project
Three major areas of theory and research informed the Arts UP program and this project: art and aesthetic education; service learning; and conservationism. The Arts UP program used both art and aesthetic educational and theoretical practices as a foundation to initiate dialogue, reflection, and art production in relation to themes of cultural and ecological conservation. The program also incorporated educational underpinnings of service-learning to increase a sense of personal agency, ownership of students’ learning experiences, and engagement with the local community. Finally, the program used the theme of conservation as its crux. All curriculum, teachings, research and creative processes were based in efforts to expose youth to issues concerning ecological and cultural conservation of their communities. Conservation, as it relates to the reclamation of the Commons (shared cultural and ecological resources and relationships outside a monetized system like traditional art making, meal sharing rituals, natural resources, or other activities that support life in a community), and as it relates to offering modes of resistance to the Enclosure of the commons (the destruction of those cultural and ecological practices vital to a community by privatization, Globalization and the commodification of all resources). These areas also informed the research project, providing focus for observations and initial coding schemas.
Art and Aesthetic Education
Art education and an aesthetic foundation have been shown to provide a multitude of benefits to and for students, including enhanced academic achievement and increased self-esteem, as well as the development of creative and aesthetic skills and abilities, critical thinking skills, ethical sensibilities, and cultural awareness (Billings 1995; Greene 1995; Hicks 2002). More recently, theorists and researchers demonstrate how art education can be utilized for self and social transformation (Haynes 1995; Hicks 1990; Noel 2003). Haynes (1995) argues that: "Understanding better where we are culturally will allow aspiring artists to create powerful and persuasive images of where we might be headed" (50). There seem to be important reasons for engaging young artists in ways that will help them to develop and understanding of the relationships between self and a broader world, between aesthetic appreciation, creation, and transformation. Helping students to recognize the need for shared responsibility in preserving the commons is one way art educators can help build individual and community action. In this way, art education can foster more than just creative and academic development, and can invite the possibility for youth to develop a heightened consciousness of their responsibilities in creating cultural, environmental, and social awareness and change.
Service learning is a process that increases students’ personal involvement in academic and community life (Allen 2003). Research suggests that participation in the design, implementation and evaluation of service-learning projects can increase students’ senses of responsibility and connection to their community (Allen 2003; Cameron et al. 2001; Taylor 2002a; Taylor 2002b) and provide them with opportunities "to demonstrate their sense of belonging by participating in the events that punctuate the social life of the community” (Wallot and Joyal, 1999, 29). Many researchers agree that learning occurs through involvement in real-life or relevant tasks or problem solving and requires a sense of choice and control over the content and environments in which it takes place (Bransford et al. 2001; Bruning et al. 1999; Cho 1996; Ryan and Deci 2000). Educators who make available these types of learning experiences demonstrate how students are interrelated and interdependent with other humans and their environments and how learning is connected to these relationships—local and global. Bowers (2005) suggests, “Educational reforms interested in the Revitalization of the Commons help address the EcoJustice issues that have world-wide importance for preserving such relationships” (10). Learning through service allows students to envision the ways in which their direct actions have an impact on other living beings both at a grass roots level as well as at much larger levels.
Conservation as Theme
Many art educators and researchers advocate exposing students to conservation issues for increasing their sense of agency and stewardship. Short, Erickson and Cunliff (1999) state that students engaged in conservation concerns through inquiry into “history, aesthetics, criticism and art making appreciate the significance of people’s efforts in other times/places, develop their own cultural inheritance, increasingly value the cultural heritage of others, and grasp the relationships between their own heritage and the heritage of peoples throughout the world” (44). Such exposure can help students become aware of the commons, or resources that were historically owned, used, and cooperatively managed by a community, including artistic and aesthetic traditions and environments (Shiva 2005). Learning about conservation efforts to maintain and revitalize the commons also provides youth with mechanisms to resist certain threats to their further depletion and enclosure (threats like privatization and exploitation of natural and cultural resources). By providing art experiences that teach students about the ecojustice issues of their communities, art educators can begin to foster the connection between self and the communities of which they are a part. This connection may provide the impetus necessary for collective activism and accountability for ethically conserving cultural and physical habitats. As the literature suggests, artistic exploration when coupled with conservationist service-learning goals can give teens an opportunity to develop consciousness through art.
Methods: Data Collection and Analysis
This research examined the complex world of urban high school students who participated in a university-run summer art education program. Data collection took place over several years of the program and included daily participant observation during the program, in the art classrooms, studios, and galleries, at the art installation site, and at events associated with the project. Multiple interviews took place with students, partner organization administrators and staff, and the artists-in-residence. In 2005, students also completed a questionnaire designed to provide information about the program and its impact on their lives and their art. We also collected extensive documents: copies of student artwork, student journals, photographs from the program, narratives that students wrote, forms from the program, articles about the project, and any other program-related material. Member checks provided a means to increase accurate representation of participants and their worlds, and journaling allowed us to reflect upon and monitor our own subjectivity regarding the research. Through the use of daily observation, interviews, surveys, questionnaires, and document analysis, we have obtained a wealth of data, providing us with the ability to create rich, thick description about the lives of these students and this program. Triangulation of data collection methods, member checks, monitoring of subjectivity, prolonged observation, and the use of rich, thick description all augment the validity of this research.
Data analysis began in the field through the use of analytic notes and questions and continued throughout each of the summer programs. Initial code lists reflected both a priori and emergent themes, based on the literature and on field notes, interviews, and documents. We refined our code list over the course of multiple readings of the data, and once a working codebook was in place, we coded all data separately and then compared our analyses. Interrater reliability was high, with over 80% overlap in coded sections. We read the data through multiple theoretical lenses, enabling us to explore it in different ways. Some of the codes we used certainly reflected the theoretical perspectives that informed and guided the study; other codes portrayed particular conceptual constructs, such as environmental awareness or community development, which informed the study. The use of inductive, theoretical, and conceptual approaches to the generation of codes allowed us to maintain flexibility in the analysis, and also provided us some degree of efficiency in the data analysis process.