The next time you hear yourself justifying inclusion of the arts in an educational setting stop and ask if this could be true:



Then back up and ask yourself:

  1. Is my art form a vehicle for communication?
  2. Does my art form support personal engagement and community participation?
  3. Does it distill my insights and synthesize my meanings?
  4. Do I use a symbol system that emerged to support my art form?
  5. Does my discipline support idiomatic expression for me and my community?
  6. Does my art form invite engagement and gain meaning from critical interpretation?
  7. Is it guided by particular structures, rules or agreed-upon [cultural] customs?
  8. Does my discipline adapt with relocation or change over time?

Let us assume, for now, that the answers to the above are all yes!

All of the above are characteristics of BOTH language and arts disciplines. Clearly academia generally privileges written and spoken language when it defines literacy. That forces all other ways of knowing through a single sieve: language.

While trying to prove our relevance in schools today, might we have overlooked our gift to the future of education? Teaching Artists own the map to the Literacy Genome!! Each of our arts disciplines configures the guts of literacy in an unique way. (If this seems too radical a thought, go back and recheck the above list of the functions of literacy.) Our effectiveness as Teaching Artists stems from our ability to navigate the DNA of distinct literacies and engineer their relevance in school and community environments.

In the future, the rules and frameworks that govern a single literacy will be too limiting to prepare children’s intellectual fluency for a world overrun by information. The arts, if well taught, offer engagement with an array of tools that build flexible, adaptive, and – most of all – creative citizens that are able to navigate a fast-changing world.

Arts disciplines are wired to

  • connect disparate domains of knowledge,
  • navigate parallel wisdoms
  • decipher hidden meanings
  • reveal common ground
  • catalyze the fusion of unrelated fields
  • …. (Please, please add your ideas to this list!)

We Teaching Artists “get” the DNA of literacy, whether we know it or not, and we model how its tools work.

How can we get past rationalizing our relevance and set our sights on the gifts we offer the future?

True Story

I was once invited to teach a workshop at a literacy conference for elementary school educators. When I spoke on the phone with the director of the conference I asked whether I could treat dance (my arts discipline) as a distinct literacy. There followed an awkward silence…….. and then she said that she was taking a more traditional approach to literacy, one that focuses on books and language. I replied I had no problem with that and immediately set about to make a two part workshop that might wear away at the foundations of her perspectives:

Part One

Create an exercise in which teachers and children (I insisted that they provide me with a 1:1 ratio of children to adults) collaborated in the choreographing of dances based on their shared interpretation of some favorite children’s books.

Part Two

Create an exercise in which teachers and children design a word-based sound-score for 60 seconds of a dance film. (If you want details, I can provide them.)

In the first exercise they translated the written ideas into movement, and in the second they translated movement ideas into words. While I never rubbed their noses in the fact that this would never have worked if dance weren’t a literacy equal in stature to the English language, I know they left with a visceral sense that literacy was a broader subject than they came in with.


When this technique works no one is “wrong”! At the outset beliefs are held that could benefit from artful challenge. After engaging in strategically guided processes such beliefs can evolve in a ways that preserve integrity and momentum of thought for each individual.

What makes it fun??? You can’t predict the trajectory of thinking. What makes it daunting? You can’t predict the trajectory of thinking.

First published 3/11/2014

by Americans for the Arts – Arts Education Program
for ARTSblogSalon