Sparking the Imagination
In the age of Pixar and Avatar, Ghostcatching, a computer-animated dance film created in 1999 by choreographer Bill T. Jones and digital artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, might at first seem quaint. In it, an abstract male figure sketched in simple lines leaps out of a box and begins dancing, his movements inscribing chalky trails against a black background. He moves through different environments, dancing in front of a mirror and picking his way through a tangled mass of squiggles. We hear Jones singing and humming. The whole thing lasts seven minutes.
But the apparent simplicity of the piece belies the richness of its meaning, from the technology used to create it to its themes of capture and freedom. And that’s what makes it ideal teaching material for Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, a New York City–based organization whose method uses guided encounters with works of art to foster imaginative teaching and learning in K–12 schools.
Before students lay eyes on a piece, however, their teachers must first experience it for themselves. Each year, LCI selects new repertory—including theater, dance and visual art—and educators attend a series of workshops to immerse themselves in the works in preparation for bringing them into their classrooms the following school year. Last summer, Ghostcatching was one of the new additions, and 218 educators participated in workshops related to the piece, making it possible for this dance work to reach more than 4,000 students in their K–12 classrooms.
“We get to experience as students the same thing we are going to guide our kids through as teachers,” says fifth-grade teacher Trent DeBerry, who attended a Ghostcatching workshop last year. Like many of the teachers who participate in LCI workshops, DeBerry is a classroom teacher with no formal dance training. “It pulls you out of your comfort zone and gets you to feel what it must be like for the kids when you’re asking them to step out of their comfort zones. Even when I’m leading my students through the inquiry, I’m still learning new things about the piece, and if I did it again I would learn more things about it. So we’re all on the same page.”
DeBerry, who teaches at Heathcote Elementary School in Scarsdale, New York, is one of thousands of educators around the world who are currently using LCI’s approach in their classrooms. Just how teachers apply it varies according to need and geography—some in the NYC metropolitan area work hand-in-hand with LCI teaching artists to co-teach units based on LCI repertory, while others weave the pedagogical principles into their own material. In either case, the end goal is the same: to use the arts to kick-start the imagination.
Imagination, Creativity and Innovation
The idea that classroom teachers should play an active role in the LCI process was one of the key tenets on which the institute was founded in 1975. “We’re not really coming in and taking over,” says Executive Director Scott Noppe-Brandon. “We’re empowering and collaborating.”
Formed in response to a study showing that arts-in-ed programs across the country were failing to engage students, LCI created an approach that went beyond simple art appreciation and allowed children to connect deeply with the material. The method, based on the ideas of progressive philosophers like John Dewey and Maxine Greene, asks students to approach a work of art the way an artist would: by noticing deeply, asking questions and bringing elements of their own experience into the inquiry.
In this way, they not only learn about the arts but also develop new habits of thinking and learning that can be applied across many disciplines. In short, they learn to use their imagination—and that’s the magic word at LCI.
“We define imagination as the ability to ask what-if questions, to think of new possibilities,” Noppe-Brandon says. “Done well, the arts are one of the best natural generators of it. It’s almost like a back-door argument for why the arts are important, but from our perspective the front-door arguments have not led us to much success.”
LCI’s argument is particularly resonant today, at a time when many schools remain focused on standardization even as the workplace increasingly demands innovation and creativity. To date, LCI’s method has reached more than 20 million teachers, students, administrators, parents, community members and professors of education worldwide.
Its offerings include professional development workshops at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and at host sites in seven cities across the country and in Mexico, as well as online courses and customized consultancies. It partners with New York metropolitan–area schools that want to implement LCI’s approach throughout their curricula, and in 2005 it opened the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, the first public school founded on LCI’s educational model.
Teachers as Experiential Guides
LCI’s mandate to empower classroom teachers calls to mind the safety instructions you often hear on an airplane: Put on your own oxygen mask before you help the child sitting next to you. In other words, a teacher has to first engage her own imagination before she can help her students tap into theirs. That’s where the professional development workshops come in. “It helps me connect with my class, for them to know I’ve been through it,” says DeBerry.
The workshops are a rigorous experience for both the educators who attend and the teaching artists who lead them. One of last summer’s Ghostcatching workshops, led by longtime LCI teaching artists Lynn Brown and Vicki Angel, was a two-day course that explored technology and the imagination.
Like all of LCI’s teaching artists, Brown and Angel—both professional choreographers—remain active in their field in addition to working as TAs. In fact, Brown says his teaching dovetails nicely with his choreographic work. “It parallels the creative process for me,” says Brown, who was invited to become a TA about 15 years ago after successfully completing LCI’s lengthy training process. “Facilitating a workshop is like structuring an improv for a whole group of people. It has challenged me intellectually and loosened me up. It’s really taught me to step back and listen and question, and never assume that I know anything.”
There was plenty of questioning going on in Brown and Angel’s Ghostcatching workshop. The group viewed the piece and discussed how the artists used motion-capture technology to transfer Bill T. Jones’ movement to a computer, where it could be edited, rechoreographed and staged in a virtual environment. It was unfamiliar territory for many of the teachers, and it sparked impassioned discussions.
“I think it’s valuable when a teacher can articulate any kind of question when trying to understand a work of art, because that cracks the conversation open and we start to create meaning based on our collective ideas,” Angel says. “We want works of art that don’t just hand the answers to us; we want ambiguity. We want to be able to explore, take a little journey and then go even farther.”
Teachers also took part in activities that mimicked elements of the artists’ creative process and allowed them to make personal connections to the work. In one, they thought about places that were meaningful to them and then built those environments using string and paper. In another, they made wire sculptures of movement, and Brown photographed them and used the images to create a flip book, an early predecessor of film. One teacher led an activity in which the participants put glow tape on their bodies and moved around in a grid.
“We were doing the movements as if we were in the virtual screen,” says Christine Trotta, a K–12 dance teacher in New Rochelle, NY. “It was great because it had an X-Y axis, so you could really use a math example. You can tie in academic courses through this.”
Ghostcatching in the Classroom
Teaching artists work with teachers to develop strategies for incorporating the material into their classrooms. “Over the summer we do a lot of reflection on the piece of art and brainstorm different activities we can do,” says DeBerry. “We design a line of inquiry by coming up with essential questions that might be interesting and work from there to develop lesson plans.”
This past fall, DeBerry taught a Ghostcatching unit with the help of TA Paul Thompson. Typically, a unit consists of four lessons taught by the classroom teacher and four taught by the TA. It includes experiential workshops, in which students participate in activities like those the teachers take part in over the summer, a viewing of the work and then a post-performance session for reflection.
“My students had a really interesting discussion about why they called it Ghostcatching,” DeBerry says. “They said that it’s because you see the ghost of the movement—after the dancer has moved on to the next set of steps you’re still seeing the lines that are left behind. It’s not something I’d thought of.”
In order to mimic the ghostly traces created by Jones’ movement in the piece, the students attached crepe paper ribbons to chopsticks, which they stuck in their shoes and held in their hands to create trails as they moved. In another activity, they performed choreographed movements while their partners sketched the lines and shapes they saw. They also talked about the technology and related it to Pixar’s animation technique.
“One of my kids happened to have personal connections [to Pixar] and knew the process, so he explained it to the class,” DeBerry says. “You never know what the kids’ experiences are until you open up the conversation, and that’s a huge piece of this: creating an atmosphere where the kids are sharing and respecting each other, and respecting the risks that they are taking by doing and speaking.”
Indeed, risk-taking, so often discouraged by test-driven instruction, is one of the benefits of the LCI work most often cited by educators. “It’s hard for students to feel that it’s OK if they do something wrong,” says Trotta. “I always say, ‘No, that’s great—keep going.’”
Though Trotta did not work with a TA on a Ghostcatching-related unit in her classrooms this year, she did incorporate many of the activities and ideas she picked up from last summer’s workshops, including role-playing, call-and-response in movement and developing dances based on drawings. “A lot of times I give them a simple concept and then let them go with it and see what happens,” she says. “Then I go in and help dissect. It’s similar to what Bill T. Jones did with the artists he worked with.”
All of LCI’s work goes through rigorous evaluation and scrutiny. “We look for trends and inconsistencies,” says Noppe-Brandon. “We look at things like graduation rates and attendance, because if a school is improving and we’re taking credit for it, we should know why. And if the school is not improving, we have to take credit for that, too.”
LCI is also in the second year of a five-year research study looking at the efficacy of its process across grade levels in a number of its partner schools. Part of the study involves developing both qualitative and quantitative assessment tools. “I am from the camp that we do have to evaluate what we do to be taken seriously, and we have to help define how those tools get decided,” Noppe-Brandon says. “Just providing arts services is not that difficult of a challenge. We have to show why it’s important to learning, how it’s related to learning overall and why it’s important as a discipline.”
For DeBerry, whose school is part of LCI’s study, the answers to those questions are already evident. “On a social and emotional level, I see that it builds community because of the risk-taking and the collaborative work they do together,” DeBerry says. “On an academic level, the interpretation skills and getting students to move from concrete to abstract thinking helps them in subjects from reading comprehension to math.”
Adopting the LCI method of education—from teacher training to the classroom—is a painstaking, time-consuming process. But it’s in the service of a far-reaching goal: To not only teach children about the arts but also change the ways they think and learn in the process, thereby creating adults who are imaginative enough to take on the challenges of the 21st century. “It takes a lot of dedication, and you have to make sacrifices to give it the time it really deserves,” DeBerry says. “But it’s well worth it.” DT
More Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance
The company is currently developing a version of its work, Serenade/The Proposition, for LCI to present during 2010–11. The full Serenade/The Proposition, using text, video, music and dance to explore the nature of history through the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, will be performed live at Jacob’s Pillow, July 21–25.
Ghostcatching can be viewed in 3-D as part of “The Dissolve,” SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial exhibit:
June 20, 2010–January 2, 2011
SITE Santa Fe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
To learn more about Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, visit www.lcinstitute.org
Watch excerpts of Ghostcatching and read about the piece at: www.openendedgroup.com/index.php/artworks/ghostcatching/
Michelle Vellucci holds a master’s in dance and education from the University at Buffalo. She writes about dance and the arts in NYC.
Digital art by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, courtesy of LCI