Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them): Part II of More….

To maintain the element of surprise!

Teach a student to think about scripted lesson plans with prescibed outcomes, and the learning environment bores; stir up the air waves with music, theatre, poetry, or dance and suddenly it’s impossible to predict classroom outcomes. The arts act as a kind of unpredictable, oscillating fan—injecting welcome, unexpected breezes into what otherwise might be a very stale room (all the more so in my humid Georgia climate!). Training in the arts demands “the attention of current discovery,” the goal of the arts being to surprise the artist with new ways of seeing and being in the world that are, “as the etymology of the word ‘surprise’ literally states, beyond grasp” (Hirshfield, 2007, p. 28). 

“Surprise” is a challenging aesthetic quality for which to advocate in an educational climate that wants test score outcomes, and the certainty of measured knowledge.  But it is when teachers can be surprised by their students’ that the deepest forms of dialogic learning can occur.  Let me illustrate this by example.

The other day I ran a theatre workshop in the context of a graduate course titled “Academic Communication.”  The goal of this newly created course was for it to serve as an introduction to U.S. academic discourse (and TESOL discourse in particular) for newly arrived international students.  The premise of its design was that the instructor knows a great deal about academic communication skills students need, including how to write a summary, analysis, and critique; how to access and utilize U.S. library resources and communicate professionally in U.S.-based disciplinary organizations, online, and face to face with student peers and higher status professors. Despite my best intentions, there was a monologic undertone to this course’s creation, what Paulo Freire critiqued as “banking education,” the professor’s unidirectional “deposits” of U.S. academic ways into eagerly accepting international student “accounts.”

Freire’s (1970) critical pedagogy focused on the importance of dialogue between teacher and students, the exchange of knowledge whereby the teacher’s role is that of facilitator or guide, nurturing the teacher within each one of his or her students.

Given the more “academic” nature of the course I had withheld my arts-based proclivities until this, the 6th week in the 15 week semester—after all, didn’t I need to focus on more concrete, stylistic features of academic writing? Was there time for the arts? But at this near-midway point in the semester I began to feel a need to get to know the students in academic communication in arts-based ways that didn’t just view them as deficient and in need of more expert academic English communication skills. The arts didn’t have to replace the goal to review the specifics of academic communication, from linking verbs to Western definitions of plagiarism and correct structures for writing an academic email.  I wanted to add the arts, so that both my students and I might feel more alive and engaged, connected to the original potential of our thoughts and spirits. 

In the spirit of creating academic community I invited other graduate students and faculty to join us for a dialogic class session using theatre games. I introduced “Yes, No, Stop, Dude,” a game that asks each player in the circle to start with saying the word “Yes” in repetition but to express it in a “new way” each time the turn is passed to another member of the class.  We were only 5 turns into different expressions of “Yes” (said seductively, affirmatively, ecstatically, hesitantly) when we arrived at “Xuelai,” a masters student from China who has struggled in oral and written participation.  There was an uncomfortable pause which I read as uncertainty.  I was tempted to give Xuelai “an answer,” concerned about the delay in our game.  As I began to doubt the uncomfortable pause, she lifted a humble shoulder and placed an imaginary receiver to her ear. “Yes?” she uttered.  In that moment, I was elated.  While I was relieved the game could continue, I was also struck by her unexpected and novel improvisation which I hadn’t before considered.

As each student took a turn, I was continually renewed by this feeling of surprise—receiving answers I could not have possibly predicted and learning something about each person’s creative and spontaneous process. This kind of surprise is an awakening to the marvels of what students produce that is not required or scripted, and goes beyond expectations to teach the instructor something new. I believe the experience of adding artistic ways of knowing and relating to one another to the academic classroom environment, initiates a qualitative shift in the relationship one has with one’s students and the relationships students have with each other.

This theatre game example may seem like too small a surprise to celebrate but it served me as a reminder, yet again, of the importance of creating classrooms spaces that feel like co-creations and leave both student and teacher feeling renewed and refreshed by the unexpected.  When I teach what it means to summarize an academic article, I may be reminded that there may be as many ways to do this as there are ways to saw the word “Yes” around a circle.  My hope is that I can continue to maintain that feeling of surprise as students’ submit their academic writing for the course grade.

This is not to say that I won’t teach Xuelai and her peers techniques I know work for paraphrasing an article in one’s own words, analyzing and critiquing its contents.  But I hope to do so in ways that allow the students to surprise me with their insights and approaches, lifting an imaginary receiver that also asks me to reconsider my ways of knowing in the academy and what might shift when newcomers from faraway lands become co-constructors of academic knowledge.

Teachers at all levels, infants to adults, need the arts to train ourselves to delight in moments of surprise, to cultivate classrooms where students feel they are active participants to collaborative learning. We need ongoing practice in letting go of singular right answers.  The arts remind us how much value there can be from maintaining the element of surprise so that we learn how much we don’t yet know about each student and their marvelous other identity as “teacher” in our classrooms.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. 

Hirshfield,  J. (2007). Poetry & the constellation of surprise. Writer’s Chronicle 40 (2), 28-35.

One response to “Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them): Part II of More….

  1. Sandy Daubenmire September 24, 2012 at 5:28 am

    It is surprising to read your blog regarding 9-17-2012 classroom reflection. My observation and feedback from classmates are quite similar to yours, except your are a planner and students are carriers. We are all amazed with all the outcomes. It is very fun and delightful to see the smiles from them. Without foreknowledge of the activities, students in this community involved with accommodation and assimilation learning processes. I believe that their existing schema is changing in this process. Eventually, many constructive learning occurred. No one was left out and no one felt impossible to perform. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and implementations.


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