I sat with Tracy Spruce, poet and English high school instructor and Terry Suprean, artist/founder and director of Civic TV during my office hours on Saturday Oct 4th.
After 7 years teaching in Travis County, Tracy returned to HISD this semester. We got very involved in her teaching methods and the workshop curriculum that HISD has now adopted. Many of us recall how the typical English class was taught with a full reading, with book reports, on the classics of English literature. Boring. I scarcely remember the books we covered. This has now evolved to teaching a reading and writing Workshop where the student themselves create their curriculum by deciding the books they prefer to read. This entails the entire class reading books and writing memoirs at various stages of mastery while all being in the same grade level, in the same classroom, at the same time. Students read what and write what they are interested in and what engages them the most. The teacher honors the decisions of the students, supports classroom collaborations among the students, with a concern for and consideration with one another, and with an open-ended inquiry into social critique. The classroom becomes an extension of democratic society outside the school grounds. It is the English class as apprenticeship for citizenry. Tracy has been teaching this method for 15 years. Now the workshop has been adopted by HISD since 2014 or so.
It’s stunning to know that HISD has implemented a new, progressive curriculum where students co-author their education over the past few years. Which means the first student body educated under the new curriculum should be graduating this year. This bodes well for our young Hispanic students who have the lowest graduating rates in the nation. Tracy teaches at one such school where a majority of the children are “at risk” and finish high school with some of the lowest levels of reading and writing skills in the State.
One student has inspired Tracy how she will work and guide her class. She refers to him as her “Spirit-Animal” child. Her students invented a new word inspired by her energy; “Spruciful.”
Terry Suprean and Alex came later in the day. Terry also teaches high school, though at a private school. It is his position that all artist serve as perpetual teachers. We serve not just as instructors, but as mentors, life examples and perhaps future collaborators. “Art is play for adults.” As an artist, he instinctively understands the importance of play in the public life and how having an affiliation and connection with artists and art classes are important for having a tolerant and democratic outlook. It just so happened that the new statement on the façade above reads, “El Jugar es Deber”, (Playing is Duty).
Terry contrasts his experience at his school with the another private, all boys high school across the street with no art classes. One school values diversity, the other does not. “Imagination is the beginning of empathy.”
Terry schooled me on the ideas of Derrida’s “descensus” where discussion and even dissension is part of the democratic discourse and how the “contract” should exist for citizens in private, public as well as with the state. I came back to the concept of “choice” when hearing this.
We both agreed that artists should have a primary role in authoring this new “contract”. But he insisted that a new, ever evolving contract is needed with room for “descensus.” I had forgotten that Terry was once a pre-law student before becoming an artist!