SCOTT LUCAS: Congratulations on the new job, and welcome to CAW. Let's start with how you first became interested in art?
DANIEL BERGMAN: My maternal grandmother was a revered figure in my family. She was an artist and she had a farm in rural Michigan where she raised sheep, and there was a lake where I went fishing. I did the best part of my growing up on that farm with her. She had some success as a painter in Paris between the wars, but she also had a great eye for art. She bought some etchings from an artist along the quay in Paris, a fellow named Pablo Picasso, and those works formed the basis of the art collection hanging in her farmhouse. Being an artist was a valued position in my family, so by the time I was five, I knew I wanted to be an artist.
Scott: And when did you become interested in arts education?
Daniel: When I moved to New York, I got hired at St. Anne's School in downtown Brooklyn, one of the leading progressive art-centered schools in the nation. I was very lucky, because I found my niche right away. I got to work with seasoned artists, and I had a lot of freedom to develop my own curriculum. After I left St. Anne's to earn my MFA, I worked with different programs, including Studio in the School, Lincoln Center Institute and the Guggenheim for about a dozen years.
Family life came along and I thought I'd better get a job with health insurance. I was offered a position teaching wood working part-time at Trinity School on the Upper West side, but within six months, the head of the art department retired and they offered me the position. And that’s how I found my way into arts administration.
Scott: What do you see as your priorities for the Programs Department over the next year?
Daniel: I am truly inspired by our mission to develop young people in underserved communities through art-making. So, my first goal is to ensure that our programming lives that mission, and to grow our programs in a sustainable way that also reflects our values.
My second goal is to develop an ongoing professional development program that will support our Teaching Artists so that they feel empowered to do the work that fulfills our mission and supports the young people we serve.
Scott: Being a Teaching Artists requires a very particular set of skills and inclinations, so how do you set our people up for success?
Daniel: We start by conveying our mission to all our teaching staff. I think it’s fair to say the administrative team wants our programs to focus on so-called SEL skills – social-emotional learning skills. CAW is doing something distinctive from teaching art, and that's where that phrase, "teaching artist" comes in, as opposed to, “art teacher.” While we do want to teach authentic art skills, we agree as an organization that our priority is youth development.
The question is, how do you do that? There’s one school of thought that says you can't teach something just by mentioning it, so if you're going to teach something you have to build your lesson plan around it, so that thing becomes a focal point. Let's say that we felt that collaboration is a key capacity we want to develop. We could tell the kids, "Look, we're going to have a lot of fun making art together, but the thing we're really going to focus on is collaboration. So before we make any art, what does collaboration mean?" That’s one way of doing it.
Or we could we could build the idea of collaboration into our lesson plans. In David Perkins book, Making Learning Whole, he notes that five and six year olds don't learn to play baseball by sitting through endless chalk talks in the locker room. They learn by playing the game, but they don't play on a major league field, and they're not pitching fast balls. They play a modified version of the game that's developmentally correct, and through playing that modified version they learn to play the game. So, metaphorically, maybe we simply set up programming where collaboration is required. Then we don't have to shine a light on the fact that we’re learning to collaborate, because we're all playing the game of making art together.
Scott Lucas: How do you convey those ideas to our Teaching Artists?
Daniel: That’s where the professional development comes in. I think it's very important to give teachers voice, and to create a sense of community. I need to understand where our Teaching Artists are coming from and see how that might align with CAW’s mission. It's tricky, because I want our Teaching Artists to bring all of their competence and all of their experience to their teaching, but I also want to make sure that when they teach a CAW program that they're wearing their CAW hat that day.
Scott: How do we know if we're doing a good job?
Daniel: Before I answer that, let me say that my experience has been that you can get really great looking art out of a process that has very little integrity. You can also get really lousy looking art out of a process with a lot of integrity. Ideally, we want to teach a process with a great deal of integrity that also yields great-looking art.
So, how do you know if a process is integrous if it's not simply because the art looks fabulous? The only way to tell is to look at development across time, and one of the best ways to do that is through portfolio assessments. When I say portfolio I don't mean simply finished artwork from kids, but artifacts that teachers collect during the course of a unit that track and demonstrate development. Our Teaching Artists are already doing this when they have kids write reflections or artist statements.
Going back to my previous example, if the heart of the matter is collaboration, then maybe the artifacts could be a 30 second videotape of an interaction between two kids. It could be a sketch that's collaboratively developed. Collaboration doesn't show up in the finished artwork, so we have to figure out ways to document the process and make them part of our teaching framework.
If we want our kids to feel they have a sense of agency and voice, how do we track that? That's a piece of cake. We're already doing that when we give students journals and sketchbooks, which let us trace their input from the beginning to the end of a process. If at the end of the process you ask them to reflect on how they got there, there you've got a demonstration of voice. You've achieved your key goal regardless of what the finished product looks like.
Scott: So, we all agree that we are really teaching life-skills, but I still feel like the quality of the art matters.
Daniel: Absolutely. I don't want to say we don't care about the art itself. It does matter. Part of an integral process is setting your students up for success. We don't have a lot of control over what their finished painting looks like, but there are variables we can control: Number one, we can make sure the skills we teach are developmentally appropriate and taught in a thoughtful way.
Number two, we can supply our kids with materials that lend integrity to the process. I mean, if you let students paint watercolors on loose-leaf paper, you're handicapping them. But bringing the right tools and materials is going to front load at least the possibility of success.
Scott: Could you talk to me more about the importance of public speaking and writing through the curriculum?
Daniel: We could make the argument that artwork is an act of communication, and indeed it is, but if we're developing young people's ability to be successful in the world, then we have an obligation to develop their capacities to communicate, and communication right now is multivalent. You’ve got to be able to put together a multimedia presentation, but you also need to be able to sit down face to face and talk with someone. And you need to understand how to convey information in a way that's convincing. That's about body language, that's about the way that we interact, that's about eye contact. These are all part and parcel of the large universe of communication skills that young people need.
Scott: What role does failure play in the learning process?
Daniel: The research is increasingly clear that there are some habits of mind that are crucial to success. Those include resilience, grit and a growth mindset. Resilient people, gritty people, allow themselves to keep trying even when they encounter obstacles or setbacks. A person with a growth mindset says, “I'm not good at this right now, but I can work hard and I can get better.”
When I was studying art in college, there would be days when I would walk out of drawing class and I would think, "I am blessed with hands of gold! I drew like Da Vinci today!"
A week later I would walk out of the same class, thinking, "Why was I cursed with these hands of brick? I can't draw to save my life!"
This is the nature of art making. You’ve got your golden days, you got you’ve got your lousy days. The goal is to cherish the golden days and just let go of the lousy ones. Failure builds the metacognitive capacity to ask the question, “Why did it fail? By what criterion?” And how do I make it better next time?” You’ve got to be open to the possibility for revision, for problem solving. In the real world, we're constantly working to refine. You don't just do something, get a grade, and move on. You have to keep working at things until you get good at them.