The Theory and the Practice

Arts education is in transition and Metro’s Center for Visual Arts is leading the charge.

By Thom Wise

Publish Date: September 9, 2013

When it comes to art education Rachael Delaney is hoping to start a revolution.

Her base of operation? A classroom at MSU Denver where she is a professor of arts education, and her workshops at the Center for Visual Arts, an urban contemporary arts center connected to the University. Her weapons? A passion for improving arts education in every school and a belief that creativity lives in all students if they are given the tools to reach it.

“It’s not fluff anymore,”says Delaney, whose take on teaching arts education emphasizes a child-centric, individualized approach. That’s a real change from the system of the past 50 years that emphasized students learning and reproducing artwork just like memorizing and repeating multiplication tables.

Instead, Delaney views art education as using all the senses to find the key to each child’s artistry, stressing how good art practice can help children find themselves – and their future – in the chaotic 21st century environment.

“I want to see Colorado become the epicenter for arts education in America,” she explains. “It’s still the wild, wild west, [but] I can’t think of another state that could do it better. I want the seeds of this to transform arts education in Colorado and then spread it across the country.”

Can Denver truly lead the way? “The train may not be here yet, but the tracks are rattling,” Delaney says confidently. “There are certainly others doing great work... but what we’re doing here is just as exciting and just as important.”

Delaney is part of building a teaching workforce she hopes will transform arts education. Currently, there are between 12 and 17 graduates per semester in MSU Denver’s arts education program, with more than 100 students in the pipeline at any given time.

But like any smart revolutionary, Delaney isn’t just pushing the envelope in her own classroom, she’s finding ways to inspire it in other classrooms.

To support her fellow art educators in sharing best practices, Delany spends considerable time with a research group of 20-plus art educators from across the Denver metro area. Joined by Anne Thulson, assistant professor of arts education at MSU Denver, and Talya Dornbush, education director at the CVA, the “Theory Loves Practice” group meets monthly at the center to exchange ideas and push each other to go farther, faster.

The cadre of teachers works to support, problem solve, brainstorm techniques, research and collaborate with other “thinkers” on individual professional development. As one participant put it: “It’s like we’re doctors, doing our medical rounds. We all come together to solve a problem: How does art education get better?”

Jesus Diaz (B.A. art education ’12) just finished his first year of teaching at Cesar Chavez Academy Denver, handling 35 classes a week of kindergarten through eighth grade, and relying on the help and support he’s finding at Delaney’s workshops to keep improving his craft.

“In the old days, schools taught art history, the same-old-stuff, art for the bourgeois,” he says. “I try to show all my students that art is a part of your everyday life, art is everywhere around you.”

Diaz calls the “Theory Loves Practice” sessions at CVA an “expansion of my college classes. It’s an ongoing relationship, where I can still go for guidance. Sometimes I just throw my bait out and see who bites.”

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