Scatter, the new generation: On the right-brain revolution

The thing about pep rallies is, sometimes there really is something to cheer about. So it was Thursday night inside the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, where a group no longer called Arts Partners gathered much of the local arts mob for a rebranding celebration — from now on, thanks to the Portland firm North, Arts Partners is The Right Brain Initiative.

What’s that mean?

For one thing, you’re going to have to finally get that right brain/left brain thing straight in your mind: left brain analytical, right brain intuitive. You can color-code it if that helps.

More importantly, it means that after many years of America’s public schools being pushed further and further into a “back to the basics” position that all too often amounts to deadening drudgery, creative thinking is pushing back. And considering the economic, cultural and environmental challenges of the 21st century, it’s pushing back just in time.

The RBI, which has been spearheaded by the Regional Arts & Cultural Council but has had lots of vital input from many other organizations and individuals (including some local government grants), has set itself a noble if daunting task — to incorporate arts programs “into the education of every K-8 student in the Portland metropolitan region’s school districts.” And the goal has a good kick-start. Beginning this winter, 20 schools will give the idea a test drive — two in the Gresham-Barlow district, six in North Clackamas, four in Hillsboro and eight in the Portland district. Programs will be put in place by Young Audiences of Oregon and Southwest Washington, which has many years’ experience bringing arts events into public schools.

Some good old-fashioned left-brain questions remain to be asked, and a lot of tough left-brain work needs to be done to bring this thing on-line. The point, after all, isn’t to kick analytical thinking out of the schools and substitute it with daydreams, but to teach kids how to fuse their thinking and use their whole brains: analysis and imagination working together. How do we learn? What is the purpose of learning? How do we engage our students in the excitement of discovery? How do we teach them to survive and thrive in a 21st century that demands adaptability and suppleness of thought?


Will arts programs be imported into the schools — essentially R&R tack-ons to the core No Child Left Behind curriculum — or will The Right Brain Initiative lead to full-time arts teachers being added back to permanent staffs? (The initial push is to bring outside programs into the schools, with the hope that that will lead to hiring more full-time instructors.)

Even if the schools bring back the arts-instructor positions that have been slashed during years of budget cuts and philosophical objections, will arts remain just the thing you do in fifth period, or will creative, arts-encompassing methods of teaching be incorporated into the whole curriculum?

If so, how? How will a public school system that essentially operates under a 19th century factory structure reconceive itself as a place for a creative multiplicity of learning experiences — a place willing to take chances and allow for both the serendipitous and the unorthodox?

Will the advocates of creative approaches to teaching agree that certain left-brain approaches are valuable for gaining essential skills such as learning how to read and learning how to balance a checkbook and learning how to tell whether what a political candidate says has any relationship to reality?

How strong is the schools’ commitment to change? If, for instance, arts magnet schools such as Buckman and da Vinci in the Portland district have far more students wanting in than they can enroll — if, in other words, the demand exceeds the supply — will the district turn more of its schools into Buckmans and da Vincis? So far it hasn’t. How do you change that?

Even if administrators and teachers and school boards and parents want classrooms that stress creativity, how do they accomplish that in the face of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, which infamously has reduced knowledge to the mere quantifiable and forced what teachers morosely refer to as “teaching to the test” — a form of instruction that sacrifices free inquiry and individuality to preparation for standardized testing?

One of the impressive things about Thursday evening’s gathering was the variety of people it drew — including one of the speakers, Carole Smith, who is superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Of course there was a political aspect to her appearance, but she was prominently there, and that suggests that the state’s biggest school district is in one way or another signing on to this concept.

The hit of the evening was featured speaker Michael Geisen, the National Teacher of the Year, who teaches science at Crook County Middle School in Prineville, in central Oregon.

A science guy, advocating arts in the classroom? Absolutely. Geisen, a onetime forester and apparently a born entertainer, advocates a “curriculum of creativity” — a rigorous but open approach that combines analytical, factual, practical and creative styles of learning. In other words, a way of learning that has both sides of the brain working together.

Geisen cited three childhood heroes — scientist and visionary Albert Einstein; photographer Ansel Adams, who combined chemistry and aesthetics; master of technique and creative giant Jimi Henrix — as examples of people who “were whole-brain thinkers in the 20th century, which was really, really a very left-brain age.”

At one point he mentioned No Child Left Behind, prompting a collective groan from the audience.

“Oh, did I say a bad word?” he quipped. “I’m sorry. It’s like I dropped an F-bomb.”

Well, yes. In a way. But only because No Child Left Behind is so reductive in its thinking.

Its goal is exemplary. I want no child left behind not just in the privileged neighborhoods inhabited by parents who know how the system works, but also in the poorer neighborhoods of Jefferson High School and its feeder schools, of the urban areas with nicknames like Felony Flats, of the immigrant neighborhoods of East Portland, of the Spanish-speaking farmlands of the Willamette Valley, of the isolated towns of eastern and southern Oregon, of the Northwest communities reeling from the loss of the fishing and timber industries, with nothing to take their place. We’re all in this together. Unfortunately, the rote learning demanded by No Child Left Behind is precisely the wrong approach for a society facing problems and realities that can only be solved by creative reimagining — and by an understanding that science and technology and creativity and art are all part of the same thing.

So, how about a No Child Left Behind quickened by the imagination?

The Right Brain Initiative seems like a good place to start. So give it a cheer, and sign on.