GC mini-conference looks at art in education

by Bei Hu

To people who attended the Art, Culture and Pedagogy Mini-conference at the University’s General College on Wednesday, education means much more than learning to spell and count.
General College was the main sponsor of the mini-conference. Meant to be a small-scale report on the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference held in Omaha, Neb. in March, the mini-conference brought together about 40 Twin Cities educators, students and community members.
“The main goal of this particular conference is to give us … an opportunity to engage in a sort of dialogue and exchange of techniques of this work we have been doing all along,” said Eva Lopez, a teaching assistant in African-American literature in General College.
During the conference’s 10 sessions, participants discussed how to use arts in education and help students cope with social issues.
Vanita Vactor, a theater arts professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, said using theater in the classroom puts teachers and learners “in a process of discovery together.” Too often in a classroom, Vactor said, “students take in knowledge like a sponge. At the end of the semester, they give it back.”
Much of the latter half of the mini-conference focused on educating the oppressed. “We can define the oppressed in any way. Often we think people who are oppressed are people who, because of racial, cultural, ethnic, gender, economic and sexual orientation differences, are kept from achieving life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, which is the American dream,” said Vactor.
Many participants of the mini-conference challenged the existing educational system’s effectiveness in dealing with an increasingly diverse student body. Eyenga Bokamba, a teacher at a high school for pregnant seventh through 12th graders, said homophobia at her school was so strong that a lot of her students believed breast-feeding their daughters would make them lesbians.
“If you have kids young enough, you can deconstruct (their misconceptions),” said Jan Mandell, a veteran theater teacher at St. Paul Central High School with 17 years of teaching experience.
Mandell and several other conference participants said too often schools choose not to address touchy issues directly. Dr. Lisa Albrecht of General College said students need to be allowed to have open discussions, and share their own stories and feelings in a classroom setting. “I do believe in an education that will result in social change,” she said.
The mini-conference was seen by some to be the General College’s effort to prove its value in the wake of a battle for its very existence. “Within this state and in this institution, people are questioning very much whether or not college is a place that should be accessible to all people, irrespective of race, religion, class, ability,” said Lopez. The college was holding the conference to show “we are here and we are staying,” Lopez said.