Making noise about arts education
Council focuses
on promoting success
of school programs

BY gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

Making noise about arts education
Council focuses
on promoting success
of school programs
BY gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

FARRAH MAFFAI Robyn Ellenbogen plays an important role in the Monmouth County Arts Council’s arts education programs.FARRAH MAFFAI Robyn Ellenbogen plays an important role in the Monmouth County Arts Council’s arts education programs.

The lives of thousands of students have been enriched through school arts programs, yet teaching can be a very isolating experience, according to the Monmouth County Arts Council, which has instituted an awards program to recognize arts educators.

"The isolation teachers feel, and may sense, is what the awards are for," said Robyn Ellenbogen, MCAC arts education director.

"There’s no way for the community at large to understand the level of work and dedication that goes on within those walls," Alice Berman, MCAC board president, told those attending the recent MCAC 2002 Arts Education Awards dinner at the Oakland House in Red Bank. "The awards allow us to shine the light of appreciation on those people who put their heart and soul into making sure art is available to every child."

In its third annual celebration of excellence in arts education, the MCAC recognized Vincent Borelli of Long Branch High School as Outstanding Arts Educator, and Cedar Drive School, Colts Neck, and Roosevelt Public School, Roosevelt, as schools that support and promote the arts throughout their curriculums.

Borelli, an Ocean Township resident, has been a teacher of speech and theater since he joined the Long Branch school system in 1979, and has been coordinator of the visual and performing arts for students in kindergarten through 12th grade since 1995.

The Long Branch school system, he said, currently has 23 faculty members involved in teaching visual and performing arts to students, regardless of academic standing, at the city’s high school, middle school and six elementary schools. Future plans call for adding a creative writing program, extending arts education to students in alternative education programs, and involving teen mothers in a theater program. The school system also is involved in cooperative arts programs with the Paper Mill Playhouse and the Metropolitan Opera Company, he said.

Arts programs, Borelli observed, have a lasting impact on the lives of some students.

"Through various art forms, students find something they can do well," he said, "and it is lasting. It gives a direction, a purpose and a goal."

The awards are part of an MCAC initiative to foster arts education, which also includes the creation of the position of arts education director with Ellenbogen appointed to fill the post come January.

"The position came through the very committed educational mission statement of the arts council," said Ellenbogen, an abstract artist. "They went after creating the position, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts funded the position."

Ellenbogen, who moved from New York to a 213-year-old house in Shrewsbury six years ago, said the arts council board, which includes several educators, made the initiative a priority.

"The board is really dedicated to education. They’ve been incredibly receptive and supportive," she said.

Ellenbogen was initially hired as a consultant to develop an Aesthetics of Art program that was unveiled at the MCAC’s 2001 annual Juried Art Show at the Monmouth Museum.

The program trained teaching artists to connect schools and the museum, and Ellenbogen was chosen because of her background as an educator with the Museum of Modern Art in New York where she helped develop a visual literacy program.

Locally, Ellenbogen was charged with developing the council’s Visual Thinking program which helps students develop skills in dialogue, observation and analysis — abilities reflected in the state’s core curriculum standards for arts education.

"The Visual Thinking program enables children, no matter what their level of experience, their age or level of sophistication, to have a dialogue with an art work so they can examine it for what’s there. They work on their analytic skills," she explained.

The teaching artists trained by Ellenbogen work with classroom teachers to develop an arts program that involves field trips to a museum resource. This year, the program was expanded to include the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and the Montclair Museum, in addition to the Monmouth Museum.

"Field visits to museums enable students to discuss an exhibition, to see works of art by local artists, and that’s one piece of the puzzle," said Ellenbogen, noting that the lack of permanent collections in the county leaves teachers without an important arts resource.

"That’s part of the reason for going to outside resources and bringing them in," she added. "Teachers have been incredibly positive about this."

"The five artists participating in the program learn to engage students in a dialogue," she said. "They are listening intently to what the kids say and responding with, ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ "

According to Ellenbogen, the experience is broadening for the artists as well.

"Many of the teaching artists have spent their professional teaching careers making things with other people. That’s not what this is — particularly at the high school level," she explained.

"This program helps teachers help children look at art — a pretty simple thing — and wonder about it, think about it, and understand it," she said, "and understand that most art has many layers of meaning."

Another initiative she is shepherding is the annual Teen Arts Festival, which has become a partnership between the MCAC and the visual and performing arts program at Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver. Formerly an independent event, the festival will now have access to the council’s resources, she said.

"Our role will be to offer networking help," she said. "We have a large connection to artists, visual and performing, and can enable them to connect and offer professional workshops for students who attend. We want to make it an artistic experience for the students who participate. They don’t want to come and be talked at. They want to experience things."

The MCAC project she said she is most excited about is the Teen Arts Connection, which was formed to provide students with performance opportunities and a voice in the arts education process.

"It was a board initiative to create, basically, a junior council," said Ellenbogen, who assembled a group of teenagers from throughout the county who are involved with art forms including visual arts, dance, music, theater and poetry. The group meets regularly in tandem with an adult advisory council composed of artists and educators.

"I think a situation like this is invaluable because part of the dream is that they can take back a sense of advocating on their own behalf," she said, "of having opportunities and access to new information, new understanding and guidance from professional artists — that they can go back and create councils like this at their schools."

"This will start to develop a significant voice for the arts," she said, "in places where the significant voice may be the voice of academics or sports."