As electronic music plays, a camera pans across a room lit blue and purple. We see dream catchers with skulls, a neon mobile, a plastic chain-link fence, jellyfish hanging from the ceiling as rows of white masks look on, and many colorful paintings on the walls. The camera stops at a mannequin whose head is a television.
Mesmerizing and thought provoking, the art installation “Synthetic” looks as if it could be an established artist’s work on view at a contemporary art gallery. But it was made by Jose Rodriguez’s students at Transmountain Early College High School in El Paso in response to an assignment to create art addressing the issue of plastic’s effect on the environment. The installation, first seen in Rodriguez’s portable classroom, later appeared in an art space in downtown El Paso.
Nonprofit organization Texas Cultural Trust (TXCT) supports the state’s arts and art education initiatives through the Texas Commission on the Arts and other agencies. In 2011, TXCT partnered with UT’s College of Fine Arts to create the Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative. The program offers public high school teachers such as Rodriguez free online courses to use in art, dance, music and theater. All courses in the four subjects incorporate media communications.
Among TXCT board members are UT alumni such as Leslie Blanton, B.A. ’76, who says the “quality artists and teachers” at UT’s College of Fine Arts are what led to TXCT’s decision to create a partnership with the university. Blanton and her husband, Jack Blanton Jr. — the son of Jack S. Blanton, whom the Blanton Museum of Art is named after — serve on the Blanton National Leadership Board, a volunteer group of UT alumni and friends advancing the Blanton’s commitment to excellence.
The curriculum is used in 335 districts in all regions of the state, representing 30% of all Texas school districts. The courses align with current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards approved by the State Board of Education and count toward fine arts credits.
Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, associate dean of UTeach Fine Arts, says of the program, “It’s not so much, ‘How does the teacher use flashy technology?’ as ‘How are we engaging with young people who are digital natives, and how are we supporting them and utilizing the technology that they know about to engage them with the arts?’”
When the Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative began a decade ago, more than 4,000 teachers received in-person training, with lessons available via PDF. In 2014, the courses transferred to the Canvas online platform. Teacher online enrollment has increased from 278 in the 2017-2018 school year to 968 during the 2020-2021 school year. Blanton notes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, art has helped not only students but also people of all ages. “People are trying to deal with stress and uncertainty. This gives them an outlet,” she says.
The initiative also helps UTeach Fine Arts undergraduate students, who are working to become certified fine arts teachers, get acquainted with digital literacy and observe how technology can enhance arts education. According to TXCT, high school students who complete more arts courses are twice as likely to graduate, 22% more likely to attend college and have up to 15% higher pass rates on standardized tests.
Blanton says that the response to the Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative curriculum has been “astounding,” adding: “Title I schools and rural schools often cannot afford arts teachers. The Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative curriculum is free — that’s what’s so wonderful.”
In the past, Rodriguez’s students have performed for local churches during Black History Month and for the veterans home across the street from their high school. He says that while many in the academically minded student body initially do not think of themselves as being artistic, they realize their capability.
“Kids who say, ‘I can’t dance’ or ‘I can’t draw,’ are finding out that with some of these digital tools, they can create something that they didn’t think they could before,” Rodriguez says.
Jennifer Brockette, who teaches theater at Singley Academy in Irving, says that TXCT’s Theatre and Arts Communication I curriculum is helpful in prompting her students to be more proactive in creating original content than her traditional theater classes, where students rely on published works. Students in Brockette’s class have created stage pictures, blogged, interviewed fellow classmates, written monologues and used the content to produce a live talk show.
Teachers including Rodriguez and Brockette have received grants from TXCT to purchase technical equipment, including iPads and audio and video recording gear. For a course module on taking photographs, Brockette says, students learn about design elements, such as using different angles, and gain experience looking at the world through a directorial point of view.
She notes that while using the TXCT curriculum, some students whose primary language is not English have thrived in the class because they get to speak from their point of view, sometimes initially producing content in their native language.
“In this course, they have to communicate. They have to share stories,” she says, adding that immigrant students’ personal accounts of their lives before they came to the U.S. are often told through imagery and writing rather than solely through discussion.
With House Bill 434 and Senate Bill 473 in the current Texas Legislature, which call for changes to curriculum requirements for public high school students, the future of the arts in the state’s public schools remains uncertain. According to TXCT, the arts and culture industry has grown 30 percent over the past decade, generating $6.1 billion for the Texas economy.
In the spring of 2020, TXCT launched Career Exploration in the Arts, a two-week course that examines career opportunities in the arts and identifies how arts education prepares students for success in all careers. According to Blanton, the Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative makes high school students ready for the 21st century workforce by cultivating creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving.
“The Arts & Digital Literacy Initiative helps students to be successful in whatever career they choose,” Blanton says.