Charlotte Smelser, Arts Education Director, MAC

Charlotte Smelser, Arts Education Director, MAC

As the MAC Arts Education Program Director, what is your role?

The Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) acts as a catalyst for the arts in the State of Mississippi. As MAC’s Director of Arts Education, my role is to promote education ‘in’ the arts and ‘through’ the arts.  Some of my specific duties include: developing and managing training opportunities for Teaching Artists, supporting arts education initiatives, serving as a point person in the State to disseminate arts education information collected through research, and I collaborate with Mississippi Department of Education to provide teacher training and strengthen arts education across the State. I also oversee Arts Education grants for organizations and individuals, recruit artists for MAC’s rosters, and support arts integration through our Whole Schools Initiative.

What does Arts-in-Education really mean?

Arts Education at its most basic level is skills based instruction in various arts disciplines. This is fulfilled through sequential instruction taught by certified and highly qualified arts instructors. It means that individuals have the opportunity to explore their relationship to and understanding of their world in large scale fashion as well as small intricate nuances. Why is this important?  By supporting cognition in a multitude of ways, the arts bring a deeper understanding of the world due to their innate interactivity. The arts allow us to experience the power of immense impact through subtle changes, and the arts support understanding by providing experiential learning beyond what is written or read.

Why are MAC teaching artists/roster artists important to education?

My background is in music – I am a classically trained pianist.  As a young child, I admired adults who played the piano. I wanted to be able to uncover that same inner expression I heard them evoke from a mechanical instrument. I recognized there was definitely something there – far beyond the rote memorization of which keys to play and in which order. When they played, the instrument suddenly came to life. Not every individual will choose the arts as a career plan, but every individual deserves the opportunity to experience meaningful expression through some creative outlet – whether that outlet is music, dance, theatre, painting, writing, filmmaking, etc.

MAC’s Teaching Artists and Roster Artists are so critically important to education for this very reason.  We owe it to our citizens, young and old, to have up close and personal connections with professional artists who can share their talent and their passion. For many of our students, having such a learning experience with a MAC Roster artist might be the only time they come face-to-face with a professional artist. In addition, MAC’s Teaching Artists bring the rich element of showing how their art discipline connects to math, science or history, thus creating a deeper understanding of the academics and how math, science and history connect to the world outside of the classroom.

Describe the MAC SPED Initiative made possible through a contract from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

MAC’s Arts in Special Education Initiative has allowed us the unique opportunity to bring together Special Education teachers, Fine Arts teachers, and professional Teaching Artists. It is our desire to support meaningful and effective collaboration among these professionals. Through the Initiative, we offer arts-based training and facilitate planning sessions. By bringing this extremely knowledgeable team together, special education students benefit from rich arts experiences that are developed specifically for them and delivered in a manner allowing maximum engagement and participation. This work has had so much more impact than we ever expected. A true Professional Learning Community has emerged and teachers are excitedly sharing plans and resources to support their comrades across the State.

How will this initiative enhance and/or improve the skills of children with special needs?

The greatest result of this Initiative to date seems to be an awareness of the need for such a strong collaboration. This Initiative has created awareness that arts experiences are critical for learners with disabilities. Relying on the expertise of each individual within the team, modifications are made so that ALL students are engaged. Examples – Students with mobility disabilities can experience a science lesson that involves dance; Students with communication disabilities can experience a language lesson based on drama. Through the arts, these students are eagerly exploring social and academic skills, learning to work as a team, and experiencing a positive increase in their academic achievement.

How important is learning about Mississippi’s culture and arts heritage to children of all ages and educational levels?

Our beautiful state has such a rich arts history and it is immensely important for individuals of all ages to have a solid understanding of Mississippi’s vast arts heritage. Equipped with this knowledge, we can learn more about who we are, and develop a sense of pride of place. This encourages us to build on our past and reach into our future. Mississippi has impacted the world with its arts heritage. Individuals of all ages can appreciate and take pride in these successes.

How do you think MAEC can impact education through the arts?

I am very excited to see MAEC developing its master plan to support education, exhibitions and performances. By providing the opportunity for individuals to experience Mississippi’s heritage, and providing outreach to support continued learning, MAEC will position itself as a leading arts education advocate for the State of Mississippi and our southern region.