Interview: Beth Balliro

Beth Balliro is an artist and educator that has worked with urban youth for over 15 years. In addition to being a founding faculty member at the Boston Arts Academy, she serves on the RYMAEC advisory board, the youth media educator network in Boston, MA. She looks forward to joining the Art Education faculty at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the Fall of 2010.
YMR: Tell us about your background, and your current position at the arts high school.
Beth Balliro: I entered the field of arts education because of my interest in art therapy. I began my formal training as an art therapist in the early 1990s in the South Bronx. At the time, I was an undergraduate student. I found the therapeutic setting fascinating, but I also began to feel that all art education was, in some form, art therapy. I decided to transition to work in school settings.
I returned to Boston after college, and in 1998 became a founding faculty member at the Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public arts high school. In addition to teaching studio arts for the last twelve years, I have developed Boston Arts Academy’s CapstoneProject. To complete the Capstone Project, all seniors prepare a grant proposal to fund a community-based arts project of their design.
My interest in media education has expanded as a result of my involvement with the Capstone Project. So many of my students, in developing their Capstone Projects, have incorporated innovative new media into both their proposed projects and their final presentations. Essentially, my students have driven a demand for more new media in the classroom. Having observed this trend, I became involved in RYMAEC, the youth media network in Boston, to help other educators build their capacity to support media integration into school curricula.
YMR: Describe your role in RYMAEC.
Balliro: I have served as an Advisory Board member with RYMAEC since its inception. As a teacher of traditional media with an eye to trends in high school curricula and youth media, I feel I have helped to bridge the teachings of media educators with more traditional public school teachers who may be intimidated by technology but understand its potential for helping students succeed.
YMR: Describe the RYMAEC activities that are most exciting to you. How do you see these activities making an impact in your school district?
Balliro: I have been particularly excited about RYMAEC’s mic events. At these events, educators from a wide range of expertise share the ways that technology enhances their teaching as a means to achieve deeper student understanding. From our few innovator-gurus to the novice intern drawing from a great dedication to providing access to content to her students, educators have a forum to share their growth, struggles and innovations in a democratic and celebratory forum. It has been fantastic to be a part of this collaborative effort.
YMR: In your years of teaching, what have you noticed is most important for young people to learn and achieve as they are transitioning out of high school?
Balliro: A few years ago I presented on a panel regarding helping students gain “21st Century Skills.” This forced me to consider what specific attributes students must acquire for success in today’s world. In essence, students need to be able to navigate through information and cultural diversity with curiosity, follow-through, versatility, and confidence.
Breadth of knowledge is not important—it is the ability to ask questions and search for answers that will propel students toward healthy and fulfilling development. I have seen the sad reality of extraordinarily gifted artists enter the “scene” heralded with great promise—only to stop short because they lacked follow-through. Conversely, I have known young artists that weren’t the most innately skillful propel into amazing careers due to their ability to work hard and learn what they don’t know.
YMR: From your experience, where does media education fit in arts—and more traditional—education?
Balliro: My colleagues and I have identified a recurring type of student that traditional education has failed to serve—the student that lives most fully in a digital world. We began to see a pattern of young women and men, just two or three each year, that were technologically savvy and had “checked out” of school on its more three-dimensional terms. We struggled with ways to captivate these types of students, helping help them build the credentials to lead their peers and teachers into a new technological milieu. It has been frustrating and inspiring to see these young people forge ahead like a new techie avant-garde and it is our hope to lead them toward leadership and not eccentric isolation.
The experiences of these few tech savvy students, in particular, have shown me that an arts and media education, particularly one that emphasizes cross-disciplinary exploration, problem-solving, cultural contact and rigor, can reach the students that traditional education cannot. Moreover, as I’ve observed the impact of this kind of education on the outcomes of students’ Capstone Projects, I have become more and more convinced that media education, in addition to arts education, helps students develop the skills that will really help them as they transition out of high school into work or higher education.
Wrestling with problems and seeking innovative solutions has long been the work of artists, and it is what students need to practice in order to prepare for the complex world they will inherit. In addition, the critical skills of wondering and building joy among others are often overlooked, but may just be the most meaningful of all. Both media and arts education foster these skills in young people, and I am proud to work with both the Boston Arts Academy and RYMAEC to continue to move this work forward.