I have been teaching art in the New York City public school system for 25 years. During the first ten years of my teaching career I taught the most disadvantaged children in all five boroughs of the city. As an itinerant art teacher I traveled to a different location each day to teach at-risk children. The various locations where I taught included homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, pregnant teen centers, homes for LGBT youth, children's homes, centers for students who had dropped out of high school and drug rehab centers. My first ten years of teaching were at times difficult, no matter how much I gave it often seemed to be not enough. The students were grateful for escaping their lives while we made art, but the overwhelming reality of their situations remained a constant obstacle outside of the classroom.

To meet the challenges of teaching the at-risk student populations I was working with, I developed a program specifically for these students called Reality Art Class. Reality Art Class is a video program which incorporates multiple disciplines of learning as a means to develop curiosity. Reality Art Class takes students out of the classroom to film a place of relevance and interest to them. Students study the place and create various works in different mediums. For each project, the students make an accompanying video which documents their creative process and experience as they work on three dimensional models, drawings, collages, paintings, writings and poems, over several weeks, culminating in a trip to the chosen location. The program takes the students out of their often limited environments and into the larger world.

Several years ago, abrupt changes to the New York City public school system brought about the closure of many schools, including mine. Consequently, I began teaching in a new school. As one of the largest high schools in New York, I was in a polar opposite setting, with an entirely different student population to those that I had previously taught. In this traditional school I am teaching five classes, totaling one hundred and fifty students a day, five days a week. Although much of the population has changed compared to the students I had worked with before, my experience of creating and developing Reality Art Class has enabled me to continue to provide meaningful art instruction. Introducing and motivating students to the satisfaction and reward of experiencing the creative process, as well as showing them new ways of thinking and seeing art in their everyday lives is still as challenging, gratifying and inspirational as ever.

Reality Art Class


Reality Art Class

“Properly used, media is an extension of the mind.”     Howard Gardner, educator, philosopher, and author of the multiple intelligences, on the effects of media on thought processes.  Edutopia.org 2002

Reality Art Class is a digital video curriculum for high school students, founded by New York artist and educator, Howard Schwartzberg. The program emphasizes self and group identity by creating intimate moments of discovery that become personal memories, demonstrating art in its purest form of immediate emotion. Reality Art Class gives students an opportunity to explore a variety of environments that they might not otherwise experience.

The program exists within a concept called, “Freespace” (for expression and observation). Freespace can be interpreted and perceived as a living artwork/social sculpture, and/or learning lab. Through experience/project-based learning, Reality Art Class helps its students build the characteristics of resiliency as they become self-directed learners. Freespace is a concept/place where creativity excels through process and collaboration, where not only the student, but parents, teachers, and the community at large feel a sense of belonging and optimism. Freespace can be anywhere and everywhere and ultimately exists as a goal for students to find their own Freespace from within.

Reality Art Class immerses students in real interactive environments in real time. Reality Art Class adapts the popular reality TV show concept  and molds it with lesson plans for an integrated art curriculum. Implemented in a contemporary educational fashion, the curriculum fully engages and self-empowers students. Mr. Schwartzberg assumes the role of Mr. Howard, a teacher who motivates his students to see, imagine and create using all the disciplines of art making.

The excitement and collaborative nature of film making effectively engages the students in the creative learning process. Through hands-on use of video, sound and editing equipment, they can explore the world on both sides of the film making process. In class, the students work in groups of three or more on short film making exercises that fine-tune their conceptual and technical skills. For example, students might write, perform, document and edit a commercial for a product, make a music video, host a talk show, or act out a play or monologue. As they become larger installations and evoke higher-level learning, students also have opportunities to engage in other forms and mediums of art making to support their video projects.

After completing exercises, lessons, and projects, students will be ready to go on location to create an episode of Reality Art Class. There, the students document their shared experiences and interaction with the surrounding environment. The teacher and/or the students choose locations together. Each one should be a unique and challenging environment that provides a cross-curricular learning experience.

Back in the classroom, students take ownership of their learning as they write about their experience and review their video footage. Facilitated by Mr. Howard, students discuss how to edit the episode and create the best possible memory. Editing gives the students a chance to further reinforce what they have learned. Students will also have the opportunity to work with professionals in the field to share and learn about new ideas and techniques that can apply to their work.

Identity and self-esteem can be established by exploring the external world and our relation to it. It can be odd to see yourself in action on video for anyone, let alone a teenager. A still photo is an object and easier to separate from oneself. When you see the way you speak and hold your head and play with your fingernails, you see yourself as others see you. To know yourself is to understand others, gaining compassion and departing from ignorance.

The most valuable and rewarding aspect of the program is sharing the work with fellow classmates, parents, teachers, and the community. Each episode becomes a tangible memory for each participating student. Students will receive copies of the episodes they created . In the future, when viewed, they will see their own personal growth and remember fellow students and the relationships they had with art and its processes.

Reality Art Class was conceived as a way to creatively engage at risk teenagers and learning-disabled youth.

“To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.”    Joseph Beuys

Classroom at Job Corps