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State of the Arts Article

The Creative Pulse: Revitalizing Arts Education, by Karen Kaufmann.
Published in State of the Arts, January/February 2012, p.13.

Cultivating an Idea

Summer 2012 marks the 22nd anniversary of the nationally known arts and education graduate program held each summer in Missoula, The Creative Pulse Graduate program.  The brainchild of Dr. James Kriley (then Dean of the University of Montana’s School of Fine Arts) and Dr Randy Bolton (UM theatre professor), the Pulse serves as one of the landmark arts education programs in the U.S. contributing to the advancement of hundreds of arts and K-12 educators.

Well known for its impact on personal growth as artists, teachers and human beings, the Pulse has graduated over 150 students with the Masters of Arts in Integrated Arts and Education (MA) since its founding.  These teachers have gone on to enrich their programs for thousands of students in Montana and throughout the nation.  With an impressive 99% graduation rate, the program has been recognized as one of The University of Montana’s stellar graduate programs, making a significant contribution to the lives of Montana educators and impacting the national field of education. Graduates of the Creative Pulse now serve as some of the finest master teachers and administrators employed in Montana.

Changing Education through the Arts

The late Dr. James Kriley first proposed the Pulse as a creative remedy for education, seeking to provide teachers with new ways of thinking and learning. The seeds for the Pulse began in the late 1980’s when they were invited to teach a seminar for experienced teachers in a summer session. Randy Bolton describes the dynamic duo as “brash” and reveling in their artistic power.  The two dove headstrong into philosophical conversations about arts integration and artistic processes, and their relationship to learning and teaching. As Bolton describes it, “the teachers taught us exactly what they needed” – primarily that their experiences teaching in schools were not nurturing their creative spirit.  Many felt that their positions robbed them of new ideas and inspiration.  Kriley and Bolton quickly realized their interest in changing the culture of education, to drastically shake it up, and infuse it with a more personalized, artistic approach.

As The Creative Pulse began, Kriley and Bolton developed courses in leadership and creative process; determining what kinds of experiences teachers needed to go through and what new knowledge and experiences would improve their teaching practices.   How could a classroom teacher maintain his/her own creative spark while also “surviving” in the public schools? How could they use their creative process to develop and deepen as teachers?

During these early years Kriley and Bolton researched the top leaders and researchers in human cognitive development, anthropologists and symbolic philosophers. They made personal contacts with leading figures in arts education, such as: Howard Gardner and Project Zero at Harvard, Jerome Bruner, Elliot Eisner, Ellen Winner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Michael Cole, Maxine Greene and Sheldon White.  All but one of these leading thinkers was brought to UM to present in the Creative Pulse. 

Engagement in the artistic process concerned Kriley and Bolton more than the artistic product.  The critical focus became on the personal transformation students engaged in as teachers and artists.  Shortly before his death in 2008, Kriley sought to re-envision the curriculum to incorporate the Habits of Mind developed by Ellen Winner, et al.:  observing, envisioning, innovating through exploration, reflective self-evaluation, engaging and persisting in creative work, and making connections between classroom work and the world beyond the classroom. 

Many students who are talented in the arts and many other disciplines don’t display their talents on standardized tests. Throughout No Child Left Behind legislation, the Creative Pulse faculty developed innovative approaches to help educators and administrators deal successfully with testing agendas that didn’t suitably measure student achievement or life skills. The Pulse enabled teachers to enhance their student’s critical analysis, creative thinking, problem-solving and personal initiative. 

Engaged Faculty

Today the Creative Pulse is directed by Karen Kaufmann, professor of dance, who has taught in the Pulse since its inception.  The core faculty includes co-founder Randy Bolton, Rick Hughes (Chair of Media Arts, who served as Director for two years), art historian Dr, Raphael Chacon, and theatre professor Dr. Jillian Campana.  Dr Stephen Kalm, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, has taken an active role in the Creative Pulse’s future development and advancement.  A dedicated staff supports graduate students from admission through to graduation.

Academics: A blend of Theory and Practice

The Creative Pulse’s course offerings continue to evolve with 21st Century initiatives and common core standards.  Today, the program’s core philosophies and fundamental processes are based in theories of teaching and learning as diverse as Integrated Learning and Assessment, Teaching as a Designed Experience and New Digital Technologies. The program actively engages teachers in Multiple Intelligences throughout the two years of coursework, enabling them to develop their own intelligences in new and often unexpected ways and helping them better understand the learning needs of their students.  The Creative Pulse embraces and explores critical thinking processes, enabling students to develop, refine and integrate these processes into their own thinking and learning experiences, as well as those of their students.

Rediscovering the Artist Within

The rigorous five-week program immerses students in lectures, artistic practice, readings, and group projects.  Studio creative work occurs in the mornings through weekly apprenticeships enabling graduate students to enter into new areas of artistic expression. Apprenticeships include creative writing, still image design, African drumming, vocal performance, creative movement, acting, and digital media production. 

The intensive afternoon seminars blend theory and practice; providing the pedagogical grounding for teaching theories and exposing students to the contemporary thinkers in arts education.  2012 seminars include Leadership & New Directions, Digital Technology in the Arts, Spatial Intelligence: The Convergence of Life, Art & Design, The Reflective Teacher: Exploring Teacher Identities through Music, and Teaching & Learning in Cultures.  

Moving the Arts in Education into the Future

A September 2011 article by Steven J. Topper and George D. Kuh “Let’s Get Serious about Cultivating Creativity” refers to this time period as “the creative era” and calls for colleges and universities to nurture creative talent and develop specific policies and practices to do so, warning that we can’t “just leave it to chance that we are adequately training rising generations to assume their roles as creative workers and responsible citizen.” (The Chronicle of Higher Education 10/4/11).  

The 21st Century Skills Map and the Common Core State Standards honor the fusion of the 3Rs (core academic content mastery) and 4Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication and creativity and innovation).  The Pulse faculty recognizes the importance of refueling teachers beyond traditional methodologies; to nurture the cornerstones of creativity, and encourage lateral thinking, brainstorming, comfort with ambiguity and risk-taking. The ultimate goal is to enable teachers to deploy their own curiosity and imagination and actively develop it in their students.  Achievements of these goals are evidenced by the success of our students.  Some that we are most proud of include students who have:

  • Taught art classes at the Poverello Center for homeless people
  • Written and performed musical compositions for a citywide orchestra
  • Shown sculpture, painting, lithographs, mobiles, pottery, murals
  • Performed in open mike rap poetry jams in Berkeley, California
  • Developed new museum programs for youth & adults
  • Researched, directed and costumed Greek plays with 5th graders
  • Written and read poetry about social justice
  • Developed multi-disciplinary dance/art/poetry performances for senior citizens
  • Conducted professional development workshops for school district staff
  • Developed new curriculum in the arts

Since Kriley and Bolton launched the Creative Pulse in 1990, the grounding principles for the Creative Pulse Graduate Program for Teachers have remained constant, and today are recognized as necessary for educating citizens to thrive in the 21st Century. The Creative Pulse celebrates and deepens the artistic talents of arts and generalist classroom teachers.  We look forward to continuing to strengthen the profession of teaching and breathing life back into classrooms.

For more information about the Creative Pulse, visit the website at  or call 406-243-4970.