Why Arts Education Should Not Be Ignored!

“California College of the Arts educates students to shape culture and society through the practice and critical study of art, architecture, design, and writing … the college prepares students for lifelong creative work by cultivating innovation, community engagement, and social and environmental responsibility.” – California College of the Arts Mission Statement

Recent plans to defund two federal agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), has left me inspired to feature both Edwina Lucero, vocal arts teacher in the greater Denver area, and Meredith Jacobs, arts teacher to children with special needs in upstate New York, on recent Chat with Teachers podcasts. With many left unsure about the future of the arts (including literature, film, dance, music and more) I wanted to chat with these arts teachers about their experiences, passions and tips for keeping the arts alive in schools. Here are some highlights they shed on the importance for keeping the arts alive in public schools:

The Arts Lead to Everything!

pullquote_art“Don’t you realize art is the most important in the building?” shared Meredith when recounting an exchange she had with colleagues. “Arts back up all of the other academic areas… the arts does back up your ELA [English Language Arts], the arts does back up your math, the arts does back up your gym.” Meredith went on to say that she and her students recently studied the Northern Lights through art, and how it sparked scientific conversations in her classroom. She and her students are currently working on an art show focusing on Egypt, opening her students eyes to the social studies component of Egypt’s history and culture. It is no new concept that art is more than just googly eyes and glitter (although those materials absolutely have a place in the classroom as well!)…but that the arts play a pivotal role in kids lives to help develop many fundamental skills and interests that support an array of other content areas in a child’s academic life as well.

The Arts Offer Hands On Learning

image.jpgWith so many studies that show the benefits of concrete learning, most notably the teachings of Maria Montessori who says that to learn how to count, a child must count actual objects, to feel and see the difference between 1 and 10. Arbitrarily pointing to pictures on a card doesn’t help a child truly internalize the concept.

Meredith shares this sentiment and believes that “students must have that hands on experience. That tactile sensory – feel it, touch it, do it [experience].” She says, “we need to let them sit down and figure out things.” With today’s focus on the common core state standards, which highlights the need to be fostering problem solvers in the classroom, Meredith went on to share how a group of her middle schoolers with extreme behavior issues, were tasked to recreate King Tut’s Death Mask together.

“Here’s the materials,” she said, “I want to watch you problem solve. I want to see you figure this out. How can we solve the problem of building this. And those kids always tell me, even my high schoolers, ‘thank you letting me figure this out, I figured it out a way that was different than what you showed us.’ And that to me is the win. Because we need to have kids that can figure things out and with all the testing that is being done, they are learning to the test, they are not putting their hands on things, it’s not that concrete development that’s happening,” and that’s why teachers of the arts, like Meredith, will always be huge advocates of the arts.

The Arts Give Students a Stage, a Voice, Confidence and a Sense of Community

“Right away I started taking my kids into the public to perform,” says Edwina, a vocal arts teacher in a predominantly Latino/Hispanic community, a large percentage of which are children of undocumented parents, or are undocumented themselves. Edwina says that there’s a cool thing that happens with choir kids, especially students new to choir and who when they are exposed to performing in public for the first time are able to see right away the purpose of all that went into the practice they’ve put into leading up to the event. Edwina shared anecdotes of how she was witness to several students who grew into confident leaders in their school due to being given a stage and voice to build confidence on.

Most notably was an account of a student who joined Edwina’s class with an already established history of being a troublemaker that past teachers had problems with. Edwina shared that through his time in choir, he was able to channel the “class clown” within himself and find a place to perform and build self-confidence. He grew in maturity and became a leader in his class.

Being able to perform is also an easy way to extend student’s learning beyond the walls of the school building. Edwina says that “music and arts programs are really easy to build community around.” She says arts programs are the backbone and heart beat of the school and the place where “pockets of community can happen.”

Higher Learning Institutes Care, So Should We!

img_20170129_152453With arts programs essentially at the cusp of extinction – most notably in under-served schools in underprivileged communities – I can’t help but ask, “Are we doing our kids a disservice by not providing more arts funding?”

Along with the mission statement from the California College of the ArtsMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is grounded in the objective to “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” All those areas include the arts in some capacity. While their official admissions requirements do not require material beyond the application, portfolios and additional materials helps to highlight a student’s application and showcase some of the characteristics that are so important to universities like MIT, such as “creative insight, technical skill, and a ‘hands-on’ approach to learning by doing.” Check out the MIT Admissions Portfolios & Additional Material page and see for yourself how having things like music & theater arts, visual arts and a “maker” portfolio can benefit student’s chances of truly being “college ready.”

Meditation, Enjoyment & Relaxation

According to Stress.org, “Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.” According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness promotes meta cognitive awareness and enhances attention and engagement. According to Mindfulness in Schools, “Many visual art activities require unique focus, and cause the “artist” to set aside all other thoughts and worries.”

Talk about a long winded “If __________. Then ___________,” sentence!

Meredith talks about the special needs of her students and the awareness that most of them will probably not pursue many far-reaching higher learning institutes beyond High School. But despite that, for many of her students who display some of the most aggressive behaviors, art is an avenue they use to practice meditation.

“You can use art to escape,” Meredith tells her students. “Other people use drugs or different stimulations like video games or music, and you can still use those things, but with art you don’t have to quote and quote meditate…” the joy element that naturally comes with engaging in art is naturally meditative, which also explains the recent popularity of adult coloring books.

Never were my students  more spellbound than when they got to experience, some for the first time (some for probably the ONLY time) in their lives, Caroline Lee, a violist with the San Francisco Ballet orchestra, play her instrument in our classroom:

How Can You Commit to Integrating the Arts Into Your Classroom?

With the future of arts education uncertain, all while the importance of creative problem solving Americans becomes all the more necessary in the 21st century, it becomes a lot more clear that as teachers we need to be more creative in finding ways to integrate arts into our classrooms.

If I had to make one actionable commitment to integrating the arts to my classroom, it would be to engage my 1st-3rd grade students in one of my favorite books, One by Kathryn Otoshi, a wonderful picture book about standing up to bullies. I can’t wait to see how my students would bring this book alive through creating costumes and performing this story in front of an audience.

What is one way you think you can commit to bringing art to your classroom? Because after all, as Meredith aptly reminds us, “what a grey, sad place it would be if we didn’t have these open thinking creative minds.”

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