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The Arts Matter

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Teachers share how they integrate the arts into the curriculum — and enrich learning for every child.

"If I could tell you what I want, I wouldn't need to dance."
Isadora Duncan, dancer

The arts — painting, music, dance, drama, writing, sculpting, and more — have the power to express meaning in ways that no other medium can match. Through dance, early 20th-century performer Isadora Duncan was able to communicate layers of emotion as few dancers had before her, as well as to instruct about history, culture, and the science of anatomy and movement. All this she accomplished by using an economical "language" that compressed worlds of meaning into a series of graceful movements. Had Duncan been restricted to other forms of communication, whatever message she hoped to convey would have been lost.

Children, also, need access to the power of individual expression that the arts afford. Some students may not find academic success without it. Others simply deserve exposure to the arts as a fundamental part of our culture.

Unfortunately, many states base school accreditation on standardized testing scores, so teachers today find it increasingly difficult to find the freedom, time, and resources to integrate the arts into the classroom.

Teachers who value the arts, however, often integrate them with other subjects and teach through the "lens" of the arts, a practice that, according to a recent study conducted by Harvard's Project Zero (REAP: Reviewing Education and the Arts Project), can lead to overall academic improvement. The reasons? The arts allow students to develop self-esteem, to be self-expressive, and to apply their knowledge of other, more academic subjects in creative ways. Because the arts address multiple intelligences, they provide a gateway for certain students to enter academic areas that they may have otherwise found difficult or off-putting. And in schools where the administration takes the arts seriously, the entire curriculum is treated with the same rigor.

The teachers featured here are among many educators who understand that their young students tend to learn — really learn — when more of their whole selves are involved, whether they are singing about the rules of multiplication, designing an Egyptian mask, or dancing to express the meaning of a folktale. These teachers are but a small sample of educators who can attest to the excitement about learning that results when the arts are celebrated in the classroom.

Let It Be
For Chip Joseph, learning about history, culture, and music will always be tied to his love of the Beatles. He remembers vividly his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Harper, who every week took the class down to the auditorium to listen to Beatles music. While sharing the music she loved, she spoke about the science of creating instruments and the intricate patterns of the notes and musical cadences. She also discussed how music throughout time has played an integral part in history and culture; the class learned about baroque music, Eastern chants, and blues, along with the decades they framed.

Now a first-grade teacher at South Anna Elementary School, in Montpelier, Virginia, Joseph applies Mrs. Harper's method of teaching in his own classroom. A day rarely goes by when Joseph does not use his guitar as a teaching tool. "Music resonates for the kids on many levels. Not only does singing serve as a break, but it affects them in that they can be more self-expressive and creative with what they have learned earlier in the day," he says. When the class studied Native Americans and then China in social studies, Joseph and his students wrote lyrics for the "Native American Blues" and the "China Blues." "Writing these songs together enabled the kids to put to use what they had learned in social studies and use language and music as a way to communicate."

Joseph remembers one student who was clearly struggling with multiplication. "She looked up from her book with this frustrated expression on her face and said: 'Mr. Joseph, can't we write a song for this?' She and I made up a song for multiplication right then and there. Through the act of creating a rhythmic song, she was able to personalize the content and understand the rules of multiplication. Later, we taught the song to the rest of the class."

Joseph knows that to incorporate the arts into the classroom often involves giving up some degree of control. But he believes in letting his students jump into the driver's seat. "The arts are an expression of what is real and true. If you don't use the arts to teach, you are separating real life from learning. How is a child able to learn if not through personalizing the content and experiencing it through several senses all at once?"

Robin Hood in Song
Ruth Melendez, a teacher of an elementary multiage class at High Plains Elementary, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, also carries her abiding passion for music into the classroom. In the past few years, she and her students have produced musicals based on Colorado history, complete with elaborate sets and costumes. One year, the children wrote an opera — including the musical score and script - based on the story of Robin Hood. In the process, they studied literary elements such as protagonist, antagonist, foreshadowing, climax, and more; they also absorbed firsthand the structure of an opera. Students on the "set crew" were responsible for drawing the set to scale, which challenged mathematical skills such as measurement and reading from a grid.

"I believe the arts educate the soul," says Melendez. "Even in today's climate of increased academic standards and accountability, I still believe we have a responsibility to educate the entire child. Incorporating music into my classroom allows some kids to express themselves in other ways besides pencil-and-paper tasks. It's also an incredible way for students to apply the knowledge they've learned in academic subjects to a real-life project."

Put on a Play
Mack Lewis, in his eighth year of teaching in Sams Valley, Oregon, has ambitious plans this year to make drama a central focus of his third- and fourth-grade classes. To this end, he built a modular stage inside the classroom and began collecting props. "It's also the kids who are responsible for the ever-increasing focus on drama," he explains. Originally, Lewis used short plays from Scholastic's Storyworks in the classroom as inspiration to get kids to read. Soon the students were clamoring to produce and act them out.

Drama, says Lewis, is an ideal way to improve reading and make history come alive, but it also has hidden benefits. Brain research, he explains, shows that kids form the neural pathways that make fluent reading possible when they master a reading sample. With struggling children, this can only occur if they read the book over and over again, until they "get it." "Ask a kid to read the same book over and over again and he'll look at you like you're daffy," says Lewis. "But ask a kid to practice his part in a play, and he'll read it over and over again, and never complain. With every play, a student's neural pathways grow significantly."

Hickory Dickory Dock
Using elements of drama, rather than entire plays, encourages very young children to realize that learning and exploration are forms of play — and it is through discovery, on our own, that we achieve insight. Sheila Flaxman, a primary teacher for over 35 years in Little Rock, Arkansas, finds that drama is easily integrated into the primary-level curriculum. "Material that has a simple plot with a strong conflict is always exciting to children," she points out.

For example, Flaxman uses the classic nursery rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock" as a beginning "conflict rhyme" for her kindergarten class. The characters are simple — clocks and mice — as is the primary conflict in the rhyme. When the clock strikes, the mice panic at the unexplained noise. Any child can easily comprehend this setup.

"Since fear has been experienced by almost every child of that age, strong feelings can be generated within the children," she explains. "They enjoy creating curious little mice that scamper on quiet feet, looking for food as they come to the big clocks. Other children pose as clocks, creating different kinds of gongs, strikes, rings, and sounds to scare the mice. The mice enjoy waiting until the clock really scares them before scurrying away. The children enjoy switching roles, then repeating this over and over again. This activity is one that is always successful in integrating creative drama with language arts."

Flaxman finds that "the arts develop, in children, confidence and creative expression, social attitudes and relationships, emotional stability, bodily coordination, and contribute toward a philosophy of living."

Arts of the Past
Gail Hennessey, a teacher of sixth-grade social studies at Harpersville Central Schools, in New York, believes that immersing her students in the culture of the period they are studying, means the arts must, by definition, play a significant role. During her study of medieval times, for example, Hennessey plays Gregorian chants, while students pretend to be monks at work in a scriptorium. Students search the Internet for sources of illuminated manuscripts, then work to develop their own unique illuminated letters. Students view the architecture of the period by looking at cathedrals such as Notre Dame in Paris.

When covering early prehistoric cultures, Hennessey has her students view cave art paintings and then draw their own. During the study of ancient Egypt and areas of the Middle East, students listen to music as they design sarcophogi and artifacts from King Tut's tomb. They sample foods from the region, as well as listen to stories which originated in that area, such as "1001 Arabian Nights."

"I strongly feel that students develop a better understanding of other cultures of the world that we are studying by incorporating the arts, music, and literature," Hennessey says.

The Art of Science
Sheila Kramer, who teaches K-5 science at the Spence School, in New York City, wants her students to understand that science — like art — is about asking questions and making discoveries. An established painter, Kramer has also taught for 15 years. "I work hard to dispel the myth that there is only one answer in science, and that to be a scientist you have to sit quietly on your stool, beakers and petri dishes all around you, memorizing figures and tables," she says. "Science is like art. It can take you places you never imagined."

Immediately, she tries to have her fourth-grade students draw on all of their senses and methods of learning. "It's all about letting the kids learn in a more self-expressive, less threatening, hands-on type of way," she says.

One of Kramer's experiments requires kids to grow different types of plants, testing the pH level, discovering which plant fibers make the most durable paper, and finally making the paper. The end product becomes a work of art — one that has a scientific history. Students see that everything is a process. If you alter just one of the steps, you'll get different results.

Kramer's students, who enjoy hearing about her personal experiences as an artist, are delighted by the fact that she can draw and be a scientist. "They realize that they can be both, too," she says. "Why not?"

"There is something to be said for the phrase 'Discover the wonder,'" Kramer adds. "No matter what subject you are teaching, if you can get children to look at or understand a concept in such a way that they can visualize it, experience it, or express it, then you know they will retain — and use — that knowledge wherever they go. It will belong to them."

 

 

Arts Resources

Books

  • Real Lives: Art Teachers and the Cultures of Schools, by Tom Anderson (Boynton/Cook, 2000)
  • The Spiritual Life of Children, by Robert Coles (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)
  • The Girl With the Brown Crayon, by Vivian Gussin Paley (Harvard University Press, 1998)
  • The Arts Equation: Forging a Vital Link Between Performing Artists and Educators, by Bruce D. Taylor (Back Stage Books, 1999)

Organizations

  • Art for Peace
    Tel: 941-746-9885 www.artpeace.com
  • National Music Foundation
  • American Music Education Initiative (AMEI) Tel: 1-800-USA-MUSIC
  • Teachers & Writers Collaborative
    Tel: 1-888-BOOKS-TW

Web Sites

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  • Subjects:
    Curriculum Development, Dance, Music, Drama, Theater, Musicals, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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