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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

This one's for you, Alexandra.

I'm feeling compelled to add to the case for art in schools and make another plea that as budgets are slashed this spring, funding for the arts in schools is preserved.

Several of my arguments have been made before, although I will review them; then I've got an addition to make to the case.

A Historical Justification

Let me start with some amazing scientific facts that justify our ancestral right to art, because long before we were building cities, writing, or taking tests, humans were painting, dancing, and playing music. Paleontologists have found evidence that as far back as 100,000 years, human beings were painting. The oldest evidence of humans making music dates back 35,000 years-carved flutes have been found in caves in Europe.

All around the world, for tens of thousands of years, humans (including kids) have expressed themselves in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. How can we think of removing such a mode of expression from the place where children spend half their lives?

For a meditative, surreal experience on the role of art for ancient and modern people, watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in southern France. It might transform the way you think about art and human beings.

Present Day Justification

Into the modern day and our schools. Let me review the points that many have made before:

  • Art education brings communities together and offers a language that transcends race, language, age, and ability.
  • The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution, that there are many ways to see and interpret the world, and that the limits of language do not define the limits of our cognition.
  • Teaching anything through music/lyrics helps kids remember (think of the ABC song); music helps children in math, language development, and to manage their emotions.
  • The arts help children find other ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings beyond the traditional.

The arts as their own curriculum, integrated into core subjects, and infused in a school, contribute to all aspects of learning. They make a place feel good. They bring beauty.

Here's another reason why we need the arts in schools: We need art educators. Having worked with handfuls of art educators, (and full disclosure: I am married to one) I am prepared to stand by an assertion that they are a unique breed essential to the success of any school, particularly those attempting to transform education. They are the ones who see ways of solving problems that others don't, who look at what we have to work with -- the materials, the personnel, the space -- and enthusiastically suggest combinations that others had never considered. They are the ones snapping the camera left and right, documenting the process of transformation that we're attempting in our education system.

They are the first to take the standardized curriculum and find the fissures where art can be inserted and where learning can be brought to life. They are the ones reminding those of us who can get too heavy and serious in this work to play and cover our hands in paste, clay, papier maché.

Art educators can run on the eccentric side or sometimes they're a little disorganized, but then they say something that spins a whole new angle on a kid, a moment, or a problem. As we tackle the overwhelmingly complex problem of figuring out how to save our public schools, I might just be convinced that we won't be able to do it without the help of art educators.

Alexandra in Costa Rica, 2003.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

In Memoriam

This weekend, on February 11, the world lost a remarkable arts educator, Alexandra Kulka-Wells, to breast cancer. Alexandra was a founding teacher at ASCEND, the small Oakland Public School where I also taught. There she taught kindergarten and first grade, integrating art into every standard. Her infectious energy and laughter knit our little community together in those first challenging years of building a new school. She went on to get her Master's in art education and work with several other Oakland schools, supporting teachers, parents and students to discover how art could help them experience learning in a different way. She was also a photographer and painter. In her 38 years on this planet, Alexandra touched the lives of thousands and will be deeply missed but always remembered.




Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

2seetheglobe's picture

" I am bothered when people feel entitled to things that no one is obligated to supply for them. Art is important to many, but it's not a "right" in a legal sense"

Sorry M. A. Hauck, but the arts actually ARE a right in the legal sense. Read the NCLB law...the arts are considered a core subject that are required to be taught.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

The language of Subpart 15 Section 5551 says nothing of the sort. The basic purpose of that section is to inform that supplemental federal funding is available to qualified private or public schools to support arts program partnerships that students could benefit from. If art was considered a true core subject like reading, math, or science, it would be measured by standardized testing and factored into a public K-12 school's AYP performance.

Are you perhaps referring to a another section of the law that states what you claim?

2seetheglobe's picture

The following is from the report "No Subject Left Behind," developed by a partnership of national arts organizations:

"It's the Law: The definition of core subjects in the new law is located in Title IX, Part A, Section 9101 (1)(D)(11), Definitions. Here is how the definition reads:
`(11) CORE ACADEMIC SUBJECTS- The term `core academic subjects' means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography........It should be noted that the national standards for the arts include standards for dance, music, theater, and visual arts. Furthermore in 1997, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) arts assessment was developed with separate assessments in dance, music, theater, and visual arts."

Summary: The arts are a core subject, they have national standards, and are part of a national standardized test.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Thanks, but if you read another part of the legislation, schools are only mandated by their respective SEA and LEAs to standardized assess in language arts, math, and science to meet AYP and therefore, qualify for fed money if they do.

The SEA determines what standardized assessments and core standards are to be followed to meet AYP.

Assessments that count toward AYP are all that public schools are concerned with, due to the amount of $$$ involved.

I'm not against the arts at all, but I recognize the climate of education and the trends it follows. Art education has to become more contemporary and sad to say, more technically oriented... more digital music production, digital filmmaking and post-production, website building, communication design, etc.... get those Adobe Creative Suites and go nuts. Kids love that stuff. Schools also love to show off new computer labs at BTSN as well.

2seetheglobe's picture

Obama's NCLB waivers are quickly making AYP a non-issue since they excuse schools from meeting that impossible measure. So basing the legitimacy of the arts on that standard of measurement is, thankfully, soon to be a thing of the past.

Even though it's been part of public schools since the 1870s, it's sad that arts education has been forced to create rationales for its place in the curriculum--rationales that usually advanced the interests of everything else but the fine arts (e.g. "Art education has to become more contemporary and more technically oriented" as you put it). Theatre, dance, visual arts, and music education are vitally important subjects in their own right--Beverly Sills called them the "signatures of our civilizations"--and deserve to be treated as such. It's not the arts that need to change, but the minds of those who continue to discredit their legitimacy.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I thought the Obama admin was going to re-write NCLB but it looks like they dropped the ball on that, too. All I'm seeing now with this latest move is just election year posturing to throw a bone to the NEA lobby, from whom he needs support.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Just to clarify, it's the job of Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. With the economic crisis and the wars...well, I think we can understand why it keeps getting pushed onto the back burner.

More importantly though, I think we're getting into the weeds a bit. The point of the post is that we need art education. From my perspective, this is because it supports kids in developing better reading and math skills, and because it helps them to solve problems and because it makes them better human beings. The arts allow us to develop a visceral understanding of concepts that we may only explore intellectually. IMO, a functional adult citizen has to be a balance of head, heart and hands. If we only focus on their heads and their hands, we're not really serving them.

I'd love to hear more about the quality arts education programs and experiences people are having.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

When we look at the skills that make up a "21st Century Learner", these include things like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. All of these skills come together perfectly in the Art classroom. In our book on Differentiated Instruction, Jenifer and I came up with some great ideas to help design projects that were design based for the Art classroom. For example, while you are exploring things like color and materials, why not do an overarching project in art that is. in essence, bringing pieces from the academic classroom together, and make art, in part, a project based learning opportunity?
For example, one plan was:
Getting kids in small groups, have them brainstorm an idea for a club. What's the theme? Why do people want to belong to this club? What do you do together? What is your logo like? Do you have a motto or song? What does your clubhouse look like? (Totally fantasy, infinite money based) Places for certain activities? Relaxing? food? events? What does the furniture look like? Can you sleep there, or just hang during the day? Where would be the perfect location for the club? How many people belong? How would you get other kids to want to join your club? Are there dues? What would you use the money for?
You can then have them do art projects creating everything from a model of the club, to badges, logos, flyers, membership cards, business plans, etc.
There's a ton of creativity and design you can infuse in the answer to almost every question, while getting kids engaged in creating a community around their particular interest. You can use math in measuring things to scale; writing in making up the club rules and regulations; learn business skills in terms of thinking what it might cost to provide everyone with a snack after school every day, etc.

When you give kids an opportunity to create, you are not only feeding them information about art and design, but are teaching them problem solving skills they need in every class. You also help reinforce skills learned in academic classes and even in collaboration with other teachers, making the joy of Art even more valuable and applicable to the regular academic classroom.

Art is a great opportunity for enriching kids lives, but can also be used to show them how valuable the core curriculum is in seemingly unrelated aspects of life. And that's something I think every educator can get behind. It makes art into the ultimate project based learning opportunity, and it's what schools like the Lab School do to help their LD students learn to apply and reinforce traditional academic skills.

Joan Weber's picture
Joan Weber
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

I recently found this posting and felt the need to add to the comments. I think that there is a stumbling block on the word "right." I would like to put the word aside for the sake of what I think should be the larger discussion of budgets and resources.

The blog argues that there are many reasons that the arts should stay in school schedules and curriculum. I think the arguments stand, regardless of one's interpretation of the current or future iterations of No Child Left Behind.

There is a great deal of evidence that shows that a well-rounded curriculum is best for children, and that includes the arts. There is also a lot of evidence that shows that integrating the arts into the "core curriculum" has the highest positive effect on students who live in the worst conditions. So, cutting the arts from schools in poverty is the worst idea of all.

Sometimes individual words are so loaded that they blur the rest of the discussion. For the moment, though, please look past that particular loaded word and consider the merits of the argument that the arts should be a regular component of public education in this country.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Art transcends all boundaries. It is the only tool that brings traditions, cultures and lifestyles together. Art is intrinsic in nature. It is art that helps a manager manage his work. It cannot be taught, it is a self-evolved criterion.
http://www.artsandlearning.org/

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