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Redefining Literacy: When the Arts and Core Curriculum Collide

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Perhaps it's the result of having just turned fifty. It may be owing to the fact that I am a fairly new dad. Whatever the reason, the textual world our young people occupy today seems to be much more complex and more highly constructed than when I was entering my own teenage years.

I'm certainly not the first to observe that the term literacy has new meaning for our students -- a meaning that calls both educators and parents to carefully consider all the places where our children need help "reading and writing the world."

It's a discussion we are beginning to engage in more earnestly as we continue to pursue our arts@newman initiative. (See my first post about it.) At the very heart of this work is the idea that we cannot consider our notion of literacy complete until we have embraced the power the language of the arts brings to our lives.

What sort of things would you expect to see and hear if you were to drop by an arts@newman classroom? During our first term, we engaged in a great deal of discussion about the language of design. We immersed students in the principles and elements of design in media, the visual arts, music, dance, and drama. As the weeks have gone on, students have become more confident in talking about balance, proportion, repetition, emphasis, contrast, line, value, levels, and color.

We have begun to introduce students to the language of the arts, and we have placed the acquisition of this language alongside the traditional forms of literacy and numeracy. Now I'm beginning to see some exciting things happen:

  • Students are beginning to use the language of the arts to critique their own work and the work of others. For instance, students have been watching segments from the television show So You Think You Can Dance and writing formal critiques in response.
  • Students are starting to use the elements and principles of the language of the arts to connect various forms of creative communication. For example, they are comparing balance in dance with balance in graphic design. They are making connections between melody in music and lines in dance and visual arts. These intertextual connections are powerful literacy moments for us all.
  • Generally speaking, students are turning to artistic forms of expression in other curriculum areas. Dance and the visual arts have become part of our geographical lexicon as we explore the theme of migration. Drama and music have found their way into our exploration of cells in science.

When I began my teaching career, art was a noun, something that we did on Fridays at the end of the day. Now, it is quickly becoming a verb, a way of talking about the world that is engaging, meaningful, and powerful.

How are you using the arts with the core curriculum in your school or classroom? What new thinking or ideas has this topic inspired in you? Please share your thoughts.

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Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

valerie steele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the comments here. I want to add a concern of mine about what has happened to the art teacher profession---including visual art teachers. I'm 50 also. I still am trying to land my first public school teaching position and with cutbacks and even with promises from Sacramento of money for arts programs statewide that dissipated into the mists of bureaucracy somewhere (some huge two hundred million dollars supposedly to come down in 2007 and 2008), arts jobs and programs have been cut or cut down and continue to be outsourced to visiting artists, or after school paid and for-fee arts classes. My daughter is 20. When she was in elementary school in the early 1990's, the arts and music was cut severely here in San Diego. I saw art teachers, who had been teaching for years, adapting by doing things like buying a camper or van to have mobile arts "classes" after school for a fee. It hasn't changed much in the past 20 years.
I just got an English credential and hope I can land a job that way. I came into teaching with a BA in Art and 10 years of experience as a scenic artist in theater. I, and other arts teachers I know, KNOW how vital the arts language is. Where will our future directors, composers, actors, artists, musicians be coming from. I wonder how many we have lost during the past 20 years. How many students were lost who never were exposed to the arts -- and could have been the ones who "discovered" their talent or passion for the arts from public school?

Jennifer Best's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always believed the arts should be integrated within the core curriculum. I teach 9th grade Integrated Sciences in Girard, Ohio and try to allow my students to experience the content in a wide variety of ways. But I have always believed that art and science are especially connected. In order to be a good scientist, you need to think innovatively and creatively. I always bring the example of Leonardo da Vinci into our class discussions. He was a great artist. He was also a great scientist and inventor. Students have always been taught the correct way to "do" science is to follow the steps of the scientific method. While it is a good starting point for the beginner, true investigative science goes way beyond hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. Before I became a teacher I was a chemist. I worked in the industry for several years and have a true perspective on the skills real scientists need to have. Following a predetermined formula is not the best way to find real answers to the problems our society faces, problems that can be helped by science. Using the arts, like drawing, writing, music, performing, to help teach science or any of the core curriculum, not only allows the students to think creatively, it allows them to use their talents in places they may not have thought they could.
In addition to being a scientist and a teacher, I am an amateur artist. I paint and draw and write for pleasure. If that pleasure can be incorporated into the learning process, the information will be that much more retained. And having visual, auditory, and olfactory associations with the information, will help recall of the infomation.

scott campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach high school level design and sculpture, crafts as well as drawing and painting.
Are there especially good books or magazines, or periodicals dedicated to the idea of bring the arts and the sciences together as one class? Anyone out there actually work day to day in this sort of school environment?

S. Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Scott,

I'm working day-to-day in this type of environment, and I must admit that I haven't found a lot of resources that are dedicated to this type of model. They may be there, and I would love to hear about them.

In addition to the resources that I noted in an earlier blog entry, (Deeply Connected, Part Two: Preparing for the Journey) I would recommend Brent Davis' "Engaging Minds". Its an exploration of complexity theory in the classroom...broad strokes, but I found it an interesting read as I explore for a theoretical ground to some of the work that I am doing.

A more practical edition is "Arts as Meaning Makers" by Claudia E. Cornett, Katharine L. Smithrim. Although written mainly for the elementary and middle school context, the principles and guidelines are very portable. This is the text that we are using as we begin to move the arts@newman model beyond our walls and out to the wider system.

I would love to hear about more resources from others.

Stephen Hurley

ZK@Web Marketing Blog's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Even tho' I've read dozens of each type of story, I always find them interesting because I'm curious to hear of new developments in the art world, e.g. the restoration of a Raphael, the new technology applied to Classical papyri. If anything, they prevent the art world from seeming stuck in the past and unevolving, which surely you would want to counter.

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