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"Arts for... Everything's Sake"

Joan R. Fretz, Huntington Schools
July 15th, 2005
Director of Performing Arts
Huntington Schools, NY

"Arts for Art's Sake:" A familiar plea from every arts advocate, but certainly not enough ammunition to save our arts programs in today's world of shrinking budgets. "Arts for Everything's Sake" is really what quality arts education is all about. The better we articulate that, the more successful we will be in preserving arts initiatives in the public schools. Arts educators are skillful in their craft, and passionate about what their art form has done for them personally and what they see it doing for young people today. They are often not as skilled however, at explaining to the academic world why their educational offerings are so important. That is the voice that needs to be heard. So, whether you are an arts educator or an administrator thinking about the role the arts should play in your school's program, perhaps the perspective shared here will help you to inform and demonstrate what you believe in.

While we may have to accept the mandates from the State and Federal government regarding testing in the academic subjects, we must remember that as educators, we are best suited to design the instructional strategies that will help our students to meet these goals. You may not find the tests to be terribly creative, but, that doesn't mean our teaching strategies can't be! So much has been written recently about what motivates students to learn and to simply be willing to "do" school. Much of what the research tells us points to:

  • finding ways for students to connect meaningfully with the adults they work with,
  • discovering a student's talents and passion,
  • developing all of the intelligences in order to succeed in the academics,
  • providing opportunities for learning through different modalities, and
  • making the learning relevant.

All of these suggest that we must develop strategies that are creative and anything but "drill and kill."

For many students, a visual or performing arts course is the place where they feel the most accepted, acknowledged, connected and productive. They can easily see a tangible end product and experience self-discipline and self-confidence on a daily basis. Arts teachers often have more opportunity for informal conversations with students, and can very often be effective mentors for students. How many times have we watched a failing student discover that they have a future in an arts career, and suddenly, with that goal in mind, become motivated to succeed in all of their courses?

Living in New York, we certainly could make a case for the number of career opportunities that exist in the ever-expanding media arts and entertainment field. Preserving real skill development arts courses in our schools will make arts careers a possibility for all students. Eliminating arts training from the schools will take us back to well,...medieval times...when only the wealthy were given training in the arts. Yet, even that's not the strongest rationale for providing Arts Education for everyone.

The power of the arts to connect to virtually every other area of the school curriculum, and in doing so, help students to become life long lovers of all learning, is the strongest rationale. The essence of Arts Education is to actually teach and develop artistic competencies, not just teach students about the arts. Yet, the key to Arts curricula becoming "core curricula" is making meaningful connections to other areas of the school curriculum. When the arts are used as a tool to help students become passionate and excited about other areas of the curriculum, we create an opportunity for significantly expanding support for arts education. The concept involves selecting a significant topic or issue and weaving it into your arts curriculum, so that you achieve two objectives: developing competencies in the arts and the academic subject. You design the activities so that you are teaching the specific arts objectives for that grade level or course, but within the same lesson, you incorporate material from the other subject matter. You are simply teaching two things at the same time. It does not demean the importance of your craft... in empowers the arts as a vehicle for making all learning more meaningful.

To illustrate the point, let's return to medieval times, and explore how the arts empower the academic curriculum. I've chosen this example, because it has easy application to all areas of the arts at both elementary and secondary levels.

What do you remember about medieval times from your social studies courses? The mode of learning that I remember was "read pages 46-52 and answer the three questions at the end of the chapter." Unfortunately, most every social studies course I took used this approach to learning. Needless to say, I didn't enjoy history much at all, until I became a music teacher...

I finally learned to love history when I had a reason to use the material I was studying. I was invited to join a team of instructors for a graduate music education course. Part of my assignment was the movement and renaissance dance part of the course. So, I took a crash course with a dance reconstruction expert in Manhattan. There was something inspiring about learning renaissance dance in a tiny apartment filled with Elizabethan costumes and no furniture! I took what I learned back to my elementary program and became a supporter of medieval festivals, in which our sixth graders became knights, ladies, doctors and peasants and researched all aspects of medieval life. They made the music, danced the dances, built the castles and created the stained glass windows. Every aspect of our arts program was a tool in the development of the festival. I discovered that I was suddenly fascinated with learning the historical facts, and more importantly, so were the students. The key is to have the students making the art and using the history... not just learning about the art and reading the history.

It must be at least 10 years since the first medieval festival, yet, if I meet those students in town today, they will inevitably talk about the festivals and what they remember learning through them. They can still recite the speech they gave about being a nun or doctor in medieval times. They remember every step of the sword dance. They were motivated to learn the material in the social studies text because they had an immediate need to use the information. It was ancient, but it was so relevant to them.

There are many more examples to explore, from reinforcing language arts skills through music and movement in the primary grades, to introducing secondary English students to a famous children's author and inspiring them to write and illustrate their own children's books, to building panpipes in conjunction with a science unit on acoustics and playing with an authentic Andean panpipe band. You will be amazed at what a little brainstorming with your colleagues and your PTA Arts-In-Education Committee can create!

Making the most out of your arts project includes maximizing the connection with the rest of the faculty. An interdisciplinary project provides the classroom or academic teacher with a wider range of learning modalities to choose from. It's no longer just the music teacher taking the "bow" in front of the public. Arts connections provide a way for the entire staff to be acknowledged for a project. I have often heard our academic teachers complain about how much praise and acknowledgement the arts teachers get because they are so often in the public's eye. By working together, we share the "stage" and take the bow together. And, the academic teacher develops a better appreciation for the role of the arts expert in the school. Ah, to be valued as more than someone's prep period!

The last piece of the "Arts for Everything" strategy is finding a clever way to involve the public in your program, so that they can actually participate in the learning. Consider presenting a project as an "Informance" - an informal and informative program, instead of a finished product. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of the program, letting the parents experience your pedagogy, by coaching a group of parents to play a simple role in a story, teaching them an instrument part to play in the performance, or inviting parents in one evening to put the finishing touches on scenery or project displays. The end result is yet another connection: parents having a meaningful learning experience side by side with their children. When the public experiences the learning process first hand, while also connecting with their children and the dedicated faculty, they go home truly appreciating the arts and the joy of learning through them. It may take a little more planning, but when your colleagues, students and parents experience the connection, so much less explaining is necessary. The arts become a necessity and a local mandate. It's not what you do or say that creates support. It's how you demonstrate what you do that empowers the arts. Frankly, the Informance program is a strategy that works for demonstrating every subject area and the effectiveness of our schools in general. You can easily apply this concept to the full school curricula by planning an interactive "Open House" at your school.

As an arts educator, the easiest way to get started is for the initiative to come from you. You know best what your program goals are and what skill competencies you need to develop with a specific group of students. So when you have the opportunity to pick the project or subject area to connect with, the chances are that you will be able to make the artistic experience one in which the students are still achieving your program goals. Be careful not to let arts education courses be used simply as tools for other subjects or for merely entertaining the public. When that happens, your curriculum goals get put aside. The students may have a fun experience, but they won't really be developing independent skills in the art form. You will have sacrificed arts education instead of empowering it... and you'll be expected to produce the impressive "big show" every year.

So, to preserve the integrity of Arts Education, and to empower other subjects and the role of the arts in our schools, I encourage you to make connections. Try it this fall, before the "cut the frills" discussions begin. Build your circles of support by including your colleagues and parents in the magic of your craft, and you will not stand alone in your support of "Arts for Everything's Sake."

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