The Importance of Art in Schools

It’s surprising and disappointing how so many schools choose the arts as one of the first department to go either when times are tough or when they are pressured to increase their scores on achievement tests. It doesn’t take one long to find that these cuts are taking place all over the country: Fort Lauderdale, California (and that was in 2006 when things weren’t as grim) (here’s a more recent story from CA), and even as recently as this past week over in the UK. At least according to the Obama’s art-education platform, it states that …”we should encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.” This article about the exhibit from the Seattle Times talks about the links art has to “math, science, literature, you name it.” I feel extremely fortunate where I work. When they designed the new school building, they had several local artists contribute to a few pieces around our campus.

Yesterday my students and I had a great day of art. One of Seattle’s local artists, Juan Alonso who created 5 pieces of abstract art around our campus came to talk to the students about what inspired him and about some of the process involved. He also started giving workshops to classes on abstract portraits. I can’t wait until it’s our class’ turn. What I love about abstract art especially is that it is open to interpretation unless the artist actually tells you what inspired him. The sculpture on the right sits in front of our school. I always pictured it as the font of knowledge or something to do with passion. Juan Alonso explained that when he thought of an elementary school, he thought of a child with arms reaching upward. Now every time I see it, I can’t help but think of that.

After our assembly, four classes headed to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s the last week of the exhibit, and I have never seen the place that packed. Rather than battle the crowds and try to see all of it, our wonderful docent selected just a few. She had the kids full attention and began by asking them what they thought they saw. With this kind of open ended question, it was amazing how much effort the children spent looking at the painting, the colors, shapes, etc. and the thoughtful, yet out-of-the-box responses were inspiring. Asking children to inquire about art is no different than what we ask them to do in science. Much of the vocabulary needed to describe Picasso’s work is shared with geometry. Reading about his life and the times, learning about Spain and France, and writing about their experience are natural connections. Our docent was wonderful and asking the right kind of questions forcing the kids to think a little more critically rather than just come up with a one-right-answer response.

Of course, what I loved is that his art is celebrated for breaking the rules, for being a visionary and wanting to push boundaries in art, for leading change rather than following it, and working hard. Some of his paintings were based on hundreds of initial sketches. This exhibit also highlights someone who worked until he was 91. Noticing a couple of my children’s eyes light up when the docent pronounced that Picasso created his art as one would write a diary. You know the kids who want to draw before writing and those who prefer it the other way around. Why not celebrate both kinds of kids and be open to different ways of arriving at the same objective.

The children then took part in a workshop at the museum offered by a teaching artist where they created mixed media collages of portraits using the concept of viewing things from multiple perspectives. The results, though unfinished, were wonderful, unique, and more importantly something they were all proud of. Whether it be the performing or visual arts, schools must make room for it. Visual art promotes multicultural education, critical thinking skills, inquiry, creativity and innovation, math skills, science, literature, and so on.

The exhibit runs for just a few more days until the 17th of January and the museum has extended its opening times until midnight. This was one of those things that wasn’t part of the planned curriculum, but in my opinion, worth doing. It was my third time seeing this exhibit, and I was still awed. I hope some of the children were too. If you don’t mind crowds, you can click on the picture below which will link you to the museum’s website.

The Shadow by Picasso

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Art in Schools

  1. There is a mistaken notion that you can’t make a living as an artist, so it’s therefore a cuttable frill. It’s completely untrue. We live in a very visual world, and the people who are able to illustrate it have excellent jobs. Students with visual talents and interests are very poorly served by schools that don’t understand the contemporary job market.

    That said, the arts don’t have the monopoly on creativity. As long as students are given the opportunity to be intellectually resourceful, they can be creative in every endeavor. The biggest enemy to creativity, I think, is a rewards system that focuses on high scores and right answers. Authentic engagement is a breeding ground for passion and persistence, and you can’t have meaningful creativity without this.

  2. My dream is to team teach with an art teacher (I’m an English teacher), but the creativity thing…yeah…our school admin just doesn’t appreciate the concept of team-teaching or an innovate schedule or anything really that is not 150 years old in the school design concept. I think that all children are artists when young (just like they are all poets), and then both art and poetry are devalued when they get out of grade school.

    • It’s too bad your school admin. doesn’t appreciate team-teaching or collaboration, because so many good (and sometimes completely new) ideas come from the ideas of many. As Martha wrote below, the arts don’t have a monopoly on creativity and this year I’ve tried to incorporate that into math more. Simply by giving the children a number and saying to them “that’s the answer, now come up with at least five different equations and don’t forget to challenge yourself,” it’s amazing what how creative their responses can be. Not to mention their engagement, and the built in differentiation in a simple task like that. And then incorporating the world around them whether it be visual art, poetry, gardening, and providing students opportunities to make connections to other disciplines can spur creativity. Sometimes solving simple social/emotional problems with children require creative problem solving skills, and those simple problems can grow and fester if we don’t foster and give children opportunities and the tools to create.

      As for your school being very rigid in its ways, sometimes you may have to ruffle a few feathers at first, but find your allies that have similar beliefs and start doing some of the things you want to do within the confines of your school. If it’s successful, you will find that more people will start to move and change will happen. But yes, change in a traditional school can seem awfully slow – especially if you have very little patience like me. Thanks.

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