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

Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia

Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia.

You could click above to get to Edutopia, but I just have to post Wynton Marsalis’ entire article below because I am so proud of my students who successfully put on a great winter show yesterday and today. Kudos to their music teachers too.

Anyway, here’s what Mr. Marsalis’ had to say:

School administrators facing budget cuts often look to eliminate what they consider “nonessential” programs. Invariably, their red pen lands on the same line item: music class.

It strikes me as strange that music is considered nonessential. More than simply being a source of cultural pride and listening pleasure, music represents a core ingredient in the education of our children.

Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children. Let us consider a few. Because music makes abstract thought concrete, it forces us to develop several important cognitive functions.

The first is memory. Musicians must memorize not only the melody of a piece but also the individual notes that make it up. Within that, music teaches us the language of expression. You and I and Martin Luther King Jr. could read the exact same speech and it wouldn’t sound the same. The words are the same, of course, but why is it that Dr. King’s voice and tone carried something beyond the words? It’s the expressiveness of the performance. Similarly, three people playing a trumpet don’t sound the same. They can play the same note or melody, but only some trumpet players have a feeling that touches our heart.

Music also teaches us how to get along with others. Consider the music I love: jazz. Each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works — for a soloist or an ensemble — if the musicians do not play in balance. If the drummer, who plays the loudest instrument, decides he wants to be much louder than the bassist, who has the softest instrument, you’re going to have discord. This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals.

Jazz, in many ways, embodies our core democratic principles. The motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One. Likewise, in music we celebrate the skills of the individual, as well as the strength of the group. Playing music also allows us to interact with some of our greatest artistic minds. When you perform the music of Charlie Parker or Leonard Bernstein, you understand their world. With each song, we get a glimpse of the intellectual life contained within the artistic statement.

Today, I still get special joy from instructing children. I try to show them the many lessons of good musical craftsmanship, particularly because I feel that so little good music is available to them. The music our children hear on the radio may feel good, like a candy bar feels good, but it has no nutrition. We exploit their budding sexuality. We exploit their lack of sophistication. We equate decadence with hipness. We give them cleavage and the same beat on every song, almost as if we were going back to the plantation. We treat our children as a marketing segment, and it’s embarrassing. But it is not our children who are at fault. We are.

Music must remain a core part of the teaching curriculum. Every school should have an orchestra, and it should play the music of this country — Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still. We should have jazz ensembles in our middle schools and blues bands in our high schools. As adults, we need to say, “This is the America we know and love.” Education works on many levels. It must inform and excite the mind, as well as nourish the spirit. Music is a key part of that education.

I couldn’t agree with him more. We always talk of performance when it comes to standards and test taking, but sometimes we need to take that literally and watch them “perform”. The children memorized poems from Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice (a la Carole King) to Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night and even did a little nostalgic barbershop number called In the Good Old Summer Time.  Will it increase their test scores? Of course it will. There was extremely rich vocabulary in the poems and lyrics of the songs. Any musician knows that there is a strong relationship between math and music.

But what I love about school performances is that every child regardless of ability shines. They help each other reach what is possible. It reminds me of the lyrics from a favorite Stephen Sondheim song: Anyone Can Whistle

 

Anyone can whistle,

That’s what they say –

Easy.

 

Anyone can whistle,

Any old day –

Easy.

 

It’s all so simple

Relax, let go, let fly.

So someone tell me, why can’t I?

 

I can dance a tango,

I can read Greek –

Easy.

 

I can slay a dragon

Any old week–

Easy:

 

What’s hard is simple.

What’s natural come hard.

Maybe you could show me

How to let go,

Lower my guard,

Learn to be free.

Maybe if you whistle,

Whistle for me.

 

Those kids were definitely whistling for each other.

I can dance a tango, I can read Greek Easy. I can slay a dragon, any old week– Easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural come hard.
Maybe you could show me
how to let go,
Lower my gaurd,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.