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

Multiple Perspectives 2

Teaching most kinds of historical events, it’s important to ask the kids the following:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Why did they write it?
  3. Who was the audience?

There’s a great picture book (yes, it’s a picture book)  on the revolutionary war titled George Vs. George and it attempts to describe the events from two perspectives: that of the British, and that of the Colonists.

Last Friday, after the children read two different accounts of the event and viewed a 4 minute online video, they were asked to examine Paul Revere’s illustration below.

During our discussion the following questions were asked: Who looks innocent in this picture? One of the men killed, Crispus Attucks, was an African American, yet he is not portrayed here – why do you think that is? The British soldiers are all standing in a straight line with their weapons all aimed the same way. Did the illustration match the descriptions you read? Why or why not?

With todays image rich world, it’s important for kids (yes, even 2nd graders) to be able to analyze, think critically, and discern for themselves what’s going on beyond the story. The children looked up the words ‘massacre’ and ‘riot’ and they had to decide for themselves if one word fit the situation better based on the multiple sources they were exposed to.

Another project the kids did with their first grade buddies this week was to look at a Picasso work from the exhibit here at the Seattle Art Museum which we will visit in January. The Picasso piece was this one here:

Before giving the children the title of the piece, we asked them what they thought they saw. Some mentioned color. Other’s mentioned shape (we threw in some math terms where we could). A few mentioned texture. I told them that this hangs on a wall and we may see it on our visit. We then discussed whether they thought this was a painting or a sculpture – or both.

We then told them the title of the piece was Violin and asked them if they saw any elements of a violin. We then showed them an image of our new school and asked them to deconstruct it and build shapes that reminded them of our school building.

This is what they came up with:

When we first thought of taking a field trip to the exhibit, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity, but didn’t really see how it fit into the curriculum or our schoolwide theme of sustainability.  Nonetheless, we discovered that using recycled magazines and using the school as the subject, we fulfilled two of the three subtopics of that theme: sense of place, and reduction of paper. Our objectives also included collaboration and the sharing of ideas. If you look closely, you might see elements of a solar panel, native plants, a green roof, and a sundial.

Whether it be a history lesson, or an art lesson, seeing things from multiple perspectives often leads to new insights both for the kids and the teachers.