Tuesday, July 25, 2006
art and learning
The arts have been being pushed out of elementary schools (certainly in California, where I live) for decades now, little by little in some cases, in whole fell swoops in others. But in most cases, it is not impossible for teachers themselves to keep those "not-being-tested" strategies and activities in their classrooms (ok I will give people a pass on instrumental music). Even under the strictest of mandates schedules, is there really no extra time? (This is a serious question, because I know I have always had the time for fun. Or maybe I just took it.)
It used to be said that teachers in general had a lot of autonomy once they closed their classroom doors. That, of course, was before the age of "Open Court police" and other teacher-squashing mandates. However, I am still of the opinion that many teachers have way more power than they realize. It comes from putting yourself on those district committees which make the decisions. It comes from doing a great job and keeping your mouth shut when that is a better strategy, and speaking up when it counts.
Ellin Keene's book Mosaic of Thought is my classroom bible over any other teacher book, because it presents a thoughtful foundation and comes from a place of giving teachers the autonomy to do things their way rather than following a list of instructions. I do like the more strategy-oriented books as well that give specific ideas, but Mosaic of Thought is the foundation they sit on. I believe when you know the foundation, you can create the teaching strategies yourself because you know where you are and where you're going. That's the reason I think teachers need to create for themselves an underlying philosophy of what they know and believe about learning.
I see the arts the same way. The arts are what we live and breathe each day of our lives. The music that pops on in the morning on the clock radio, the colors we choose to paint our living rooms, the movies we attend, the way we are enticed through creative advertising to buy products....... those are all ways the arts are manifested in our societies. Think about the number of young people wandering around these days plugged into their MP3 players. Music is art. It is also communication and expression and a way to.... yes.... escape the woes of the world. The arts are everywhere and inescapable. And who would want to escape them? Do you think the muckety-muck publishers don't use visual arts elements when they are designing those million dollar textbooks? You bet they do.
We teachers use the visual arts in our classrooms every time we ask students to draw an illustration, make a poster, or look at how pictures are used in both non-fiction and fiction texts. Reading comprehension includes the visual arts in very fundamental ways. How many times do we talk about and/or use the pictures in text as comprehension clues? Do we ask students to illustrate their own writings? Do we invite them to make posters? bookmarks? dioramas? charts? Those are all under the umbrella of the visual arts.
To me, the arts have always been just as basic as mathematics and reading and writing. The arts are our core and they are what we leave behind for future cultures to know who we are. As hard as it is these days to find the "time for art" in our teaching schedules, I think perhaps it is necessary like never before to give students this additional outlet for expression and communication.
What if we started looking at using the visual arts as one component of the foundation for communication?
I think teachers need to make their stands when and where they can, and although it may be harder today than a decade ago, I don't think it's impossible. Other than instrumental music instruction which takes vastly more personal expertise as well as a great deal of expense, teachers CAN fold more arts instruction into their days if they really want to and choose to do so, and if they come from the foundation side, the way Mosaic of Thought comes from the foundation side of reading comprehension, and look at the arts as additional components of strategies for reading, writing, and mathematics instruction. An hour or two a week for visual arts instruction is not impossible under most circumstances. This can be integrated into the prevailing theme AND be actual art instruction at the same time.
I had a degree in art before I had my teaching credential, but it's really not hard to incorporate real art instruction into the classroom, especially if you look at the visual arts as a series of strategies, much like reading comprehension includes a series of strategies. It may be a little harder these days to carve out the time, but it's not impossible, especially when you look at art as communication.
I'm immersed in art at the moment because I just finished compiling into a book a series of art activities that consider art as a foundation for expression rather than as a series of cute projects for the last hour on Friday afternoon. Anyone who is interested in reading more about how this works can follow this link to the Introduction of the book: