An Educator’s Manifesto: Part 2

“A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. A manifesto usually accepts a previously published opinion or public consensus and/or promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made. It often is political or artistic in nature, but may present an individual’s life stance.” – Wikipedia

It is time to talk about the value of Arts Integration as a strategy to propel student growth and achievement. In order to do so, however, we must all first acknowledge one simple truth – Children only grow to achieve if they are engaged.

Before I launch off into a diatribe here, I feel a disclaimer is necessary. What you will read here are my opinions, which are based on my own personal experience and a thorough examination of the academic research available to us. While I know edu-folk really love facts and the numbers and the hard-core evidence, I will first present the anecdotal evidence, saving the much anticipated, riveting data references for the end. Despite the risk of losing the more “data driven” readers, the storyteller in me must insist that we initiate this investigation with some personal experience.   So please allow me to first shine a light on my earliest impressions of arts education in general.

As children, my sister and I danced nearly every weeknight and endless hours on the weekends. We performed at every venue that would host a troupe of young ballerinas, Gumby-like gymnasts, and self-proclaimed hip hop artists. We would warm our muscles up by stretching against a fence or down dark narrow hallways, venue dependent, in order to prepare for our trophy-worthy performances on any number of portable stages temporarily installed in mall parking lots, town squares and community centers. Dancing was our life. Our passion for endless dancing is further illustrated by the fact that when we mouthed off to our parents (actually I was the one who did most of the mouthing off) we would be grounded from these precious dance classes, simply because it was the most effective method of discipline in our home. There was nothing more important in our lives than our passion to spin and tumble. It was a way of life for us.

Fast-forward a few years to the opening of a new arts middle and high school in our hometown. Enrollment was based on an audition, and I took a chance and auditioned for both dance and drama. After being accepted to both departments, I decided to try something new and register as a drama student. (After all, I had a lot to say. Dance just couldn’t satisfy my desire to be heard.) So I attended a public arts magnet school from the 8th grade until I graduated. My time at the Palm Beach County School of the Arts (now known as Dreyfoos School of the Arts) set the standards for many things in my life. First of all, if you couldn’t maintain decent grades you were expelled. So that was my initial motivation; I needed to keep up the grades so I wouldn’t have to go to a “normal” school. The fact that our arts classes were at the end of every day meant that I had to hang in there during the morning hours of Math and Science, English Lit, etc. Now, I am not saying that these academic classes were arts integrated classes; oh no, each class strictly maintained and delivered its specific content. However, despite my lack of interest in these traditional subjects, I was able to see a connection between my morning classes and my afternoon classes. I could see the value, for example, of reading Shakespeare in English Lit and performing Shakespeare in my Theatre class. I was able to connect my Geometry class to my Stagecraft class; I mean after all, isn’t set construction really just about angles and slopes? With cognitive connections like these I was able to maintain a high grade point average in my academic classes, not because I loved my academics but because I saw their relevancy in my art.

In college I continued to pursue my studies in Theatre, first at the University of Florida and later at the New World School of the Arts. I would say that my perspective on arts education shifted pretty dramatically once I graduated from college. After walking away with a BFA in Theatre, I realized that all of that exploring of self through movement and sound really distracted me from learning and doing other things. My studies appeared to me at that time as having been too focused. I certainly had developed discipline, what with the endless hours of rehearsals and performances, but I felt very unprepared for other things in life because I had focused so intensely on the craft of theatre. From my new perspective, art for art’s sake was useless. If one did not use art to DO something, what was the point?

So fast forward now past an six-year career as a stage manager, light and sound board operator, production manager, independent playwright, etc. in New York City.   Shuffle on past my time as an arts educator with a nonprofit in the inner city of Queens, NY. Keep moving past the Master’s degree I earned in International Education from New York University. And stop somewhere around 2011 when I began working with an organization called the Harmony Project at a Turnaround School in Denver, CO. My first very explicit experience weaving art into academic subjects came when I managed a number of Harmony Artists at a struggling school in the far northeast of town. (Feel free to explore the archives here. I actually started this blog with the purpose of documenting my time at that school with the Harmony Project.) During the two years I worked in this capacity, I aligned required curriculum with artistic explorations. I did this collaboratively with teachers and artists. It was one of the most joyous and traumatic experiences of my life. (Ultimately the program ended when the district changed principals for the third time in two years, but I will spare the reader the details on just how poorly managed “turnaround” schools can be.) One of the many things I learned in the process was that nearly all high-need, low-income, low performing schools share at least two similarities: They lack family engagement and they lack student engagement. Without these two critical components, a school and all of the educators inside are just spinning their wheels. If school leaders cannot find a way to authentically engage the learning community they are doomed to fail.

It’s funny (well, kinda); I observed school leaders try every trick in the book to get families to come into the building to talk about student “data”. (Who wants to talk about data anyway??!) But time and again the hallways on these parent nights are empty. And if you think that the families are disengaged in student learning then you should meet the students! I realize that I am making sweeping generalizations here; but suffice to say, many of the children couldn’t care less about learning in a classroom at their desk with a pencil and a paper. This kind of learning isn’t relevant to their lives. It does not allow them space to explore their questions or interact with the content actively. Standard curriculum these days is SO overwhelmingly over-scripted. As a result we are loosing teachers nearly as quickly as we are loosing the students. (Have you seen the drop out rate these days??! It is sad.) The material is dry. The content lives on paper, or in a book, or maybe up on an overhead projector. Students can’t play with it in their hands. Children can’t activate it in their bodies. It is a one-size-fits-few format. I would be snoozing too.

So this brings us to the value and purpose of Arts Integration as a strategy to boost student growth and achievement.

By adding music to a Science class, students are provided the opportunity to explore content in a new way. They can actively and interactively experience the science behind sound. The vibrations of a drum or a piano string, for example, can be seen and touched and comprehended through an artistic exploration.   Likewise, place a theatre artist in a Literacy class and watch student comprehension soar! Books come alive. Allow students the time to play with literature, through tableau for example, and just see how they can retell a story. Visual Art is another great vehicle for learning story structure. Have you ever seen a graphic novel? The images match the words and all of the sudden the letters and punctuation marks are given an aesthetic life, one many struggling learners would doubt even existed. I once matched a powerful but less known kind of artist, an Urban Designer, with a second grade class learning about their community. You can imagine how the children’s understanding of urban, suburban and rural communities shifted when they were given the space and encouragement to explore the art of land usage with a professional who turned a childhood passion for drawing and sketching into one of today’s most vital professions.

While you may only hear crickets in the hallways of parent night, have you ever attended a student showcase or art exhibit? I have had to add more seats at the back of auditorium to pack in the families, because the 300 seats already in place were not enough. I have had to ask the parents to hold their applause until every student has finished their demonstration because, frankly, I wanted to be home before midnight. And in divided communities, those riddled with gang activity or submerged in racial distributes, I have only found one commonality that has held these learning communities together – each and every parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle want the opportunity to come and celebrate their child. They want to take pictures and videos. They want to bring flowers and balloons. They want their children to smile and feel proud for what they have worked so hard to accomplish.

Knowing all of this, and I am sure many of you do, we must then ask ourselves… Why on Earth should we not merge academic learning with creative explorations? Bringing academics and art together will most certainly yield more engagement on behalf of the entire learning community. Teachers often experience the most pleasure in the arts integrated experience because not only are their students experiencing joy in the process of learning, but that learning can be seen with the eyes and heard with the ears. Learning is made visible and tangible when it is demonstrated through artistic mediums; it becomes measurable. Suddenly the process of teaching these youngsters becomes exciting and rewarding again because the teachers can see their impact in very real ways.

So let’s talk for a moment about those 21st Century Skills everyone is always referring to. What about collaboration, critical thinking and communication? Aren’t these some of the pillars American society was built upon? It is widely known that the Chinese can out-work us in terms of their endurance for long hours under less than ideal conditions. We also know that the Chinese government often sends their young scholars to the US to study because they desire these 21st Century Skills but traditional Chinese curriculum often lacks them. It has been said that our society values and fosters the ability of its people to “think outside the box”, and we have often been the envy of the world because of it. So how does the delivery of traditional curriculum really measure up to an arts integrated curriculum in terms of developing students’ abilities to think creatively, convey new ideas and turn them into action? How does a scripted curriculum compare to a curriculum with the space for freedom and exploration in the realms of inventiveness and risk taking?   I believe it is imperative that we analyze not only what we are teaching our students, but also how we teach them. Research has made it very clear that children learn through action and interaction, through trial and error, through doing, and through safe risk taking. Doesn’t this evidence explicitly make the case for using arts integrated strategies in the classroom? To me it is a no brainer.

Another hot topic is the notion of “college and career readiness”. The US has a problem arising; it is the problem of high school and college graduates emerging from their studies with insufficient skills to secure employment. Theoretical studies must transfer to useful knowledge. Earlier I mentioned an Urban Designer whom I placed with a group of second graders. When that artist departed after eleven weeks she left a cohort of young people who could very clearly explain what an Urban Designer does and how that profession relates to society. As part of their final project, the students participating in this program were able to look at their community through the lens of urban planning. Together these students wrote letters to their senators asking for access to a quality grocery store and an increase public transportation options like busses and light rails, citing their rationales in their requests. These students identified regions of concern in their communities, like empty lots lacking ample light where drug deals and gang activity often occurred after dark, making recommendations for how the space would better serve the neighborhood if they received the support they sought. These kinds of explorations allowed the students to make direct links between academic content and real life situations. Suffice to say that by the time the session had concluded we had many, MANY little second graders with ambitions of earning degrees in Urban Design.

Now… We all know the reality; not every student is cut out for college. So this begs the question, how can arts integration strategies support the developing careers of those students who will launch directly into the workforce without a college degree? My answer? Arts Integration can provide a window into a creative career simply by providing exposure and motivation.

Earlier I mentioned the rigorous dance schedule that my sister and I committed to at a very early age. Later, when I was knee-deep in theatre history classes at the University of Florida, my sister, Carrie, decided not to apply for or attend college. Instead she graduated from high school and started dancing professionally with a ballet company. A year or few later, when she had exhausted the ballet profession (typically a ballerina’s career is over by the time she is old enough to drink), Carrie began to chart her path as a young entrepreneur. She began teaching ballroom dance and competing at national conferences. Today, she owns her own successful ballroom dance studio in Las Vegas. Carrie never cared much for math, but today she handles the books of her thriving business. She never attended a university, but today she knows how to market and sell a product better than I do. How and why did Carrie strive to achieve such an ambitious goal in a marketplace of bachelor’s and master’s degrees? She was introduced to her profession very early on. She studied with some of the best dancers in our town. She learned the business of establishing and maintaining a niche clientele in ballroom dance by asking the right people the right questions. My sister is largely successful today because she pursued a lifestyle that inspired her.

Not every student in an arts integrated classroom will follow the college trajectory. But I do believe that access to creative explorations in an environment that is supported by a teacher who creates a safe learning environment for students to discover their own inner potential and passion, will yield the innovative and motivated workforce our society so desperately needs to maintain. Arts ignite, inspire and motivate. In a world of under-funded arts programs, isn’t it worth the effort to infuse traditional learning with a spark of creative possibility?

Congrats if you have read this far in my manifesto. Perhaps a few of you only stuck with me because you eagerly await the facts, stats and data I promised you. Well I won’t bother regurgitating what others have already beautifully presented. Instead, I will just provide you with some current resources to support my argument. Are you ready? Here we go…

Recent Research

Reinvesting in Arts Education: This is a research-backed document disseminated by the President’s Committee of Arts and Humanities (PCAH) in support of Arts Education and Arts Integration strategies specifically for high-need, low-performing turnaround schools.  http://www.pcah.gov/sites/default/files/photos/PCAH_Reinvesting_4web.pdf

Changing Education Through the Arts: This case study funded by the Kennedy Center explores the findings from a recent Arts Integration study conducted at a high-need public school in Washington D.C.  http://www.kennedy-center.org/education/ceta/

Why Arts Integration Improves Long-Term Retention of Content: In this academic review, researchers explore the long-term memory effects of students participating in arts integrated lessons. This document provides examples of how existing research from neuroscience and cognitive science can inform the work of practicing educators.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01114.x/abstract

 Additional Resources:

Edutopia: Check out Edutopia’s Arts Integration page. This is a useful tool for educators who are interested in discovering and sharing strategies for integrating the arts throughout core subject areas.  http://www.edutopia.org/blogs/tag/arts-integration

Gaining Steam – Teaching Science Through Art: This U.S. News World Report illustrates nicely how some schools are adding art to “STEM” equation, with good results.  http://www.usnews.com/news/stem-solutions/articles/2014/02/13/gaining-steam-teaching-science-though-art

Artful Teaching: This book, written by David M. Donahue and Jennifer Stuart, delves into how the arts can be integrated across curriculum for students in grades K-8.  http://store.tcpress.com/0807750808.shtml

In closing, I also wanted to share some good news with you… Recently I was brought on as the Interim Executive Director of that wonderful organization I referenced earlier, the Harmony Project. For more information on the work we do at the Harmony Project please check out our website at http://www.coloradoharmonyproject.org/.

Your thoughts and reflections are always welcomed. Thank you for your time and attention…

Creatively and Passionately Yours,

Tamera Sakotas