Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fine Arts Teachers "Get It"

Photo Courtesy of Scott Ableman

Yesterday I read about yet another school district possibly cutting fine arts programs in order to save money. I always cringe when I read this—the fact that many still view art, music, and theatre as “add ons” instead of an essential component in a child’s education. The preponderance of research that shows the correlation between fine arts education and student achievement is staggering.

But this post isn’t about that.

Clearly, many of the arts classes are not valued by some pencil sharpeners and belt tighteners. But what about the fate of those professionals who teach art, music, and theatre? I’m sure that most of them will migrate to a district that either values or can afford them, but I believe we are all missing out on something very special.

In today’s education landscape, change is in the air. We are looking to make classes more “student centered, ” projects more relevant, and assessment more formative. Some of these changes are met with less-than-exuberant responses by some more “traditional” teachers. Districts are spending thousands of dollars on staff development to teach “Project-Based Learning,” “Authentic Assessment” and “Collaboration.” Unfortunately, these initiatives are sometimes piecemeal, and too often fall on deaf ears. I have observed that sometimes fine art teacher seems to be politely passive during these sessions. Why? The reason is because fine arts teachers have been teaching this way all along.

Consider some of the pedagogical changes that visionaries are suggesting to transform our schools, and how fine arts teachers have already embraced them:

Project-based learning with specific goals: For the choir, it’s preparing the Hallelujah Chorus for the winter concert, the jazz band will perform at half time of the basketball game, opening night of Guys and Dolls is only two weeks away. For arts students, every action, every repetition, every procedure is geared toward fulfilling a very precise, focused goal: the performance.

Emphasis on formative assessment: The majority of assessment in a music class is formative. Daily rehearsals (not lessons) are met with continual scrutiny and suggestions. Groups work hours upon hours to prepare for the upcoming event. Missing a beat at the rehearsal can be remedied before the performance. Early in a semester, very few grades exist in the art teacher’s grade book because the teacher recognizes that the student is still working, experimenting, and learning... how can you put a grade on that? Isn’t the end result more important to evaluate? Because of this atmosphere, kids are more likely to experiment, fail, and try again, resulting, ultimately, in higher achievement.

Purposeful homework: The oboe player must practice on her own outside of class, the photo student must compose images in “the field” and Stanley Kowalski must practice his lines. Since students see a direct connection between the hours spent and the quality of the performance, they are much more motivated to spend extra time on tasks.

Professional Learning Community (PLC) Model: Whether it be planning the upcoming concert, coordinating the set, score, lighting, and direction of a musical, or putting together an art show, by definition, fine arts teachers must work together seamlessly to develop their performances and products. The fading notion of teaching in “isolation” was never an issue with teachers of The Arts.

Building a Collaborative Classroom: By virtue of the activities, fine arts students MUST work together; they develop Positive Interdependence organically. The first violinist realizes he needs the rest of the section as well as the other instruments to perform the piece; he can’t do it alone. Also, you probably find that in your school (like mine) music kids hang out together in the music hall because of the common bonds and interests that have developed. The culmination of this is that they trust each other.

Teaching Visual Literacy: Even the NCTE recognizes that “text” no longer is limited to words, but includes a variety of media. Who better to address visual composition than a 2-D art teacher? Have we tapped these resources to teach the rest of the faculty concepts such as line, contrast, value, vanishing point, and rhythm? What about the photography teacher to share expertise in lighting, framing, and the difference in effects of a low and high-angle shot?

Of course when you talk about Portfolio Assessment, and Authentic Audience…need I say more?

I consider myself very fortunate to work in a school that not only values The Arts as an essential component in education, but also is blessed with a talented, dedicated group of fine arts teachers who inspires, ignites, and, motivates students to develop their own potential. Perhaps some day everyone will “Get it” the way fine arts teachers do...and instead of cutting out programs, they can be expanded.

Or at very least, can share some of their teaching methods with the rest of us to embrace.


Michelle said...

Thank you, THANK YOU for this post!

I've been an educator for over 15 years- and I'm teaching music again this year for the first time in almost 10 years. Best decision I ever made, because I get to walk my talk about what's best for children and learning. And... I LOVE my kids and my job!

Thanks for being an advocate and for noticing some things that are GOOD in education!

jorech said...

Thanks, Michelle. It never ceases to amazeme how we "reinvent" things that are already happening. Fine Arts teachers are doing all the things "innovators" say we should do, yet they get cut when money's tight...I don't get it.

Elizabeth said...

This is such a great post! These are the skills our students can be lacking and yet, need more and more. Thank you for stating so well what the arts do for our children (and for us as teachers).