“Kids in all parts of society are not getting an initial taste of the Arts. It is our obligation as a democratic society to make that experience available for all.” ~ Jed Perl, visiting professor at the New School and Art critic for The New Republic
Sharing his thoughts on the role of Art on a late summer Sunday afternoon in Maine, Jed Perl spoke to a group sponsored by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. His thesis was that Art is either connected to or inspired by “pop culture”, or exists as a far more complex experience open to analysis and personal scrutiny by the viewer (akin to listening to music from a string quartet or reading a novel.)
It is our responsibility to see that all kids have the opportunity to experience Art first-hand, in museums, galleries, or outdoor spaces, make original art, “mess about with” materials, and to encounter artists whose passion is to create something from scratch.
In the same month, four economists from Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley published a study on mobility in America, while the Journal of Economic Perspective approached the same issue from an international standpoint. Fareed Zakaria sums up their research in his August 14, 2013 Washington Post piece: “Simply put, the United States spends much less on the education and well-being of poor people, especially poor children, than any other rich country — and that retards their chances of escaping poverty. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development points out that the United States is one of only three rich countries (America, Canada, Australia) that spends less on disadvantaged students than on other students — largely because education funding for elementary and secondary schools
That’s what we’ve witnessed locally in Maine. Less affluent towns are strapped. They have to make choices between increasing property taxes, which might allow them to add some Art back where teaching positions have been cut, or expect children to do without.
What happens when kids miss out on Art in their elementary school years? What can we possibly do about it?
Depriving kids of the Arts (not the kind of Art “substitute” that comes on a cart, whisked in and out of classrooms in a 30 minute time frame, but the long-term project variety that invites experimentation, rethinking, and refinement) is no different from saying we don’t have time for them to express their opinions about a book or get their ideas down in writing. Taking these elements out of the curriculum reduces student focus and confidence, eliminates original thinking, and alters how brains develop as kids get into their middle and high school years. Can we afford this?
Whether Art teachers get funded or not, we can get Art into our classrooms. Two teachers at The Advent School in Boston designed a three-month program on Civil Rights for their Sixth Graders. With some basic information under their belts and the opportunity to research a leader in which they believed, students began their investigations. Like reporters in the field, they delved into critical issues at various times in recent history. First they had to understand the context in which their leader thought and acted. As researchers they had to master the art of note-taking and organizing information. Before their writing process began they determined their thesis and ultimately worked at describing meaningful moments in detail. They critiqued one another’s writing, offering suggestions from how to convey big ideas to deciding on words that would get their point across most poignantly. Creating portraits became an important part of the project, and that included lessons on drawing. Sixth Graders acquired the tools they needed so they would feel successful when representing their subject. Although few had any background or former instruction in this Art form, their motivations levels were high. They wanted the persona of their leader to shine through. As a culminating event,
they presented their writings and their drawings to families and their teachers created an exhibit for all the school to see.
Weaving subjects together may feel like a stretch for teachers at first, but students take to it naturally, diving into their studies because they are meaningful and important to them. In a large part responsible for their learning and bringing life to their project through the Arts (visual, dramatic, or musical) students have the rich, multi-dimensional experience in school that they deserve.
If you have an experience in integrated curriculum that you would like to post on this blog, I would love to include it. Together we can make Art an integral part of learning.
Nancy Harris Frohlich