Sunday, February 12, 2012

Let's Talk Arts Integration

Recently a Harvard professor spoke to administrators in our district.  He was a guest of the local college of art and design and was talking about the arts in education.  Someone asked him to speak about those who are struggling in reading and math and what they should receive in arts education/integration.  Basically, the principals that attended reported that this gentleman said, "no arts until they can read and do math".  In other words, struggling students need to do MORE reading and math to get better at it.  And arts should not be crowding out the opportunity for more.  

I have to tell you I wish I was at the presentation so I really had a fuller picture.  BUT from this little snippet, it makes my skin crawl!  I have spent the last 13 years in a school FILLED with struggling readers and mathematicians.  And I agree they need more reading and math opportunities to improve.  In fact, that was the very essence of my job the past four or five years of my time there.  But I believe we can utilize the arts to make the difference for those who struggle.  

It's my unofficial observation and "research" that leads me to think that many kids who struggle with academics ARE very artistic.  They can often draw what they heard in a story far better than they can write it.  They can act out a story to internalize it.  They can even learn basic skills better through music (oh the number of times I've "rapped grammar rules" or information to help it stick in their minds!).  

I know the job at Title I schools is huge.  It's downright overwhelming and frustrating at times.  Kids and teachers are drained as they try to find one more magic bullet that might make a difference for a struggling student.  I know that Principals are trying the best they can to improve their scores so that they can achieve whatever status the state or federal government will bestow upon those who are high performing.  

But these are still kids!  They are young.  They have stuff filling their lives that many in the middle class will never understand.  

Some schools in our district are responding by putting kids into more computer assisted instruction programs.  For some students they are on the computer listening to an automated teacher for more than 90 minutes in the school day.  One teacher asked me recently if there is research that shows it will make a difference.  I am pretty sure that anything done for 90 minutes daily might make a difference.  What I do know is that it may not be a sustainable difference.  And how very impersonal it is in my mind to put headphones on them and take away the human element that I believe can make such a big difference for the struggling learner.  

Why not give kids something to latch onto?  Why not fill their lives with music, dance, drama and images that might help bridge their learning gap?  Why not allow them to utilize the right side of the brain to help enhance the left?  

I would argue that we are robbing them if we expect them to only read more and solve more math problems.  And I think we are robbing them by expecting a digital miracle via the computer.  Perhaps they could read a song or a poem and suddenly get it.  Perhaps they can look at art and see the shapes, patterns and spatial placement to finally understand a word problem.  Perhaps they could learn to dance words and letters and emotions.  

And the bottom line is there is no magic bullet; not the computer and not even the arts.  No one has one. But I think this quote by Peter Senge is important to remember: "'Many children struggle in schools... because the way they are being taught is the way is incompatible with the way they learn."   If they learn best by computer, fine.  But if its another way, by all means let's find it and give it to them.  

It's the professional thing to do!  And, in my mind, they all deserve to be under the care of true professionals.  


Runde's Room said...

So sad. I teach all subjects in my grade 5/6 class, and teaching The Arts is one of my favourite things to teach. I have a particularly difficult class this year - full of IEPs and behaviour students ... and my saving grace has been teaching art first thing on Monday morning. This one little thing has made such a difference. When they come back to me on Monday morning, it's usually after a very unstructured and crazy weekend. They crave this little bit of calm and creativity (even if they don't know it). It has made ALL the difference for me.

Runde's Room

Jenny said...

Amen! I don't understand why we think only focusing on what is hard for a child is going to make things better for them. Imagine spending your entire work day on things with which you really struggle. I think most people would give up before long. We need to take students' strengths and use those to help them build up the areas in which they struggle.