What do the arts have to teach us about Essential School change? From cognition and critical thinking to instruction and assessment, they can shed valuable light on teaching and learning across the disciplines, and can lead us in new ways toward understanding, equity, and community.
It does not look like a research project at first, Teri Schrader’s class presentation on AIDS at the Watkinson School in Hartford, Connecticut. Students are dancing, for one thing; and not until the wordless staccato rhythms of their steps accumulate beneath the pictures they have mounted, not until they start to sing the love songs they have written, do the numbing statistics of epidemic begin to translate into emerging patterns, bringing artistic intention to bear on this class’s research question, “Can money buy a cure?”
“To fashion their responses the kids used journals of science, public health, and medicine; census information; charts and graphs; articles; even the language from the hanging instructions the AIDS quilt came in,” says Schrader. “The research went on for a solid month. It moved the class beyond sentiment, providing depth, specificity, and structure.”
As each student crafted a character, composed music, and choreographed a dance, their questions multiplied; they began to see AIDS as more than hypothetical to their own lives, and to argue about its political and economic dimensions. “From feeling confused and overwhelmed,” Schrader says, “the kids moved toward clarity, action, intention-toward integrity.”
This teacher at an Essential school has worked with colleagues in every subject area to bring music, art, drama, and dance into the main-stream of Watkinson’s curriculum. Yet her teaching practice, she says, plays out a constant dynamic relationship between “art for art’s sake” and “art for school’s sake.”
“We can tilt the axis of ‘material’ to teach any subject so it takes on an artistic quality,” she says, “and the material will become clearer to kids. Also, we know that a ‘pure’ artistic venture, whether it involves creating or reflection and analysis, has lessons of its own to teach. Schools that understand the power of the arts really need to balance these two ideals.”
Though difficult and political, that tension can help frame our thinking about school change in general, and in particular about the place of the arts in Essential School change. In fact, almost every one of Theodore Sizer’s Nine Common Principles reflects an artist’s perspective: the philosophy of student as worker and teacher as mentor and coach; the belief that every child can think and express herself well; the use of essential questions that cross fields of inquiry; the conviction that doing one thing well is better than doing many superficially; assessment by performance, portfolio, and exhibition.
As educators learn more about how children make sense of ideas and of their world, the arts provide schools with a powerful alternative model of teaching and learning, points out Bethany Rogers of the Annenberg Institute. Whether one focuses on conceptual understanding, on equity issues, or on the utilitarian concerns of the workplace, their intellectual aims and pedagogical means make equal sense. Yet in an era of fiscal cutbacks, even reform-minded schools often shortchange and marginalize the arts, casting them as elective “extras” outside the controlling blocks of the master schedule. And even as Essential schools struggle toward integrating the curriculum around essential questions, they seldom place the arts at the center of that attempt.
To complicate the issue further, controversy within arts disciplines themselves often inhibits the infusion of arts into the teaching of sciences and humanities. Many arts educators fear that aesthetics, criticism, creation, and art history will be watered down by such means-that the “arts component” of an integrated curriculum will be a mere gesture made of toothpicks and Elmer’s glue, without depth, context, and meaning. Backed against the wall this way, it is little wonder that arts educators describe in their 1995 national standards an array of knowledge and skills that would daunt the students of Fame, or that the Getty Center for Educa-tion in the Arts’ “discipline-based arts education” movement has drawn to it fervent advocates of integrity and rigor.
If these tensions can be balanced at all, it may be through the “best practice” of students and teachers who play them out in changing classrooms. At Chicago’s Paul Robeson High School, for example, students and teachers explored the question “Is the Civil War really over?” along with artists from the Urban Gateways Center for Arts in Education. Classes in English, social studies, and visual arts worked with contemporary source documents and literature, and met regularly with a visual artist, a jazz musician, and an actor. With the artists as their coaches, students made instruments, composed music, and presented personal histories in video form. They created a striking ceramic tile mural for the school’s lobby, and they worked on photo collages using images of themselves set in Civil War contexts.
The Robeson project began partly as an effort to see whether artistic portfolios could prove useful in evaluating higher-order thinking in academic subjects. Teachers hoped to assess students’ perceptions, their production, and their reflection-the categories of artistic learning set forth by Project Zero and Arts Propel in a long-term research project involving Harvard University, the Educational Testing Service, and teachers in Pittsburgh and Boston. Using what the project calls “process-folios,” students tracked their own work’s progress as artists do, from initial ideas through revisions and finished product.
The Robeson project also revealed common ground between the artistic experience and how understanding emerges in other subject areas. Harvard researcher Dennie Wolf writes, for example, about the “invisible dimensions of artistic learning”: the way students learn to “walk around a work,” examining it and enjoying it from the multiple viewpoints of a maker, an observer, and a reflective inquirer. As they made and reflected on art over the course of ten weeks, recalls teacher Markie Hancock, her Robeson students were also becoming more aware of their own perspec-tives on history and their approaches to historical sources-“more impor-tant,” she notes, “than a false pursuit of ‘objective truth’ about history.”
Through studying and practicing the arts, Wolf asserts, students not only become alert to how artists draw on many resources; they also develop the ability to sustain a long arc of work focusing not on particular facts but on the same kind of complex, long-term learning that characterizes “essential questions” in many Essential school curricula.
The Essential school aim of depth over breadth also shows up in arts-based projects like Robeson’s. The same things it takes to “worry about art well,” Project Zero’s David Perkins suggests, are needed to “worry about learning well.” When we look at a painting, read a poem, or listen to a symphony, he argues, we build and revise a coherent “web of relations” (such as cause and effect, or symbol and meaning). We “encode, anticipate, project, ponder, conceive,” just as when we solve a mathematical or scientific problem.
Across the disciplines and within artistic domains, the arts “release the imagination” to see things as if they could be otherwise, argues Columbia University professor Maxine Greene. “Arts education has to do with the active learner constructing meanings as she or he tries to make sense of the lived world,” she wrote to participants in an Annenberg Institute arts seminar. “It has to do with a consciousness of craft and standards, and with an ability to reflect on the processes of attending and shaping . . . the opening of new perspectives in experience.”
All these theories, of course, have practical and political implications in the trenches of schools. If we aim to teach all children the habits of thoughtful inquiry and expression, we cannot shunt certain children aside because their “ways of knowing” do not fit neatly into the verbal and mathematical domains that dominate our schools. What Harvard University’s Howard Gardner has described as “multiple intelligences” include forms of processing information that deal not only with language but with music, bodily-kinesthetic information, spatial information, and other areas. Though Gardner does not posit an “artistic intelligence,” many of these forms contribute both to artistic development and to rigorous thinking of a more universal kind.
Teri Schrader uses performing arts at Watkinson to “put science on its feet,” or the visual arts to explore statistics, for instance. “Some people are staggered by the number of kids enrolled in our Learning Skills program who excel in the performing and creative arts,” she says. “To me it makes perfect sense-the arts require us to honor different ways of learning. When we see our ‘brightest’ performers, we stop needing to distinguish between our learning lab kids and all the others.”
Whether they get it from creating their own art or studying the works of others, not just special cases but all students benefit from what Maxine Greene has called the “shock of awareness” the arts can provide. In New York City, for example, Stephen Yaffe consults with several Coalition member schools to help teachers integrate drama into the curriculum as a teaching and assessment tool. In one exercise, students in two small groups take turns improvising side by side at the front of a class.
“On one side, Columbus is trying again to persuade Isabella to send him to the New World,” Yaffe says. “On the other, students are acting out the folk tale ‘A Penny a Look,’ about two brothers who try to take captives from a land of one-eyed people but end up in cages themselves.” As each group improvises its lines, the teacher calls out “Switch!” at key moments, and the second dialogue commences using the line where the first group left off.
“The analogies are experienced seamlessly, which takes issues like imperialism or migrations out of the history books and into the realm of powerful human emotions,” Yaffe says. “Later, when you discuss terms like economics, politics, or religious persecution, the students connect with them on a gut level.” They are constructing meaning, Maxine Greene would observe, from their encounters with art.
At the same time, using artistic processes enlarges students’ sense of the world and of the ways available to understand it. At the Forsyth Street site of Satellite Academy in New York City, Liz Andersen’s Urban Video Project asks students to view their world through the lens of a camera. Using “Legacies of the African Diaspora” as their theme and the cultural resources of the city as a classroom, students learn documentary production while developing skills in critical thinking, historical research, cooperative learning, cross-cultural communication, and journalism. Their broadcast-quality tapes have been shown on local and national cable channels and in festivals, often winning awards or scholarships for students.
Both as an art in itself and as a way to assess learning in other fields, videography offers a unique learning opportunity to schools. In New York City, the Educational Video Center has contributed a groundbreaking model to educators by describing the elements of a successful video project-research, writing, interviewing, technology use, critical viewing, review and reflection, teamwork, and presentation-and outlining a practical and authentic portfolio process for assessing such projects.
Amy Mulvihill’s ninth-grade students at New York’s Coalition School for Social Change worked with the Center to create a video documentary about the civil rights movement. They recorded photos of the era and oral histories from participants in the movement including a local folk singer, then came up with a collective vision of what they were going to say. Using imagery, sounds and music, original documents, and their own artwork, over the course of a semester they completed one rough edit and one revision, then presented and reflected on their work in individual portfolios that were assessed by a panel of professionals, teachers, peers, and community members.
Though studying “mechanical” as opposed to “manual” art forms may raise eyebrows with some purists, others point out not only their usefulness in engaging student interest but their historical roots. “The Impressionist period was a time of technological revolution not unlike our own computer age, where new tools and discoveries caused us to question the nature of art,” one teacher wrote to one of the many on-line discussion groups the Internet offers to arts educators. “Maybe we could ask students to think about the ways in which the computer has revolutionized our lives and why some people dislike or distrust it. What are our views on computer-generated images?”
Urging that students address both “high” and “low” forms of art with equal intensity, Brown Univer-sity semiotician Robert Scholes makes much the same point. “I imagine a music course beginning with students’ own passionate concern over the virtues of various kinds of popular music, looking first at specific musical texts and then move toward a disciplined command of musicology,” he wrote to the Annenberg arts forum. “The arts can help students understand aspects of culture that really matter to them now, and expand the range of things that may matter to them in the future. All students will ultimately become consumers-and to some degree producers-of culture. The goal of schooling should be to make them more critical consumers and more creative producers.”
A Matter of Community
Finally, many educators argue, the arts foster a vigorous sense of collaboration, equity, and community. Artists and performers come together with students, as mentors and as participants in reflection. Musicians, dancers, and actors work in sustained groups toward common goals. Students and professionals express themselves in ways that reflect their diverse cultures and perspectives. The arts make the outsider visible, give the minority a voice, refuse the tyranny of the norm, speak people’s unspoken dreams. They honor heterogeneity; they break down barriers.
Partnerships between schools and the arts community have flourished in recent years, both on the local level and through electronic networks. (See helpful resources) At Satellite Academy, for instance, Liz Ander-son’s Visual Thinking students work closely with artists, museum curators, and gallery professionals. Artists come into the school, and students also visit galleries, museums, and studios. “Students experience all kinds of contemporary art, write about their experiences, and share their observations,” Anderson says; then they curate a show of their own at a participating gallery-interviewing the artists, selecting the works, and hanging them with the artists.
Such arts partnerships work best when the partners work as a team from the start, setting clear goals that meet the students’ needs and the school’s objectives, writes Michelle Audet in a College Board working paper on the arts in the high school curriculum. Maintaining both the integrity of the art form and the pedagogy of the related discipline is also a critical factor. Finally, teachers need the chance to extend beyond themselves in exploring art forms, while participating artists should reflect “the best attributes of the creative process,” the report notes. “Both teams of players must inform each other and learn each other’s languages . . . a process that will change them both for the better.”
The business community has also proved an important arts advocate in many communities. In its pragmatic and utilitarian view, the arts are both a good way to keep disaffected kids in school and a fertile training ground for the kind of creativity and leadership that industry rewards. The president of a major software company recently told U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley that he favored music majors over math and science graduates when making hiring decisions, because they “catch on the quickest.” And in its report “Arts Education for the 21st Century,” the American Council for the Arts argues that the global economy depends on “teamwork, design, innovation, communication, thinking critically, developing discipline, and the role of effort, hard work.”
The Generalist and the Arts
Given all this, why do so many schools have trouble keeping the arts as a major player in their reform plans, let alone at center stage? Money and time, not surprisingly, prove the stumbling blocks; and innovative schools often step outside conventional school structures for solutions.
Teachers’ willingness to learn outside their area of expertise, for instance, can make possible a richly integrated experience. Ted Graf’s humanities students at Heathwood Hall in Columbia, South Carolina use Hyperstudio software in a research project to make connections among a piece of visual art, a novel, a poem, or an excerpt of music in a certain historical period. And at the Francis W. Parker School in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, students used “The Great Migration” series by painter Jacob Lawrence in a major research project exploring the question, “How do communities deal with difference?”
The Lawrence series prompted not only artistic and historical analysis and interpretation but also artistic production; each student painted a three-panel series telling a story about a community they had indiv-idually researched, as well as writing an “artist’s statement.” Most of the teachers leading this unit had never taught the visual arts, but Parker’s art teacher, Suzy Becker, coached them on the vocabulary and concepts they and their students would need, and they jointly developed artistic as well as academic assessment rubrics. (See below)
“Less is more” applies in the arts just as in the rest of the curriculum, Essential schools are finding. Rather than studying all the art forms in a superficial way, Howard Gardner of Project Zero suggests, students should become well versed in one, whether it be visual arts, music, dance, or drama. At the same time, curriculum should honor the deep knowledge essential to artistic disciplines-by organizing learning around long-term projects, and by revisiting core concepts and recurrent problems at various developmental levels.
Though production alone will not suffice, Gardner adds, experiences that involve art history, perception, and criticism should if possible begin with the child’s own art works-nurturing the kind of “deep knowledge” that comes from “thinking” in an artistic medium.
Good teachers have this ability already; they need only extend it. Just as the artist does, the generalist teacher wonders and questions, collaborates with others, discovers and communicates meaning, transforms and reflects on experience. “No curriculum teaches itself,” Stanford’s Elliot Eisner reminds us. “It must always be mediated. . . . This process of mediation, at its best, is an artistic activity. We call it teaching.”