Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Power of the Arts

Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money.  -Ernst Levy

Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. -Kurt Vonnegut

The arts are so important to have in education, yet they're the first thing to go in this testing-heavy environment. By phasing the arts out of schools, we are doing a huge disservice to our students. Arts are not a luxury, but a necessity, and as it turns out, correlated strongly with success. Working at an arts-integrated elementary school has only helped fuel my belief in the necessity of the arts.

While I'm sure I could find some other articles to back me up, I'm going to use my personal experience. While numbers go a long way, I think that they are also, to some extent, impersonal. But if you make an issue personal, and put a face to it, I think it goes a lot longer sometimes. It's easy in the abstract to understand there are all sorts of injustices going on in the world, and go about your daily life. It's a lot harder when you can relate to it yourself. So that's what I'm going to do. I think that the arts are not just necessary to keep for low-income students or minority students or what have you, I think the arts are important for EVERYONE.

Take me, for example--I can't imagine my life without art. Growing up, my mom made me create any birthday or thank you card by hand, so for every occasion, I had a little art project to complete. In elementary school, I participated in a couple of theater camps, and had a blast. I love musicals. Most of the more memorable school projects-from elementary school through high school--were the creative projects. From videos about recycling, to creating my own "Brown Bear" book, those are also the projects I hang on to all these years later. Looking back at old notebooks, I doodled like crazy during class--to keep me focussed, or awake, or simply just to keep the boredom from setting in. But I feel like it says something that a lot of kids doodle on their schoolwork.

 In college I was almost an art major. Ended up in psychology, but got so much from the art classes I took. Not only that, but art balanced out my schedule. I felt like my art classes were, in some ways a way to use my brain in a different capacity. It wasn't by any means a break--they were challenging, time consuming courses, but it there was definitely a different feeling when I finished a 2 hour stint in the dark room, versus finishing a big problem set. Throughout college I had fun "borrowing" mugs from the dining hall and drawing on them in sharpie, and then giving them to people because they asked me to. I was also the go-to for various costume tattoos, as well as actual mock-ups of potential tattoos. Apparently I'm good at time consuming activities with lots of details.

My first college art course was observational drawing, the prerequisite for basically any other art class. So many people complained that oh, they would take this or that class if only they didn't have to take observational drawing. And to that I say, there was a damn good reason to take observational drawing before a class like photo. On the first day the professor gave a little lecture about how this course would change the way I look at the world. And I was like, pffffft. Yeah right. But you know what? He was right. I totally see the world differently now--I notice a lot more, and am a lot more aware of various details.

So then I started working in an elementary school where arts is its THING. And all my thoughts and feelings about how great the arts are magnified. Arts are a way to look at the world differently. And never underestimate the power of the arts to help teach math, science, english, and really any subject.

I am amazed at students' ability to memorize lyrics. This is why I now know the counting by 10s song, for example. It is nothing more than counting to 100 by 10s, set to a tune, but without that song, those kindergardeners would struggle much more. I remember being with some 4th graders learning the Fifty Nifty United States song and I was thinking, man this isn't that catchy, how does anyone expect kids to remember them all? But, while I can't (I blame the fact that I never learned this song in grade school), they certainly could.

What's more, is at the end of the year we put on an all-school musical. And the students are just SO into it. Each class has their own song and dance number, but somehow, most students know not only every single song in the entire musical, but most of the dances as well. It's pretty amazing. I think it's also a great way to introduce new vocabulary to these students. The teachers who wrote the songs (they're all original), are very clever. They aren't simplistic lyrics for kids, they're entertaining and full of puns and interesting references. The students may not always know what the words mean, but it's a step in the right direction. Having a larger vocabulary can help advance a student in reading and comprehension. Maybe they've never seen a word written down, but when applying their rules for sounding out new words, they will be able to make the jump to figuring out the word if it's one they've heard.

Beyond academics, the arts give a good balance to students who may have some behavior issues. Maybe it stems from some classroom insecurities, and excelling in dance gives them some extra self esteem, but also gives a teacher a way to see the child in a new light. So the arts don't just make life less boring, but can have very tangible, positive results for successful academic endeavors and relationships.

Moral of the story, ART is education disguised as FUN. What more could you want?

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