We've all heard stories about struggling students who were falling further and further behind their peers (and whose interest in school was waning along with their grades) until someone, usually a teacher, pushed the right button. And, all of a sudden, those students had a renewed interest in school and in their future success.
For some young people, that “right button” is the arts. Many kids find their motivation and future niche in science, math or English classes, but for others it’s exposure to music, theater, dance or the visual arts that both motivates them and gives them an opportunity to shine. New York City second-grade teacher Jessica Carbone has witnessed profound changes in students who have been exposed to the arts. “I’ve seen shy students come out of their shell and develop a self-confidence that I hadn’t seen before. They start to believe in themselves.” There’s a wealth of research to support assertions that instruction in music and the other arts has a positive impact on everything from brain development and test scores to study habits and a student’s interest in school.... Yet, despite the well-documented value of arts education, many art and music teachers say they are regularly called upon to rationalize their worth, to prove that what they teach is more than a “fun” subject or a frill designed to provide students with a break from their regular classroom routine. This is especially true in the current environment with its emphasis on testing and “core” subjects. “For some reason, there is this underlying element in the arts that makes you feel you have to justify what you’re doing,” says Karla Beck, who teaches choral music and music history at St. James High School in St. James, Minn.... Supporting the teaching and learning of the arts Do we give music and art education too much credit for enhancing academic and social success? Richard Kessler doesn’t think so. Kessler is the executive director of the Center for Arts Education (CAE) in New York City. A recent CAE study shows that the high schools with the most access to —and support for—arts education have the city’s highest graduation rates.... Like other arts education advocates, Kessler believes the arts are essential to developing the whole child. “If we really are concerned about all kids getting a quality, well-rounded education,” then arts education must be part of the equation. Not surprisingly, there are often profound inequities in access to art and music education. While most private schools and suburban schools offer a range of art and music programs, that’s often not true of schools that serve our most disadvantaged youngsters. In those New York City schools with the lowest graduation rates, students have the least opportunity to participate in arts learning, the CAE study shows. A core mission of Kessler’s organization has been to build a “critical mass of schools with quality arts education programs in order to highlight their value and importance and encourage similar programs throughout the New York City public schools,” Kessler says. The Center for Arts Education has collaborated with the United Federation of Teachers’ Teacher Center on a series of arts education professional development conferences. The first, held in mid-November, focused on grades K-5 and the integration of arts across the curriculum. Educators, parents and administrators attending the conference were joined by professionals from the world of dance, theater and music. CAE is committed to “doing more to support the teaching and learning of the arts,” including helping to make sure teachers receive the professional development and in-service training they want and need, says Kessler, who credits the UFT with helping to create CAE almost 20 years ago. “It’s important that we show members how to integrate the arts into their lessons,” says Roberto Benitez from the UFT Teacher Center staff, adding that tighter school budgets are forcing educators to find “creative and innovative ways to teach the arts.”... Carbone, who teaches at P.S. 151 in Brooklyn, was a presenter at the November conference. The UFT member says the integration of arts instruction across the curriculum is a central aspect of the elementary school’s program. And “you don’t need a vast background in the arts or music to incorporate arts into the curriculum.” Students are introduced to advanced vocabulary words through the dialogue and songs they learn in preparing for a play, Carbone says. “And the arts have helped them learn to work cooperatively and to believe in themselves and their talents, which carries over into their classroom performance.” Connecting across the curriculum Arts instruction is often most effective when three or four art forms—such as music, dance and acting—are combined. Scott Leahy, who teaches music and band at Stewart Middle School in Pasco County, Fla., recalls a musical production he helped put together at a county elementary school where he used to teach. The musical was about the Roman Empire, and Leahy and several other classroom teachers used it as a springboard to incorporate lessons about the period into their curriculum.... Currently in her 11th year as a teacher, Beck considers her class a wholistic experience that engages a student’s mind, body and spirit. Kids in her choral music class learn how to read music, receive instruction in good posture and breathing techniques, and gain an appreciation for how music and the other arts feed the spirit.... Beck often has her students sing songs in languages other than English. “My students have learned Spanish, Latin and Hebrew” through the songs they’ve been asked to sing. Keeping kids engaged and in school Several of the educators interviewed for this article say today’s emphasis on testing and test prep often is done at the expense of electives like arts education. Leahy believes this hurts the very kids who benefit most from music and art—students who are struggling academically and need both the outlet and the opportunity to experience success in school that the arts can provide. “Sometimes we don’t look at the big picture when it comes to music and art and how they enhance learning,” he says. Galveston, Texas, English teacher Selena Stair is convinced that many of her students “would have dropped out if they had not had the creative outlet, personal validation and sense of community that come from playing in a band or working on a play.” CAE’s Kessler thinks it will take parents, teachers unions, administrators—and their community and business allies—working together to ensure that arts education continues to play a pivotal role in a child’s public school education. “A big part of what’s been missing is advocacy and public engagement on behalf of arts education,” he says.... By Roger S. Glass.