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Leading Arts Education - Say What You Mean & Mean What You Say

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Artsamatter

This blog post has been surprisingly difficult for me to write. I have wanted to write it for a long while, but every time I started, my thoughts wandered all over the page. I found myself becoming defensive, grasping at straws for evidence to support my position that the arts are essential to every child’s education because ___________.

You fill in the blank. How would you fill in the blank?

artssIf you and I were ever to meet at a conference or other venue in the future, and if you were to ask me about this post, you should be prepared for an ear full. I cannot promise any of what I might say to you is rational. I am passionate about arts education. Some of my colleagues have noted that I sometimes get angry or overly boisterous when I talk about this subject. Do I have a chip on my shoulder about how we often justify arts education in schools? Maybe. I am a musician and former music teacher, and I am married to an opera singer, so the topic hits very close to home. I’m not sure that I would call it a chip, but something IS there. It feels more like disappointment. Or, maybe it is a regret that as a musician and as a leader in education I have not been more vocal about what I think. Maybe I am disappointed that I have not meant what I said and I have not said what I meant.

The feeling is not unlike a disappointment I experienced as a teenager over a Psalm we sang weekly in my church to conclude worship. My parents were (and still are) members of a small conservative protestant church that practices Exclusive Psalmody during worship – the singing of Psalms from the Bible in four-part vocal harmony without musical accompaniment. In many ways, this practice strengthened my love for music and made me a better musician, training my ear to listen to worshipers around me and to join them in harmony and praise. The sound of the congregation singing acapella boldly in four-part harmony was simply awesome. From a young age, I developed a keen appreciation for God’s craftsmanship in building human vocal mechanisms that could in one unified breath praise God with such a beautiful and convicted sound. (An example of Psalm singing can be found HERE.arts)

The Psalm in question was Psalm 150:

As school leaders, we must mean what we say and say what we mean in all things, including in our leadership of arts education. If we are charged to ultimately prepare students for college, careers, and life, what role should arts education play in that purpose? I think this is where some school leaders, myself included, find themselves in tricky spots. Our words say, “I support Arts Education”, but do we really mean something else? Here are a few ways the arts are included in public education and my humble opinions about each:

Arts education supports student achievement. It is true, kids who participate in arts programs are better collaborators, problem-solvers, and creative thinkers. No discipline deemed school-worthy as a subject for study should be diminished and valued only to the extent that it enhances learning in other subjects. School leaders mean well when they defend the funding for arts education by arguing that it raises math achievement as measured by standardized testing. That argument is really a double-edged sword, because the message it subtly sends is that reaching some level of proficiency in the arts is only as valuable in life as it is in supporting other endeavors outside of the arts. I would hope that school leaders don’t really believe that. We have to say what we mean, and mean what we say.

The Arts in STEAM. I am going to be honest. As a music teacher, adding the “A” to STEM has always felt to me like a consolation prize, and this is probably because I am overly sensitive to having had to repeatedly defend the existence of my music program. But, if you look at the purpose of STEM – to give students exposure and learning related to the problem-solving required in present and future STEM careers – where exactly do the arts fit? Are STEAM proponents saying that arts programming in STEAM schools are focused on student learning related to problem-solving in arts careers? If the answer is ‘yes’, then I am all in. But, if the answer to that question is that arts provide an opportunity to develop the CREATIVITY needed in STEM careers, then I believe we are right back to defining the value of arts education by how well it supports learning in other disciplines. When we label a program “STEAM”, then we have to say what we mean, and mean what we say.

Arts Integration. I believe arts integration is a valid and real-world venue for providing students a very strong relevant arts learning and application school experience. And, this is particularly true in the successful integration of the arts in Problem / Project / Passion Based Learning. The one word of caution I will offer here is to be careful not to make superficial connections when integrating the arts with other disciplines. My first teaching job was in an arts integrated school. I remember a 6th grade unit I planned with my colleagues in that arts integrated school that was focused on Egyptian history. During the planning process, one of the social studies teachers suggested that I teach the students “Walk Like an Egyptian” as the integrated music portion of the unit. It was difficult to find a music learning standard that this pop song would meaningfully address. But, I was a new teacher, so I moved forward with the suggestion – one of my biggest regrets as a teacher. A solid stab at arts integration will ensure that learning standards from all disciplines represented in the unit are meaningfully addressed. When we plan for arts integration, then we have to say what we mean, and mean what we say.

Arts for Arts-sake. I am a purist. It is undeniably true that kids who participate in the arts are confident, good communicators, risk-takers, and they develop all of the other soft-skills we are shooting for them to develop. But, more importantly, kids who participate in the arts are ARTISTS, and that should be enough. The only way for me as a school leader to say what I mean and mean what I say is to argue that arts education is essential for a well-rounded public education, and it is so on its own merits without justification. Art is as much a part of me as is love, hate, desire, loathing, and everything else uniquely human. I believe that is so for all of us. The arts are not separate from life; they are life. God, as the master builder and master artisan created the world, and the world around us is a spectacular museum of his work. In that sense, art is life itself. The arts and our desire to be instruments for the artistic endeavor is a precious gift from God that allows us to experience life to the fullest, and in doing so, to experience a small glimpse of who our God Master Artisan is:

The spacious heavens declare the glory of our God. The firmament displays His handiwork abroad. - Psalm 19

What do you believe to be the purpose of the arts in life? And, to what extent is it the responsibility of public education to help students realize that purpose? Once you have decided upon your answers to those two questions, mean what you say and say what you mean in your leadership of arts education in your school.

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Jim Detwiler is the Assistant Superintendent for Learning Support Services in the Boone County Schools, Kentucky. He is a former elementary school principal and music teacher, and frequent Magic Bean Buyer. Jim promotes developing students' 21st century skills through engaging project based learning and innovative teaching & learning. He is often heard telling students, #GoMakeStuff! He holds an EdD in Education Leadership with interests in parent engagement and effective teacher dispositions. Jim is most happy when he is with his beautiful wife and two children lost in Orte, Italy. He is a 2014 Bammy Award Nominee and a 2014 Kentucky PTA Outstanding Educator. Follow Jim's school district on Twitter using #Boone2020.  Two fun facts about Jim: He walked a tightrope in his High School production of "Barnum", and he enjoyed 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame when he and friend Chad made the viral YouTube video "Snowhemian Rhapsody" Nutty School Closing. Contact Jim on Twitter @JimDetwiler1 and on Voxer at jdetwi691.

  • Gail Multop @gailmult
    Gail Multop @gailmult Friday, 22 January 2016

    Jim, I totally adore this post because these questions have been on my mind for years. I am a former opera singer, now retired, and a professor of early childhood education. Saying that the arts are for enriching other content areas just kills me. It does. And using superficial, jokey types of arts additions to units (walk like an Egyptian--reminding me of Steve Martin's old act about King Tut) demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the arts mean for any and every culture. Thanks for writing this.

  • Emily Caruso Parnell | @teachontheverge
    Emily Caruso Parnell | @teachontheverge Friday, 22 January 2016

    Bravo! Truly... very well said.

  • Guest
    Jon Harper Friday, 22 January 2016

    Jim your passion shines through in this piece. I am always amazed at how much of our lives outside of the school building have to do with the arts and yet we spend so little time inside the school building fostering and nourishing this talent. Where do we think it comes from? I shudder to think of all the artists we have lost over the years to worksheets and multiple choice tests.

  • Guest
    Judy Sceifres Saturday, 23 January 2016

    The Arts both express and produce: joy, self-actualization, personal fulfillment, challenges of the mind and spirit, growth in knowledge and spirit, a sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, self-respect, comradery, friendships, a tangible or temporal product, and can lead to careers in the Arts. They are the stuff that keeps some kids coming to school and trying. Isn't that enough to justify the Arts in Education?

  • Guest
    Julie Harwood Sunday, 24 January 2016

    My arts education brought me through the darkest times of my life. I was not very confident, I was a mediocre student, I was terrified of public speaking, I was not athletically inclined and I was socially awkward with my peers. I loved to draw and read and figure out puzzles. These were my only passions. Something clicked in my mind in 8th grade, the drawing what you meant to draw puzzle and it made sense. I had something that I not only loved but was good at. I was so very lucky to go to a high school that offered drawing, painting, graphic design, ceramics, sculpture and art metals. I showed up to school for these classes. I kept my grades up and moved through my studies quickly because of my art classes. I went to college and got my masters degree because of the passion I had for art. My Art brought me to teaching or maybe I should say facilitating. A passion I dodnt know that I had. From little people to big kids now.
    I do think that all of these points need to be addressed. We are standing on the precipice that the arts stand on every time New adminstrations move into power where we feel the need to justify The Arts existence in times of tight budgets. As a society we've forgotten what the arts mean to us as a culture. The Arts encompass all things, but the integration needs to be as natural and intentional, not forced or faked, I've been there, justifying and forcing. We need to allow for open time in Our curriculum and Our life to play and create. Our children and our society need to be able to exist in an area of creative freedom to be able to explore our own natures.

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Guest Sunday, 11 December 2016