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?
If 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.