Arts Rationale

Arts Rational:

As part of our Lesley University coursework back in 2005 we wrote about our Arts Rational. Seems appropriate to share it here, especially the story about Kianna, a quiet, shy girl in class. There’s a decent bibliography at the back of the paper also.

Arts Rationale

Mr. Harvey, can I be in the drama group?

Kianna was a quiet girl, rarely venturing to answer a question or draw attention to herself in class.  And while her work was rarely exemplary, she certainly wasn’t a problem.  With the multitude of personalities and needs in my class, there was little opportunity to focus on her individual needs.  During the winter quarter it was announced that a parent volunteer would be working on drama with select fifth graders.  Each teacher was asked to submit three names from their class.  Imagine my surprise when Kianna quietly came up to me and asked if she could be in the drama group.  Trying to cover my surprise, I agreed to put her on the list of possible choices without committing to her actually being chosen.

Pondering my choices after school, I reflected on Kianna’s wish.  She never made demands on me or even requested anything for herself.  She was respected and well-liked within the class.  And she had asked me for the chance; it might do her a lot of good.  Kianna would help represent us in the drama group.

Performing skits during Student of the Month assemblies, I watched Kianna’s quiet effervescence in each performance.  She had a lovely presence and grace which was calming and translated well to her characters.  My perception of her in the classroom changed although I don’t think she had changed much.  I saw the quietness as possibly coming from her Native American heritage.  Her talent enriched all of our lives.  Near the end of the year I came upon the autobiographies the students had written back in the first week of school.  When asked what she would like to do when she grew up, she had answered: Actress.

The arts raise challenges to what we take for granted, disclose the extraordinary in the ordinary, and appeal to our capacity for delight and wonder.1

The unique thing about the arts is the special qualities that would remain untouched and unrealized if you had not taken the time to bring them out.  It’s like unwrapping a precious gift in a plain wrapper.  You can’t imagine what special qualities will be revealed based on the wrapping paper.  So, why do we leave so many of our students wrapped up instead of releasing their individual gifts?

Through creating a work of art, a person can explore the complexities of an idea or situation more fully than if they were to read about them or listen to a lecture.  As a tool the arts enable us to cross boundaries that are usually closed to us, or to join together in ways that are new.2

Utilizing the arts you can see value that might not be as obvious when the students are quietly seated in their chairs.  My favorite project every year is the student self-portrait.  While that has an intrinsic value on its own, it gives me a wonderful peek at the inner workings of the individual students in my classroom.  Their personality comes out in a very visual way.  Maria Q was a classmate in my daughter’s second grade class.  Her first grade teacher had warned Mrs. Osborn that Maria would be a handful.   Working in this class as an art docent I was privileged to watch this young girl create a masterful self-portrait.  I had shown the kids how to find the correct proportions for the human face by drawing a vertical and horizontal line on an oval to help with the placement of the facial features.  Most of the students insisted on erasing the lines after the features were added.  But not Maria!  She decorated each of the four quadrants of her face differently.  Each section was colorful and alive though different.  Mrs. Osborn knew Maria was a beautiful spirit in the classroom and brought that spirit out and celebrated it the entire year.  I would suggest her first grade teacher was one of the: “Misguided teachers who constantly tell their students to sit down imply a preference for working with a grove of trees, not a classroom of students.”3

In my own fifth grade class, I photograph each student at the beginning of the year for use on their lockers and bookmarks.  These photographs are saved on the computer for later use as self-portraits.  Using Photoshop Elements 2.0, the students manipulate their portraits through color shifts and special effects.  They never fail to amaze me; like the quiet student who constructs a fractured, bold image on the screen or the class clown who distorts part of his face.  Some student portraits seem troubled or hidden traits mysteriously appear and each image gives me a glimpse into the inner personality well worth pondering.  We celebrate each and every self-portrait for the unique person portrayed.

Through the arts students learn that they can make their own unexceptional beings extraordinary and uncommon.  They can invent a broader universe in which they can see new dimensions and create their own visions of the world as it was, is, and might be.  By using their imagination, students begin to realize that they can make themselves and their world what they envision.4

Is getting to know the individual student justification enough for the inclusion of the arts in the curriculum or do we as educators have to look for more valid and substantial reasons?  In this climate of standardized test scores and federal mandates can we afford the luxury of drama and painting?  Can’t the kinesthetic learner play football after school with his buddies instead of wasting valuable instruction time on kinesthetic education that would be better spent focused on reading and math skills?  In New York City:

a group of struggling inner-city elementary schools that raised their standardized test scores dramatically and got off the city’s academic “probation” list…actually increased their arts programming. These successful schools, the report said, were distinguished by “a strong arts program that was infused through the instructional program and that included most of the students in the school.”5

Examples like these successful programs lead us believe that, in their best interests, schools should advocate for the arts in the classroom.

“Evidence from the brain sciences and evolutionary psychology increasingly suggests that the arts (along with such functions as language and math) play an important role in brain development and maintenance – so it’s a serious matter for schools to deny children direct curricular access to the arts.”6

Referring back to the metaphorical grove of trees, it is unrealistic to expect students to sit in a sterile environment devoid of visual, verbal, or kinesthetic stimulation.  Gardner’s work with multiple intelligences indicates individuals learn using a complex web of styles and the classroom should reflect this.  And while every student can create an illustration for their novel study or move to a piece of classical music; equally, every child will use a different pathway to arrive at the painting or dance.  It is not enough to teach math to the logical student in a way that fits that student but we must look for alternate ways to reach the musical and interpersonal as well.  The naturalist student might readily relate to a natural science unit but it is equally important for the visual and intrapersonal learner to grasp the concepts.  The arts enable all children, regardless of their differences, to participate fully in the process of education.7 The arts allow the child, no matter which multiple intelligence, to develop their own pathway to learning and construct a mental concept that fits their understanding of the world.

Once the child begins to make personal connections to their learning, they will become more self-motivated.  A self-motivated learner seeks opportunities to expand their understanding of the world.  The teacher becomes less important as a vessel of knowledge and becomes more a facilitator of personal exploration.  This may be the strongest argument for the arts.  Through exploring the arts, children develop a personal knowledge base and develop processing skills that stimulate them as the primary source of learning.  The process becomes internalized and empowering.  As the child becomes empowered, they will seek understanding through their own multi-intelligence style.  This strengthens the learning connection and a student who makes personal connections to the learning will drink deeply from the well.

When we involve students in creative problem solving, we invite their participation as partners in the learning process.  Instead of being told what to think, the arts require students to sort out their own reactions and articulate them through the medium at hand.8

It is important to address multicultural issues also.  Today’s classroom is becoming increasingly diverse.  My current class has students from Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Samoa.  The ethnicity of the class is: 29.6 % (8) are Caucasian, 29.6% (8) African-American, 22.2% (6) Asian, 14.8% (4) Hispanic and 3.7% (1) Native American.  Within our school, 68.5% of our children are on free/reduced lunch.  Each student comes to school with specific needs which must be addressed.  Art education from a multi-cultural viewpoint is an effective way to address many of these needs.

Springs9 talks about four goals of any multicultural education.  The first goal is to build tolerance toward other cultures.  The second goal works toward eliminating racism while the third goal tries to teach the content of different cultures.  Finally, the fourth goal of multicultural education is to teach a global perspective by having students look at the world from a different cultural frame of reference.  Art can easily accommodate each of these goals in a visual, stimulating, and meaningful way.

By acknowledging another culture and studying its art, we build tolerance toward that culture.  The celebration approach is a good starting point for any investigation into another culture and fulfills the first goal but it certainly needs to go further.  To help eliminate racism and gain the second goal, the student needs to put the other culture’s contribution in perspective.  There are many examples where western art advanced only through the direct influence of another culture’s art.  Western art builds on the ideas of others.  But this argument still maintains a western perspective.  Our third goal is to teach the content of different cultures.  What better way of doing this than through their arts.  In today’s political climate, visual arts are under attack because many times it reflects exactly what is occurring in contemporary society.  By teaching another culture’s art through the perspective of that culture’s eyes, we see more clearly why the art was created in the first place.  This leads to our fourth goal of viewing the world from a differing frame of reference.

Using different cultural frames of reference enable the viewer to see the artwork the way the cultural artist intended.  Consider the northwest coastal Indian’s use of materials gathered from the region: the hematite ores for the red paints and the cedar mask carved directly into the living tree so that the spirit of the tree will live on in the mask.  Alternately, the Japanese reverence for their landscape suggests a companionship with the countryside, the environment they live in, beliefs about nature and science, and what they value as a culture.  These two examples are in sharp contrast to the exploitation of the natural resources that was the driving force for much of the westward movement in the United States during the 1880’s.  Native American culture can contribute to our understanding of nature and help offset the damage caused by exploitation of American resources.  Through multiculturalism, students gain the understanding and benefits of various cultural viewpoints.

Using the above discussion as a basis, I want to develop a thematic unit based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It (AYLI).  Tacoma Actors Guild is performing The Curate Shakespeare As You Like It.  My class will be attending a student matinee on April 29th.  To prepare for our visit, we will be studying the basic plot of AYLI, practice fluency using reader’s theater scripts, and learn about the Bard’s life and times.  One of my rationales for studying Shakespeare, aside from my love of the subject, is to give my students a positive experience with Shakespeare before they are forced to study it in high school.  The all-to-common experience of high school students forced to read and study Shakespeare and being “turned-off” by the experience will not be true for my students.   If I can bring the Bard alive at a young enough age and allow my students the experience of live theater the way Shakespeare was meant to be viewed then I will have given my students a powerful, enlightening awareness.

In addition to the wonderfully-diverse ethnicity within my Tacoma School District class, my fifth graders span the ages of 10-13 years and exhibit reading levels from 2.8-10.4 GE (Gates-MacGinitie).  Based on the Multiple Intelligence Profile I administered to my students, they are kinesthetic, social, and visual learners.  One of the least represented styles was linguistic learner.  This unit will have to rely heavily on the arts since: By exercising their imaginations through subject matter-related artwork, children are more likely to make new connections and transcend previous limitations.10

The first lesson I would like to focus on is Jaques’ soliloquy beginning with “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”.  He continues on and describes the seven stages man must go through: the infant “mewing and puking”, the whining schoolboy, lovers “sighing like furnaces”, soldiers seeking fame, judges seeking bribes, elderly “leaned and slippered”, and finally the feeble “sans teeth”.  We would begin by studying the twenty-seven lines and discussing their meaning.  Sequencing is a valuable reading skill and would be our primary focus.  Next we would move to an open area and use our creative movement to choreograph the sequence of the seven stages.  Small groups would create their own interpretations and perform to the other groups (Lesson #1).

We would then return to our tables and recreate the seven stages visually.  My first preference would be for the students to pull images off the web and paste them onto a sequenced storyboard but the filters on the computers at school will preclude that happening.  Two reasonable options would be to create a page of multiple images the students could copy directly off of (Lesson #2 and attachments) or cut and paste from magazines.  It might be fun to use animal images instead of human, this way we could make more connections.  For the infant, a student could select a baby orangutan and for the soldier a rhinoceros.  Students would share their reasons for their choices and strengthen each of our understanding of the task.

Finally, we would return to the actual text and perform Reader’s Theater with movement.  Students would be practicing fluency and comprehension through repeated reading for their performance.  Reading passages from Shakespeare, students would be performing at a higher reading level than they have ever attempted while thinking of it as practicing for a play.  Additionally, each small group would have their own interpretation of the seven stages so students would continue to make higher level thinking connections.  Multiple intelligences most directly used include: linguistic, visual, kinesthetic, and logical (sequencing).  Extensions could include a discussion of Jaques’ pessimism and what the optimistic outlook might be.

The second unit I want to focus on deals with poetry.  The students have already written a poem for the Valentine’s Poetry Book we published and sold in our student store.  Since much of AYLI takes place in the idyllic Forest of Arden, teaching haikus would make a strong connection.  We can learn from nature according to the lines:Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.  After exploring the haiku form in the classroom, we would venture out to a local park and look for material to write about (Lesson #3).  While this is primarily a writing task, the connections help exhibit a student’s expanded, comprehension skill.

Next we would pull out a Word Machine (original idea came from an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Glass).  Words taken directly from the script are dumped into our word machine generator.  When a student shakes the basket, words fall out below.  The pupil collects 20-30 words and returns to their seat where they compose an original poem using only the words collected.  These can then be pasted on small display boards and decorated to make torn paper collages.  The student has now made an original, illustrated poem based on the writings of William Shakespeare.  An extension of this unit would be to then take key parts of the play, use poetry to summarize the plot, and create an illustrated class book of AYLI.  Multiple intelligences focused on include:  linguistic, visual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

A third unit of study would be a multicultural study of mistaken identity stories.  In AYLI, Rosalind dresses up as the boy Ganymede and gets Orlando to woo him/her since Orlando can not be with his fair Rosalind.  By studying multicultural stories, we can get several examples of characters in disguise or magically transformed.  There is a wealth of Cinderella stories from around the world.  After studying a number of tales, students would be required to research stories from their own ethnic group and compose an original “mistaken identity” story.  These stories could be performed by small groups with creative movement.  While the emphasis is on multicultural studies, multiple intelligences featured include: linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.

An artless school is an impoverished place reflecting a set of values that bodes ill for our society.11   Students are being asked to perform at ever increasing levels on assessments like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and teachers are required to make sure “No Child is Left Behind”.  As state budgets become tighter, funding for anything not considered essential comes under the microscope.  And yet we see examples of the New York school that increased standardized test scores and got off “probation” status by promoting the arts.  We, as a society, must make the decision about what we value.  And the evidence shows that an integrated arts curriculum does promote the deeper understanding and connections that prepare our students to live in the modern world.  An academic, aesthetic, creative, and social learning environment is one way to equip our students for the challenges they will face in the complex cultural mosaic that will be their future.12

On a personal level, the arts are stimulating and inject energy in my class.  They also help me look at individual needs and focus on every student as a separate individual instead of as a composite “student”.   Monday after our first weekend, I administered the MI profile to my students to gain some insight into their learning styles.  It helped reinforce the perspective that this is a social group that needs to move around.

The arrival of my Brian Somers’ painting and the beginning of the program created a nice connection also.  I had commissioned a painting by a local artist after he visited my class last spring.  The only requirement was that it had to have some connection to my students.  Receiving the finished piece and beginning my Lesley studies almost simultaneously, helps me validate the idea for an art unit which will integrate mathematics, visual studies, poetry, movement, and autobiography.  We are progressing through it now.

I felt like I personally grew in this course.  My Where I’m From poem entitled Snapshotswas deeply introspective and personal to me.  And watching the emotions of fellow students reading their poems, I believe their poems were very personal to each one of us.  And the wonder and excitement of our fill the page with color poems was empowering; a feature of so many of the activities in the arts.

Finally, it was great working with a group of educators who share an interest in the arts.  We need the support of a community of learners and individual schools are a combination of curriculum, special needs, and differing personalities that do not always reinforce the arts.  In the current political climate, the focus is often on test scores, reading levels, and discipline plans.  We sometimes forget the beauty of learning and investigation, how the process is sometimes more important than the outcome, and how students are special entities capable of so much more than simple math facts.  The arts provide this.

The sound of the drum and didgeridoo reverberating up the stairs, Ted and Bill’s Excellent Adventure, discovering the four elements in a painting none of us particularly liked, these are memories which will help me become a better teacher.

In conclusion, the best schools have the best arts programs.13 And we want what is best for our children.


1. Powell, Mary Clare (1997). The Arts and the Inner Lives of Teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 61:1, Ed: February, 450-453.

Powell makes the argument for the value of arts as a process.  Education should not be about just learning “things” but inspiring from within. There is power in the process.

2. Goldberg, Merryl (1997). Arts and Knowledge. Arts and Learning: An Integrated Approach to Teaching and Learning in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings, Goldberg, Merryl, 75:6, 2-22, Allyn & Bacon.

Goldberg writes about poetry as personal connection to learning and the process of learning through the arts.  The mirror metaphor and “art is a mirror of reality” have application in my teaching.  Discussion of multicultural education encourages and empowers through the arts.

3. Sylvester, Robert (1998). Art for the Brain Sake. Emotional Leadership, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 56:3, 31-35.

Sylvester makes a strong argument using brain development for the need for the arts.  Human motor and sensory systems need the interconnectiveness of art.  There are critical stages of development within the brain that help a student develop intellectually and emotionally.

4. Fowler, Charles (1996). Strong Arts, Strong Schools. Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential, Fowler, Charles, 46-56, Oxford University Press (US).

Fowler makes the strong justification for arts in the school.  He talks about student learning, involvement, and personal commitment. “The arts provide a more comprehensive and insightful education…” Schools should be about critical thinking and creative problem solving not the same solution.

5. Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde A. (1998).  Best Practices: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools, 161. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Best practices in visual art, music, dance, and theater. Just creating standards for the new arts curriculum will not work. Cites example of struggling school who raised test scores by integrating the arts. They then describe very systematically the most effective ways art can and should be used in schools.

6. Sylvester, Robert (1998) Art for the Brain Sake. Emotional Leadership, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 56:3, 32.

See reference number three above.

7. Geoghegan, Wendy (1994). Re-Placing the Arts in Education. Phi Delta Kappan, 75:6, 456-8.

Geoghegan article was compact and full of great ideas. Our classrooms are becoming more diverse and the needs therein are increasing. Teachers need to create a stimulating, social environment where diverse students want to learn and share from each other. It sounds like a student centered classroom.

8. Fowler, Charles (1996) Strong Arts, Strong Schools. Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential, Fowler, Charles, 46-56, Oxford University Press (US).

See reference number four above.

9. Springs, Joel (1998). American Education. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Springs writes about historical changes to schools. The part I found most challenging is the need for a multicultural education and what form that takes. If we truly believe in a multicultural approach, it’s not enough to just show some heroes from another culture.  The commitment must be true and deep. (This takes time and arts are the best way to go – personal editorial.)

10. Goldberg, Merryl  (1997) Arts and Knowledge. Arts and Learning: An Integrated Approach to Teaching and Learning in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings, Goldberg, Merryl, 75:6, 2-22, Allyn & Bacon.

See reference number two above.

11. Eisner, Elliot (1987) Why the Arts Are Basic. Instructor’s 3R’s, 34-35, Scholastic, Inc.

Eisner says the arts free up the mind from rigid thinking and helps students think in meaningful ways and creative problem solving.

12. Geoghegan, Wendy (1994) Re-Placing the Arts in Education. Phi Delta Kappan, 75:6, 456-8.

See reference number seven above.

13. Fowler, Charles (1996) Strong Arts, Strong Schools. Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential, Fowler, Charles, 46-56, Oxford University Press (US).

See reference number four above.


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