I have long advocated and promoted the fact that an education that does not include art is incomplete. Not just because art is "fun," or creative, or helps children express themselves, but that it is necessary for student success.
A 2014 STUDY by Plos One shows that exploring art and making art both helps the brain make more neural connections, and that making art showed greater cognitive gains.
Evidence from The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the AEP support the fact that art students are more successful than their non-art involved peers by a significant margin.
Students who take art succeed at higher rates than their peers on tests like the SAT, on average, by 100 points. My own students in 2013 scored 155 points higher than their peers, and were 50% more likely to pass the HSPA! (I have been unable to get more recent results at my district)
Art teachers know, when we grid, measure, and draw—we use geometry. When we make sculptures—we use engineering. When we mix colors—we reveal information about physics. When we create illustrations for stories—we learn about literature. When we review the styles of art from da Vinci to Banksy—we teach history. When we write about art—we strengthen these skills. When we create works of art, we solve complex visual problems in creative ways.
A big portion of the fight is not just educating our students (Which really should be everything) but to also educate our colleagues, administration, and community in terms that THEY understand, terms used outside our subject.
Concrete verifiable information they can hang their hat on and become our advocates. As a community of creative persons it can be hard for us to break out and be proactive when we are so overwhelmed already.
When we talk to "outsiders" about how creative, fun, and full of self-expression our subject is, those same outsiders hear "frivolous." But if instead we tell them that art is about problem solving, divergent thinking processes, making connections within core subjects like math, science, literature, and that our students score significantly higher on important assessments like the SAT, they "get it."
Early Childhood News posted a great article by Carolyn Tomlin In it we can see the concrete benefits of art education explained beautifully:
Art Promotes Creativity
Art Builds Self-Confidence
Art Promotes Group and Individual Learning
Art Teaches Task Analysis like…
- What should we do first?
- What comes next?
- What is the last thing we will do to complete this project?
- Can you think of a simpler way to perform this task?
For art to survive and thrive in our public schools it must do two important things. These are things we have always done, but may have had trouble articulating.
1. Art must connect to the child's life experience or point of view. (Otherwise it's not expressive and therefore not art)
2. Projects must be connected to core content information to reinforce learning and understanding.
We have no problem with the first part, connecting to the child's interest is how the work stays relevant to its maker and sustains interest. It's what makes art "ART." I would argue that follow-along, "cookie cutter" lessons undermine this and diminish the importance of art education to a testing focused, results oriented school environment.
When we do lessons that connect student interest and content in such a way that originality is guaranteed, students learn and succeed at much higher rates. Take these unique birds for instance. We learned about different kinds of birds and how their form and function differ, like chickens and eagles or storks. We then wrote about our own personal interests and how we could create bird forms to mimic this idea of form tied to function. An athletic student might want large legs or wings to show off their skills. A quiet student could make a smaller beak. A show-off might use bright and bold colors while a shy student might tend to use color sparingly. All these factors lead to projects with depth and individuality.
We need to understand that, for better or worse, schools must focus on testing because their funding depends on it. We can either argue about the evils of testing, and bemoan the loss of art for art's sake, or recognize that this change is not a fad, but the reality we must live in.
I do not foresee the pendulum swinging in the other direction. As the corporatization of America continues, success will be more carefully measured and tested, and those that fail to meet the standards that have been set will lose their standing and funding. This is why the second part, connecting to core content is so important. Keep in mind though, we already do.
I should add that when I speak of core content, I AM NOT talking about Common Core. By Core Content, I mean the normally tested subject of language, math, and science. And as I said before, we already do connect to core content.
How do we or can we slip in some core content?
- Take out a prism when talking about light and color.
- Have students write about their ideas.
- Have student post-write about their results.
- Review vocabulary from our elements and principles.
- Do oral and written critiques, or a formal research paper.
- Speak about and explore the history of Leonardo or van Gogh when the lesson's focus turns in that direction.
Again, most of us already do these things, and those that don't can incorporate them very easily. It may mean projects take a bit longer, or you'll do fewer throughout the year, but the added depth, student success, and longevity of your department will be well worth it.
So once you're doing all the right things, how do you get people to notice?
Here are my Grateful Eight suggestions:
1. Find out through your guidance department how your students are doing on testing as compared to the non-art population. If every student takes art, maybe you have an art club or gifted and talented program you can pull data from. I found that my students scored 155 points above the school average on the SAT and 50% were less likely to fail the HSPA exam. This kind of information should be shared with your administration and community to understand the impact art can have.
2. Do at least one project a year that will connect with your local community in some beneficial way. It is this local community that votes for or against budgets, and either supports or does not understand your program. These people will in turn become your advocates. Partnering with a local food bank, community services, or retirement community are some easy low hanging fruit you can pick.
3. Seek out opportunities for press at least once a year. Consider the projects you do, particularly if you do a project that does connect to your community or one where lower grades work with higher grades. I sometimes partner with an impoverished district’s elementary students who create drawings that my high school students "professionally" color in their work. The results are often stunning, and the local press will love to publish an article on such collaborations.
4. Create a teaching display of student work. We often display art in school, but do so in a way that shows your colleagues and administration that you have a core-connected approach. Include vocabulary signs, pre-writing samples from students, as well as post-written critiques. Let it show off the amazing things that you do.
5. Don't "let it slide" when others use terms that diminish your department. I have a blog post about this but terms like Prep, Resource, Exploratory, Enrichment, and Specials diminish the importance of what we do. Push for an acronym like VPA (Visual and Performing Arts) or Humanities. When you let people call you less than what you are, it erodes your own self confidence.
6. Collaborate. Make connections with others in your school, community, and online. Do one project a year with another department. I sought out the biology teacher for her posters of Biomes and we did landscapes based on her resources, vocabulary, and created a wonderful display. She loved that I took the time to seek her out, make connections, and the administration was pleased with my results. This can be done with any subject and will have a lasting impact. As for online connections, the Facebook Art Teacher's forum has about 8000 members and is a wealth of information and resources. You’ll have to be an approved member of the group, but it’s worth the effort!
7. Invite your administration in. When you are doing a particularly connected or impressive project, send fun invitations out to administrators to pop by. Waiting for them to stop in for the perfunctory observation is not enough. These are the people that hold the purse strings on your budget and can be your greatest local advocates or headaches. Make the first move to proactively develop those positive relationships from vice principals all the way up to the superintendant and your Board of Education. They might not always come, but I truly believe your persistence will pay off.
8. Exhibiting within your school good, but so is exhibiting in your community. Participate in your county or state art exhibitions, Youth Art Month, NAEA opportunities, and if there are none, start one. I would also say that the art teacher should also exhibit their personal work and seek out press for these occasions. This raises your own standing publically, and give you some hand's on "me time" that is so valuable.
If you would like to read more about this topic or explore a core connected program I use, please explore this blog. For published resources, visit www.firehousepublications.com. If you find a resource there you like, get 30% off when ordering direct.