Art and Music Learning Emphasize Interactivity, Real-World Relevance

Digital tools seen as key to engaging students

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Melissa Flores, a senior in Matt Cauthron’s art class, recently got a taste of what it might be like to shoot photographs for a living.

Mr. Cauthron, who teaches at the Digital Arts Technology Academy at the 2,800-student Cathedral City High School, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, hooked his students up with a local skateboarding shop to create a photo session.

“That kind of fashion shooting was really practical for me,” said Ms. Flores, “because I went on to shoot fashion week,” an annual professional event in El Paseo, Calif., that showcases fashion from the region. “I got to see what it was like to be a professional photographer.”

That kind of project, which uses technology to connect students with real-world situations and prepare them for careers in art and graphic design, is typical of the program, says Mr. Cauthron. And it is one of many examples of how schools across the country are integrating digital technologies into arts and music education to make it more engaging, interactive, and relevant in today’s high-tech world.

Jockel Suarez, a senior at the Digital Arts Technology Academy, entered art from a more traditional background in drawing and painting, but is now exploring technology to create digital art, as well as pursue his passion: music and audio production.

He uses the software GarageBand to record the tracks he works on.

“I like to work with making different music and different beats,” he said. “At first, it was kind of confusing, ... but when I played around with it for a while, I got to know what I like and what I didn’t.”

Similarly, when Mr. Suarez began transitioning from a paintbrush and paint to digital forms of visual art, it took some time to get adjusted.

“But you can do way more on a computer than you can do on a regular canvas,” he said.

His classmate, Jayke Stump, agrees. Mr. Stump has always had a gift for drawing, but in the last couple of years, he’s shifted from paper and pencil to a digital tablet.

“You can just do so much more than what you can [with paper and pencil],” he said. Drawings are easier to manipulate and change, he points out, and it’s easier to undo mistakes.

Photo Gallery

In visual arts education, teachers are using technology to connect students with a wider audience and distribute their finished products globally; they’re teaching them the tools they need to know for an arts-related career; and they’re encouraging them to reflect on the creation process.

In music education, fostering a technology-rich environment can help spread interest in the subject to a wider student population and allow students to become composers almost immediately, regardless of their knowledge of musical literacy and theory.

But for both the subject areas, finding the money to establish and maintain a technology-rich learning environment, as well as the professional development needed to implement the tools successfully, can be a major roadblock for teachers.

‘Visual Effects’

Mr. Cauthron’s students recently completed a project called Pandora’s Box, in which high schoolers met up with two 3rd grade classrooms to teach the younger students the Greek myth of Pandora. The 3rd graders drew pictures representing the myth and then turned them into watercolor paintings.

Next, the high schoolers took the paintings and re-created them with costumes and digital photography, which was then woven into a video with narration from the 3rd graders.

“I thought it was really neat that the different students [at the high school] made their own work from someone else’s work,” said Caroline Parra, an 11th grader in Mr. Cauthron’s class.

“And when it all started coming together, it looked amazing.”

Artwork created by Aubrey Arneson in Kevan Nitzberg’s class at Anoka High School. Digital tools are being used in classrooms to create art, music, and films.
Artwork created by Aubrey Arneson in Kevan Nitzberg’s class at Anoka High School. Digital tools are being used in classrooms to create art, music, and films.
—Aubrey Arneson/Education Week

Eileen Heilsnis is a senior at Apex High School in North Carolina who will be moving on to the Savannah College of Art and Design next school year.

She began exploring digital art when she received a digital drawing tablet in 9th grade.

“Since then, I’ve been drawing in Photoshop and exploring other aspects of digital art, such as creating models, manipulating photographs, and visual effects,” she said.

Ms. Heilsnis says she enjoys creating digital art that looks like a photograph but is actually a “digital painting.”

“I aim for realism,” she said. “If I can fool the viewer, then I’ve done my job as a digital artist.”

However, having computers that can support the software she needs to edit images so carefully can be a challenge, Ms. Heilsnis says. “The school computers are severely limited to what they can do,” she said, because of their limited processing power as well as the space available on the school network to save large files.

Ian Sands, Ms. Heilsnis’ teacher at the 2,300-student Apex High, often uses technology in his classes, but has learned over the years that although it is important for students to know how to use certain technologies, it’s more critical to teach concepts vs. specific tools because the tools become outdated so quickly that the instruction can become irrelevant.

The Tools They Use

Joy Schultz, the fine-arts director for the upper school at the 683-student Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, Ark., works in a 1-to-1 laptop-computer environment with her students.

All of her students photograph their work, which allows Ms. Schultz to evaluate it outside of class time and lets parents and the community keep tabs on what is going on in her classes.

“I feel it takes the classroom walls down and takes those barriers away,” she said. “I want them to know that art is not just in my four walls.”

She also encourages her students to give feedback on their peers’ online galleries.

And the Internet helps connect her to other art teachers.

“We are all so disconnected, and I don’t have another colleague that I can go to [for help or advice],” Ms. Schultz said. Teacher blogs and social-networking sites, like the Art Education 2.0 Ning, can help fill that void.

At the 2,400-student Anoka High School in Minnesota, teacher Kevan Nitzberg incorporates technology into all of his art classes.

Students there develop PowerPoints of their artwork, digitize it, and print and manipulate it using digital tools. They then create digital videos featuring their work in a combined traditional art studio and computer lab environment.

“My students get to create and explore new combinations of skills and techniques that continue to expand the definition of the art-making experience,” Mr. Nitzberg said. “As technology has become a significant part of how we define our time, ... the available tools that we now have for creating artwork are essential for students to be able to learn how to effectively use.”

‘Creative and Wonderful’

Cris Guenter, a professor and the graduate-programs coordinator for the department of education at California State University, Chico, says that technology is a powerful force in both visual and music arts education.

“It’s a very strong intersection where many creative and wonderful things can happen, both at the teaching level and the student-learning level,” she said. “At the same time, the basic principles and elements that give the arts their strength and their anchor all still hold true.”

Incorporating technology when it is appropriate and meaningful is an important part of using it effectively, Ms. Guenter says.

In addition, schools need to make sure they provide funding for teacher training, not just the hardware needed to equip art and music labs.

“Funding is always the drawback,” said James Frankel, the managing director of the Melville, N.Y.-based SoundTree, which is the educational division of Korg USA, a company that makes keyboards and other digital music tools.

Starting a music technology lab at a school can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, said Mr. Frankel.

A typical music technology lab will consist of about 15 to 20 stations that include a guitar or keyboard hooked up to a computer equipped with music-notation and -sequencing software. Those computers will then be linked by a lab controller, which allows the teacher to see what each student is up to and whether he or she is on track.

“Before [new software and music hardware were] widely available,music teachers were ill-equipped to facilitate composition in their classrooms,” Mr. Frankel said. Students need to have a fairly advanced knowledge of musical literacy before they can begin to compose music with a pen and paper, he says, but with today’s notation and sequencing software, even beginners can create songs almost immediately, a capability that draws students into the music.

Only about 20 percent of students continue with music education into high schools, says Mr. Frankel, and using technology to teach music can help entice students back into the subject area, and prepare some of them for careers in the music industry.

“The real jobs that are out there are in film scoring, video game composition, audio production and recording,” he said.

Games, Lessons, Quizzes

Karen Garrett, a music teacher at the 700-student Central Park Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala., teaches 2nd through 5th graders in her music technology lab.

Ms. Garrett started the program in 1996 with five keyboards, a handful of discarded computers she fixed up, and 24 students. Today, she teaches about 240 students, with about eight music stations complete with up-to-date hardware and software, acquired from various grants and funding from her school.

Part of the reason she was encouraged to start the music-tech lab was that it was more affordable for the students at her school, she says.

“The kids don’t have to pay to be in it, and they don’t have to have any supplies,” such as instruments, she said.

Ms. Garrett also maintains a website,, that details how she was able to put together her music-tech lab; quizzes, games, and lesson plans to get started; samples of student work; as well as links to books and other resources.

Vernecia Lewis is a 3rd grader in Ms. Garrett’s music technology class.

“The most fun thing in the class is playing on the keyboards and getting to play and perform in programs,” the student said. The technology the students use in class helps her learn, she said, “because you can record yourself playing music into the computer, and when you make mistakes, you can try to get it right the next time.”

Vol. 30, Issue 35, Pages s12, s13, s14

Published in Print: June 15, 2011, as Art and Music Learning Emphasize Interactivity, Real-World Relevance
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