“To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator.”
We all want to explore, discover, and feel inspired. As teachers, we try to harness this drive in our classrooms. Every lesson plan, for example, has a hook at the beginning designed to grab students’ interest. But our schools always need more pathways for engaging learners. Arts integration can open that door.
This is my fourth year as a performing arts educator. I’ve also founded dance programs in the cities I have taught in and danced professionally. But my enthusiasm for arts education is fueled by more than just a passion for my art form.
Differentiated by nature, the arts can bring all children success and joy and change their perspective on what the school community can offer them. When children learn to think like artists, they learn a way of approaching the world that will support them throughout their lives, academically and socio-emotionally.
Celebrating Student Strengths
In my second year of teaching at an elementary charter school, I led literacy lessons along with teaching dance. One kindergarten student I was working with was having trouble memorizing sight words, and we were both getting frustrated.
But this girl had always stuck out to me in dance class as one of my most advanced students; she consistently followed directions and was brilliantly creative. I figured I might incorporate movement into the literacy lesson, as no other strategies seemed to be working.
We had recently been working on creative movement elements in dance, so I told her to come up with a unique movement for how she perceived each word. She came up with movements lightning fast, and she suddenly had no trouble memorizing the words at all. I felt like I had just made a major discovery. The arts had given her a way to navigate learning literacy.
Integrating the arts creates a school environment with more opportunities to celebrate individual student strengths and nurture the whole child. Even as an adult, I won’t go through an entire day feeling successful in every moment—but the parts of my day that go well are what keep me moving forward. If it weren’t for those blocks of the day, there would be no balance, and I would probably switch careers or quit my job.
Visual art, music, dance, or theater could be that anchor that gets a kid through class periods—it was for me when I was in school. I struggled a lot as a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and I remember the only part of my day that I felt successful in was in visual arts class.
Often, children who are “misbehaving” are just being explorative. At a previous school I taught in, I used to catch one of my students frequently off task. He sometimes had difficulty focusing on the lesson being taught, but I saw him as highly artistic and curious. He was always finding something to build.
This is not to say that students shouldn’t follow directions and work on developing impulse control. But I wondered if this child would have had his needs met if this school had placed more importance on and investment in the arts, and offered arts teachers more disciplinary support. It’s children like him who need to be reached by something more than what a rigid, artless school day has to offer. Art courses develop discipline and perseverance, habits that will support students throughout their lives.
Not every student who is introduced to the arts will want to become a professional artist, but that’s okay. I don’t know many mathematicians, even though math is a required course for any student. People rarely question math’s place in education, as it provides many transferable skills related to other subjects and everyday life.
The arts are just as necessary as math for college and careers. We live in a world that requires creative thinking, which art can provide better than any academic subject. It’s not as though the arts are on an island of their own in the real world. Design skills are useful in almost every major career field. A big part of any culture is the art its people create.
Making the Arts a Priority
To truly integrate arts education, schools need state policymakers and district administrations to invest in programs and principals that see the arts as a necessary part of a school. Too many administrators view the arts as just a break for children in the day. And when administrators don’t view arts classes as important, then students won’t respect them either.
Our policymakers do students a disservice when they assume the arts are expendable, or that anyone is qualified to teach an art class. Instructors should have degrees in the subject, or even have contributed to the field in some way professionally or in community organizations.
There are too many brilliant and creative post-grads with arts degrees out there without jobs, and too many kids in our schools who would benefit from learning from these people. This is a gap that needs to be closed.
Some schools are charging forward with the necessary changes, such as those using the Montessori model, the Ron Clark Academy, and schools like Gabriella Charter School of the Arts. These places teach core academic subjects and concepts through music and dance integration. The first school I taught at, Lamar Reese Magnet School of the Arts in Albany, Ga., required the arts education teachers to tie in academic concepts to our lessons and curriculum. But in a lot of non-art specific public and charter schools, the subject is still more of an afterthought.
If a school can’t find a qualified teaching artist amid teacher shortages, but has an opening, there should be supports in place for educators to study that content. For example, through the Arnold New Dance Teacher Support Program in New York City, teachers receive a mentor, curriculum, and training on integrating the arts.
If the arts were flourishing in our schools, perhaps they would reach those students who have given up because they don’t feel successful. It’s time that our policy leaders wake up to how crucial the arts are for academic success.
Maybe it’s time that we stopped widely misrepresenting the arts as fluff, and acknowledge that art just might be the critical puzzle piece that education is lacking. Instead of joking about “starving artists,” we need to realize that we as an education community are starving for art.
A version of this piece was previously published on Thought Catalog.