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What is the Role of the Arts in 21st Century Schools?

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A tenth-grader from Uzbekistan expresses ideas about democracy through painting.

"This was a kid who was so nervous and shy, he couldn't put three words together." That's how Bert Konowitz, Adjunct Professor of Music Education, remembers Jacques Toney from when they first met in summer 2005.

Jacques, then a 13-year-old freshman at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, had come to Teachers College to attend Konowitz' Music Improv Institute Camp, an annual week-long day-camp that brings together high school musicians of all abilities to play, improvise, jam and - through all of these activities - "confront issues and feel successful about who they are," Konowitz says. "Because so often kids aren't offered that opportunity. At school, they're told what they need to do. Here, we help them find out on their own."

Jacques, a trombonist, was attending the camp at the recommendation of his music teacher, Aminah Majied.
"She thought it would be good for me, because I was camera shy and had stage fright-'"I wasn't a people person," Jacques recalls.

Three years later, it appears that Majied was right. At the summer 2007 session of the Improv Institute Camp, Jacques will serve as an improvisational leader, helping other kids to open up, take chances-'"in essence, to blow their own horns.

"The ability to be artistically innovative and creative, and to know you have it inside yourself, is a tremendous enabler," Konowitz says. "It affirms your sense of self worth, and it gives you the confidence-'"and, in many ways, the skills-'"to get better at reading, math, or whatever else you're doing." 

Bert Konowitz, Jacques Toney and the Improv Institute Camp reflect a philosophy of the arts that has been central to Teachers College's understanding of education since the institution's very beginnings.

"John Dewey believed that learning occurs in the act of imagination that goes on when a child grapples directly with the environment in an effort to make sense of it," says Hal Abeles, Professor and Coordinator of TC's Music and Music Education Program. "That's why we have a tradition of arts education in which our faculty are hands-on, practicing artists as well as pedagogues. It dates back to the creation of our department under Arthur Wesley Dow and the participation of students such as Georgia O'Keeffe, and it came to full flower with the work of Maxine Greene-'"the notion of the arts as a way of bringing about a state of  -'wide-awakeness' in which the mind questions to the fullest and imagines what is possible. Being in New York City is a big part of that, too-'"our students and faculty choose to come here partly because of all the theater, music and art. And because it's the place to perform and have your work be seen."   

Abeles and other TC faculty members worry about the well-documented "curriculum narrowing"-'"including the loss of arts classes and resources-'"currently occurring around the country as schools focus on meeting federal proficiency requirements in reading and math.

"People talk about the achievement gap, but we should be talking about an arts gap, as well, because it's really part of the broader picture of inequity in education," Abeles says. "There's widespread recognition that poorer children often lack access to the cultural richness open to more affluent children and that, as a result, they fall behind even before they arrive in kindergarten. The arts can be a huge part of bridging that."

Of course, to argue that the arts deserve parity in public school curricula solely because they help kids in reading and math is a reductionist way of looking at things-'"sort of like reading Hamlet for a sense of Danish geography. Abeles and others leave no doubt that the arts do nurture transferable skills-'""Arts-rich schools perform better," Abeles says. "There are benefits in terms of innovativeness, creativity, literacy, and math and science scores"-'"but also that the transfer happens best in the context of an integrated curriculum. 

In a study titled "Learning In and Through the Arts," Abeles, together with Judith Burton, Professor and Coordinator of Art Education, and Rob Horowitz, a TC alumnus and current Adjunct Associate Professor of Music Education, write:

"If the arts are to help define our path to the future, they need to become curriculum partners with other subject disciplines in ways that will allow them to contribute their own distinctive richness and complexity to the learning process as a whole."

That is the approach taken by the Heritage School, a high school in east Harlem founded by Burton nearly a decade ago, where the arts are given equal weight with other subjects. Heritage teachers work closely with many of New York City's cultural institutions and find ways to use drama, visual art and music in social studies and math classes as well as making those disciplines a focus unto themselves.

The same approach is inherent in the work of TC Trustee Laurie Tisch, who has helped infuse millions of dollars into art education in New York City's public schools. And, it is also the basis for work that Lori Custodero, Associate Professor of Music Education, is currently doing in collaboration with the producers of "Sesame Street," centering around the use of musical activities as entry points to mathematical principles. "Formal structures are first learned in the musical ways we talk with infants. It is not surprising, then, that young children can comprehend the idea of numerical sequence in an eight-note scale or intuit the part-to-whole relationship when putting different motions to each phrase of a favorite nursery rhyme. Music-making mirrors the human experience, including its symmetry, relativity, expressivity and potential for invention."

The visual arts, for their part, can combine that kind of instinctive, elemental learning with a more conscious level of inquiry. TC Art and Art Education student Ian Toledo is working with students at the Bronx Lab School to help them create their own graphic novels--an approach modeled in part on the Japanese practice of incorporating manga (comic books) into eighth- and ninth-grade classrooms.

"I like the idea of kids empowering themselves by making their own characters and stories, as opposed to being passive and only accepting what is commercially made," says Toledo, himself a skilled cartoonist and illustrator. "One of my students made all her characters half human and half beast. When I asked her why, she said it was a reflection of her own situation, because she's half Puerto Rican and half Dominican. I was amazed that she took a metaphor she learned from anime to make her own meaning and method of identity."

Jacques Toney describes a similar process. The former painfully shy introvert held a performance in March 2007. "I have my own email list now," he says. "More than 30 people came."  


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