Why Art?

Often when you teach art, people both outside and inside the school ask, “why art?”  They say things like “the students you/we teach need to know how to read, they are behind, they need math, why are you teaching them art?”  At times, this can be a difficult question to answer.  You sometimes question yourself.  You can give the typical, “it helps them express themselves” or “it is a place for students who might not necessarily succeed in other classes to excel” which are true and important sentiments but I needed more solid counter statements to provide; more reason to be able to convince myself and others that what I was doing was important.  When no one else steps foot into your classroom because it’s not a tested subject, when classroom teachers keep kids back to finish “more important work,” when you feel yourself feeling unsettled when you read a kid’s written response to something, and when you yourself start to question, why art?  Why teach art in the Delta where schools are failing and sixth graders are reading at a first grade level?  Why should I not completely sacrifice my class time to submit to the wills of those who would like to see it become a class where we merely read and write, perhaps with an artistic theme?  Why not turn it into the same kind of test-prep that abounds during the rest of the school day?  Remind yourself that every kid deserves the opportunity to have an art class.  Just because they are behind in reading, doesn’t mean they should be neglected the chance to learn other subjects.  Art is not only done with the hand, but also with the heart and the head.  So much of what we do is not only important for emotions but it is important for cognitive development.  We have the power to provide a kind of natural learning.  In my opinion, art classes can be a model of what the entire educational system has the potential to be.

When playing with this idea, I am constantly drawn to the idea of learning as play or exploration.  Elliot W. Eisner in his book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind, says that,

The arts have an important role to play in refining our sensory system and cultivating our imaginitive abilities.  Indeed, the arts provide a kind of permission to pursue qualitative experience in a particularly focused way and to engage in the constructive exploration of what the imaginative process may engender.  In this sense, the arts, in all their manifestations, are close in attitude to play.

It is the same idea that Teacher Tom expresses in his blog, time and time again.  When you give kids the opportunity to learn, they will.  Naturally.  In his post entitled Why I Teach the Way I Do, Teacher Tom explains

The idea of a play-based education challenges the conventional wisdom about what teaching is. Whereas the traditional idea is of a teacher standing in front of a room of attentive learners, lecturing, correcting, grading, and testing, the role of a teacher in a play-based model (sometimes referred to by more academic sounding names like “inquiry-based” or “experienced-based”) is to, in effect, create an environment in which children can freely engage with materials, ideas, and people, that is to play with them, and from that play construct their own, personalized education.

Giving up control is scary and, in most of our schools, frowned upon in the greater sense.  But we as art teachers most often have the freedom to support some form of this organic learning.  We can present kids with a challenge, give them tools, and watch them try.  We can question them to push their thinking further, and we can provide them opportunities to edit, grow, and then document their thoughts, emotions, physical creations, and reflections.

If we head back over to Eisner, he proposes various cognitive functions that the arts encourage.

He attests that the arts:

  • help us learn to notice the world
  • promote our awareness of aspects of the world we had not experienced consciously before
  • grant permission to engage the imagination as a means for exploring new possibilities
  • invite the development of a disposition to tolerate ambiguity, explore what is uncertain, and exercise judgement free from prescriptive rules and procedures
  • stabilize what would otherwise be evanescent
  • help us discover what it is we are capable of experiencing or the contours of our emotional selves

As we go into this home stretch and begin to plan our final units and projects to round out the year, I challenge you to keep in mind that you are important to the wholistic and foundational development of the minds of children.  Think about how your projects or challenges target the cognitive functions above.  Push kids to talk about their art more throughout the whole creation process.  Expose them to inspiration and help them build an artistic language that helps them express how art effects them.  These are not easy tasks but when your classroom is engaged in these manners, there is no stopping the potential that our kids have.  Reading, writing and arithmetic are great but they are no match for the whole undiscovered world.

Rise up,

Mel

P.S. Here are the units I have coming up:

Unit 4: Curbside Couture (inspired by this event at the Clinton Library) Kids will be challenged to create something (anything) that can be worn and will be exposed to fiber arts including weaving and sewing.

Unit 5: Black History – we were asked to make something for the program so, something we will make…for this, kids will be exposed to various printmaking techniques and we will look at traditional African prints as well as artwork by a soon to be determined modern printmaker who is preferably either Black or uses Black subject matter.

Unit 6: The Magic of Texture – Still working on the details of this one but I want to somehow hit atmospheric perspective and texture techniques…perhaps some drawing and painting lessons as well as a 3D twist in the sculpture studio.  Looking for art suggestions if you have any!

Unit 7: Final Project: Also in the works – I will do a follow up post when I get this together completely!