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Voices on Education: Taking artbeyond the studio

There’s a trend in education these days to turn STEM into STEAM – that is, adding the A for Arts to the traditional curriculum of Science, Technology, English and Math. At Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, the arts have always factored into the curriculum. But recently, says Dean of the Arts Andrew Rodgers, there has been a Renaissance in the arts program there. And it has a lot to do with changing perspectives on the importance of arts education.

"Today, art is seen as an integral piece of the whole child," Rodgers says. "I think a major reason for this is looking at the economy. There are more and more jobs these days in the innovative fields and in the burgeoning field of small business, starting your own business, having that creative innovative mindset that is really at the beginning of all the art projects we have at Newman.

"The arts challenge students to not just simply repeat what they’ve learned, or mimic what they’re seeing in the classroom environment. The arts challenge students to think outside of the box and to embrace exploration."

Dean of the Arts Andrew Rodgers, center, works with Isidore Newman students.

Dean of the Arts Andrew Rodgers, center, works with Isidore Newman students.

At Newman, says Rodgers, that exploration often takes students beyond the classroom and studio. For example, a new program called Disappearances sends students with Lost Lands Environmental Tours into the wetlands to explore coastal erosion – and not just from a scientific perspective. They’re accompanied by environmentalists Marie Gould and Bob Marshall, and also by mural artist Max Bernardi.

"Ultimately, at the heart of a program like this is teaching the kids that art is a visual means of changing people’s perspective. There is such a power in the visual, in performance, in the beauty of art that can change someone’s view on something in many ways dynamically different than if they just read it or see it or hear it."

Newman uses art to teach other global lessons, too. The school’s ABC program – for Arts Building Communities – offers a collaborative experience between their students and those from Breakthrough, a national program for kids from under-served communities. They all meet at the Uptown campus on Saturdays to work with well-known local artists like Willie Birch and Nicole Charbonnet.

"One of the true powers of art is that it is universal language," Rodgers says. "And so it completely crosses barriers, socio-economic barriers, racial barriers, so that the students involved in a program, whether they may have come from completely different places in the world, ultimately can come together to create this thing, a collaborative painting, and understand the beauty of art and how it has the power to change perspectives on the world."

Of course, if art has been the universal language of the past, then technology is that of the present.

"Today many students will feel more tentative about approaching a canvas than they would about working with software in a 3d printer," Rodgers says. "Something that for many of us even who are born in the ‘80s is incredibly strange to even think of.

"Technology ultimately is the window through which the younger generation sees the world. So to be able to access that window is just another tool in the tool chest of the art educator."

And, according to Dean Rodgers, if you start a conversation using both art and technology, it can be an exciting one. In the school’s maker space, elementary age students tinker with machinery and hardware in creative ways. A flight of 3D printers allows students to do things like model a bust in clay and then develop the software program to print it three-dimensionally.

"It is a really exciting moment when a student can see what is handmade and what computer made and the line between the two," says Rodgers. "I walked in there the other day and I saw a student who had programmed a spider robot on the computer – this is a third grader – to walk the length of the room, turn around, turn left, turn right. That’s a great example of where the traditional lines between science and art are being blended and blurred. You have to think creatively and yet there’s a lot of computer science involved."

Newman does have resources that other schools may not. But Dean Rodgers believes that integrating art into education is more doable than ever before. For one thing, he has found willing educational partners in the New Orleans art community.

"There’s really a zeitgeist right now in New Orleans, where institutions are open to collaboration, open to creating dynamic programs, often with little or no financial support for them. Free programs at the Ogden, free programs at NOMA, I think ultimately all arts institutions in the city are in this moment of exploration and self-realization that the arts are so important to the development of the whole child.

"Newman is just one of many dynamic and important schools in this city. We have to grow together. The arts are not going to be a priority for schools in the southeast unless we work together. The more we collaborate on these dynamic programs, the more we can move forward to that future where we see art as a priority for all our kids, and have a new generation of people who appreciate the arts, even if they aren’t artists themselves."

This continuing series about arts and education, a partnership of WWNO and NolaVie, is made possible by a generous grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]