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Voices on Education: The arts in classroom reform

Editor's note: In a series last fall called Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform, NolaVie and cultural partner WWNO public radio teamed up to take a look at how the arts are being used creatively in schools around the city. With the start of a new school year, and education in New Orleans a more vital topic than ever, we are reposting stories from the series. In this installment, NolaVie editor Renee Peck goes to an expert to find out why the arts are an important component for school curricula, and how they being integrated into local classrooms.

Kidsmart sends arts teachers into classrooms to help teach core subjects alongside traditional teachers. Together they plan lessons in science or math or biology.

Not-for-profit organization KidSmart sends arts teachers into classrooms to help teach core subjects alongside traditional teachers. Together they plan lessons in science or math or biology.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is something of a petri dish for educational experimentation. We have more charter schools than any other city in the country. But one thing they all have in common is the fact that teaching in the 21st century can be daunting.

"We’re in a rapidly changing global world right now," says Echo Olander, executive director of KID smART, a non-profit organization that has been integrating arts into the classroom since 1999. "In the 15th century, a person had as much knowledge as you can learn from reading one week of The New York Times today. That’s mind boggling."

This explosion of information means that turning students into successful adults involves more than mere memorization. Teaching critical thinking to students is a must in today’s more complicated world.

"There isn’t any way we can teach them all the information" they need, Olander explains. "What we have to teach them are ways of learning and ways of thinking and moving it from one sector of their minds to another. These are things our children are going to need as they become adults. Being able to answer a multiple-choice test isn’t going to get them where they need to go."

So what is the magic formula? Olander, like many other educators, believes that it can be found in the arts.

"We now have years worth of research on the arts really helping students engage in learning," Olander says. "The arts help raise test scores in many, many research studies. The arts are particularly beneficial for students in a low-income group, because a traditional classroom is based on verbal teaching. The teacher stands in the front and talks about what it is … in an arts integrated classroom the students are up moving around and working. If you’re a child that comes from a low-income family, your verbal depth is nowhere near what a middle class or higher income student would have. And the gap between the language use increases exponentially as the student gets older."

Olander is not talking about art education so much as art integration.

"We follow the Kennedy Center definition of arts integration, which says that arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Those are complicated big words, but really what it means is that they’re not just doing the core subject matter – science, math, english language arts -- and they’re not just doing the art form – which is dance, theater, music, visual arts – but they’re constructing and understanding and they’re showing a deeper critical thinking by creating something through the art form."

KID smART accomplishes this by sending arts teachers into classrooms to help teach core subjects alongside traditional teachers. Together they plan lessons in science or math or biology.

"Students might be studying the way plants grow. In a traditional classroom the teacher would stand in the front of the room and talk to them about what this is and then they would do maybe worksheets. In an arts integrated classroom, if it’s a dance teacher, those students would physicalize what it feels like to be a seed and how that seed would then grow into a plant and how it would respond to the sun and how photosynthesis might take place. … You can transfer that to any kind of subject matter."

Olander calls the result “joyful learning.” Kids get up and move around and become far more engaged. The teachers like it, too. Last year, KID smART served 5100 children and 1600 teachers. But Olander feels they can do more.

"We still have quite a ways to go for bringing the arts back into the schools," she says. "There is no cookie cutter for this is the best way to teach a child. Schools are trying really hard to do things that really support student learning. I think parents have really voiced that they would like to have the arts in schools, so we are moving in the right direction."

The effort to teach through the arts got a big boost when New Orleans became the 16th American city to be accepted into the Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child program. KID smART is the local administrator of the program, which will create a strategic plan for arts education in the city in grads K-8.

"The first thing that Any Given Child will do is to map what the resources are in the community," Olander says. "We are just about to launch into an in-depth surveying process. ... and try to get a sense of where things are taking place, who’s doing it, how much of it they’re doing and to see where our missing spots are."

By the start of the next school year, the program will have a plan to fill those spots, with direct art education as well as integration of the arts into local classrooms. Olander finds it a project that is particularly appropriate for New Orleans.

"The cultural community is very large in New Orleans and we do a lot of our economy on the cultural economy. So if we’re not building students’ skill sets in that area, we’re doing a disservice for our community, because we’re not building something that’s income-generating for us."

Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform is a year-long series about the arts and education in New Orleans by NolaVie and its cultural partner, WWNO public radio. The series is made possible by the generous support of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

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