Where do the Arts Belong?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with one of my sons’ teachers. He has a classroom teacher who delivers the “core” subjects (not my favorite term, by any means), a physical education teacher, and a teacher whose job it is to teach social studies and the arts. I had asked her to call me in response to some assessments she had sent home. I was a little bewildered as to how she could manage to teach all of these subjects (Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Arts, and Social Studies) during the approximately 30 minutes a day she has with my son’s class.

It turns out that her background and mine are not all that different and that, until this year, she’d been doing a similar job in her school board to the one I have now. So we had a good chat about the challenges of her current role, the ways she’s trying to cope (by focusing on one subject per month in a rotation) and the near impossibility of giving any of these subjects their due in 30 minutes per day.

When I hung up the phone and went back to cooking dinner, I found myself thinking about these strange things we call subjects and how we often treat them in schools. I’ve come to realize that we really like boxes. We love boxes. We like boxes that describe our roles and we like performing those roles inside more boxes. We like boxes for timetabling and boxes for drawing. We can’t get enough of them.

But is that reality? Does it give students a real sense of the scope of a subject or a domain when we point to something and say “Here, this is math… that is science… and that is Art. They are different. They don’t go together.”? I don’t think so. I think that not only does it do our students a disservice, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the work being done in those fields.

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I have observed an interesting phenomenon over many years of teaching and learning in the Arts. I’m going to call it the Beginners Paradox. Often when someone starts learning in an art form, they are very open, very curious and are willing to try almost anything. They don’t have a preconceived idea about what is and isn’t part of that form. As they become more advanced, however, their ideas narrow and their willingness to experiment with techniques or ideas that they perceive to be outside of their sphere dramatically declines. Only at the most advanced levels do people again become more willing to open up and, ironically, try to become more like beginners – to see their domain with fresh eyes so that they are able to innovate and push the work forward.

Yesterday, I was asked to create a question that would guide my work this year. We were working with Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question (put it on your reading list, it’s really good). I’m not sure that my question is all that beautiful but here it is:

How do I move teachers towards a more integrated model of Arts education that sees the arts less as discrete subjects (stop and teach) and more as languages of expression (ways of knowing) that are available all the time for all students?

I think that in most cases, in most schools, this is the way forward. If we want the arts to be central to education we need to integrate them into the curriculum, seeing them both as valuable subjects and as teaching tools that infuse the day with creation. However, I know that some artists and arts educators won’t agree with me. This model won’t produce as many technically skilled musicians and dancers as perhaps we’ve been accustomed to. High school music teachers will find that students don’t have the same knowledge and skill base as they have in years past because they’ve spent more time composing a body percussion opus describing the European settlement of North America and its effects on First Nations people (for instance) and less time learning how to read sheet music. That’s the trade-off.

In the introduction to his amazing little book, HearSing, R. Murray Schafer writes an indictment of music education. We could easily substitute any of the other arts (drama, dance, visual arts) and the indictment would still stand.

“This is the indictment I make against music education as currently taught:

  • That foreign music is valued above our own;
  • That music composed by others is valued above anything we could achieve ourselves;
  • That in trying to meet excessively high technical demands, many students become discouraged or are forced to forgo the pleasures of music-making;
  • That by insisting that music is an expensive subject, opportunities for inexpensive music-making are ignored;
  • That teachers (and parents and principals) fail to understand the value of music beyond the year-end concert or tour;
  • That music has been isolated from contact with other subjects (science, the other arts, the environment);
  • That teachers do not speak out strongly enough against the commodification of the music by the entertainment industry and the trash that it produces.

The music room is neither the beginning nor the end of music. Music is the whole sounding universe. We are simultaneously listeners and performers and composers of the universal symphony.”

Drama is the whole emotional universe.

Dance is the whole moving universe.

Visual Art is the whole seeing universe.

That’s how beginners see it. It’s how every 4-year-old I’ve ever met sees it. I think that’s how we need to teach it. Weave it into the day. Take away the boxes. Those subject divisions are illusions; we created them and we can make them disappear.

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Assessment as Valuing

For the past two days, M, J1, and J2 have been using the snap cubes as part of their dramatic play and have arranged them in very interesting ways. I first noticed M and J1 at the two wooden desks, facing each other and carefully grouping their cubes according to colour.  I was drawn to them because I could hear J1 singing.

Singing the Snap Cube Anthem
Singing the Snap Cube Anthem

I asked: Qu’est ce que tu fais? (What are you doing?)

J1: They’re singing their national anthem.

Once the singing ended, I overheard:

J1: Grab your kids and grab your snacks ‘cause this one’s going to be a doozy.

J1 had recently been to a professional hockey game with his family and had shared his experience with the class.

Grab your snacks!
Grab your snacks!

J1: This is my best guy.

M: These are the bad guys, these are the good guys.

The next day, when J2 returned to school, the play continued with him, this time at the table in the math centre.

day 2 of snap cube fighters
day 2 of snap cube fighters

Later that same day, M and J revisited their play at the wooden desks again.

Back at the wooden desks
Back at the wooden desks

A few days later I showed J1 and M the photos:

Question: What are the big towers for? What’s the difference between the big towers and the little ones?

M: The big ones are the trainers. The big ones train the little ones how to fight better. They’re martial arts fighters
J1: Mine are karate fighters – ‘cause I play karate.
M: And mine are martial arts, ‘cause I play martial arts.
‘Cause the patterns.
Mme: Tell me about the patterns.
M: We use them as their fighter suits.
Mme: Have you noticed that people have patterns on their clothes?
J1: Like me – I have green, blue, green.
Mme: And like on my shirt.

How does this play fit into our curriculum expectations?
The Ontario curriculum tells us that in Kindergarten, children will…

Language
– listen and respond to others for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts
– begin to use and interpret gestures, tone of voice, and other non-verbal means to communicate and respond
– use language in various contexts to connect new experiences with what they already know
– describe personal experiences, using vocabulary and details appropriate to the situation
– orally retell simple events and simple familiar stories in proper sequence

The Arts
– explore a variety of tools and materials of their own choice to create drama and dance in familiar and new ways
– use problem-solving skills and their imagination to create drama and dance
– communicate their ideas about something (e.g., a book, an experience, a painting) through sounds, rhythms, and music
– respond to music from various cultures, including their own

Now let me say a little about how I assess and how I see assessment in the context of the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten program.  I believe that all assessment is based on noticing and valuing.  As soon as you notice something, you’ve ascribed value to it (positively or negatively) and have therefore assessed it – to varying depths.  For instance, when I notice two students wrestling on the carpet, I assess that negatively because, in the school context, I don’t value it.  It’s often not a particularly deep assessment although it has prompted me to think deeply about the role of physical play in children’s development.  It’s usually a superficial assessment that the play is getting dangerous and so I intervene.  However, the process of noticing and valuing can be much deeper.  In the context of a play-based classroom, I see one of my roles as being that of a detective.  I am looking for places where what the children are doing intersects with the curriculum.  I see the curriculum as being, in large part, a description of a developmental stage, rather than a list of things I need to teach in a top-down way.   I believe that, given exposure to the right materials, environments, and experiences, children will learn these things and will demonstrate their learning in their play, their conversations, their artwork, and their writing.  If there are areas where we’re not seeing that learning, that’s where we may need to do some more direct instruction, either one-on-one, in small groups, or with the whole class.  We may also need to modify the environment and change the materials.

I’ve written before on this blog about the inherent subjectivity of this process.  All assessment is subjective.  We, the grown-ups, decide what to assess, when, and how.  The curriculum itself is subjective and culturally-specific.  I point this out not to devalue our curriculum but to put it in context.  It is a living, breathing, document.  It gets revised regularly and what we choose to value within children’s learning changes.  Where subjectivity becomes dangerous is when we don’t pay attention to it – when we trick ourselves into thinking that we have magic, objective powers.

We need to always be aware of our subjectivity and to critically examine it.  Are we missing something?  What are the children doing that we don’t notice?  What are our biases?  Having two people in the classroom has made a huge difference for me this year.  The Early Childhood Educator that I work with notices different aspects of the children’s play than I do and I am so grateful for that diversity.  It keeps us both honest and highlights our own subjectivity – awareness is key.

And so I come back to M and J1 and their snap cube fighters.  Often, when we think of dramatic play, we look for children dressed up in costumes, acting out roles, like firefighters, doctors, or parents.   However, that’s not always what it looks like.  Sometimes, it can look like two little boys, sitting in desks, arranging cubes.  As educators, we need to put on our detective hats and remain vigilant about finding the learning in the play.  Because, as Shakespeare put it “The play’s the thing.”