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A Balanced Education

Remember those commercials we used to watch for cereal when we were kids? The sugary cereal would be bookended by bran toast, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk, and a bowl of granola topped with a sliced banana. “Sugar Cereal X is a part of this nutritionally balanced breakfast!” the announcer would inform us.

I would never consider the arts as superfluous to a child’s education as sugar cereal to a breakfast, but I wonder if others do. Recently I posted a project on DonorsChoose requesting support for a project that will give my kids pastels, charcoal, water colors and picture frames. I posted the proposal on my personal blog, and I got this comment from “Mad Jack”:

The thought that occurs to me is that time in school would be better spent teaching your budding Picasso to read, write and speak English rather than fine art. But perhaps that’s an invalid opinion, since I’m not a certified school teacher.

Mad Jack pointed out that in my proposal I stated almost all of my students are below level in reading and math. With that in mind, does he have a point? I think a lot of us from “touchy-feely” backgrounds certainly embrace the role of the arts in education, but do my students have time for them when some of them are reading at a kindergarten level or can’t subtract basic minuends?

I want to say emphatically to Mad Jack, who I hope isn’t serving as too much of a straw man, YES. I am certain there’s research to support my claim, but for the purpose of this post, I’m going to speak from personal experience.

As part of a year-long inquiry project, my class and a second grade self-contained special education class are using visual arts as a gateway to literacy. Our theme is “Artists as Storytellers.” Our most recent field trip paints the clearest picture (pardon the pun) of how the arts are helping my students.

Last Friday students from my class and my colleague’s went to the International Center of Photography. We looked at artwork from the Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong whose photos play on classic Chinese images to critique globalization’s impact on Chinese culture. We also looked at photos by Alonzo Jordan, a barber who took up photography in the Jim Crow era to give a realistic depiction of the black community in Jasper, Texas.

Before our visit to the ICP, we discussed Wang’s photos as fantasy-like, connected them to fiction writing, discussed elements of culture, and compared the “artist’s purpose” of (a play on author’s purpose) Wang’s artwork to Edward Hopper’s. We also discussed the history of segregation in the South, compared Jordan’s photos to personal narrative writing, and discussed the tone of his photos.

During the visit, my students learned new vocabulary such as “documentary,” “stereotype,” “globalization,” and “portrait.” We discussed the importance of Buddha to Chinese culture. Our discussions about the photos required my students to engage in a lot of critical thinking.

Afterward, my students chose American symbols to “play with” like Wang Qingsong had with Chinese symbols. Some of my students’ artwork included a Statue of Liberty on top of a Coca-Cola bottle and a holding a shopping bag. Next, my students will use our class’s new digital camera to create portraits of our community similar to Alonzo Jordan’s.

In short, art is allowing my students to engage in critical thinking that many of them can’t or won’t do when it comes to reading, writing and math. Many of my students are still learning to read, so they can’t engage critically with texts independently. With art, every single student in my class can add his or her opinions.And they’re eager to do so!

So would my students’ time be better spent if I was teaching them reading and math? I think my students’ experience this year speaks for itself.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.