MY HIGH SCHOOL BAND director used to say, "You can teach every subject through music." Like many "nonacademic" teachers, Mr. Patierno recognized the power of interdisciplinary learning. This was more than a defensive strategy against the attacks on relectives by administrators wielding the latest curricular fad. The idea that you can learn a multitude of concepts and skills from any starting point in any discipline refl ects the type of sophisticated thinking common among artists.
Recently, while teaching a class of 5- to 12-year-olds in a disadvantaged school, one kindergartener told me she wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up. I asked, "Do you take lessons or attend classes?" She replied, "I don't need lessons." The teacher in me suggested, "Sometimes it's a good idea to take lessons and practice if you want to become good at something." It was at that point that she got very cross, pointed a finger between my eyes and exclaimed, "School does not teach ballerina!
Indeed, school does not teach ballerina. Perhaps it should. Research and common sense suggest that rich arts experiences are good for learning everything else.
The Well-Rounded Student
Students engaged in high-quality developmentally appropriate arts education develop the courage to perform in public and respond to criticism. They experience what it feels like to succeed while struggling to improve upon their personal best. They develop discipline while gaining self-awareness, precision, attention to detail and setting personal goals. Students immersed in the arts develop a healthy respect for the contributions and accomplishments of others and the majesty of culture, while they themselves add to that artistic continuum. That builds a bridge between generations and inspires a more fl uid reciprocal relationship between mentor and apprentice, teacher and student.
Dancing, music and drama epitomize democracy by giving voice to individual expression in service of the greater community. The arts raise multicultural awareness and promote tolerance. Understanding the difference between rhumba and samba, or appreciating atonal German opera or Ornette Coleman leads to better party conversation and makes you smarter. Best of all, rich, diverse arts experiences teach children to learn without being taught-free of coercion, grades or punishment. Creating beauty enriches us all.
There was insufficient time for me to start and fund school-based dance instruction during the weeks I spent teaching the aspiring ballerina, but I was able to suggest that she build a dancing "ballerina" out of programmable LEGO robotics materials. With a bit of imagination, pipe cleaner hair, and a napkin dress embroidered with magic marker, engineering met George Balanchine. The girl built a working robot, complete with two touch sensors allowing the ballerina to spin in two directions. She overcame friction, learned about gearing through direct hands-on experience, wrote and debugged a computer program to respond to sensory input, and built a dancer she could choreograph. At the age when the curriculum requires the learning of letters and right versus left, this child exceeded the wildest expectations of technology standards and set forth on an educational trajectory that may end at the conservatory or MIT or both.
This story describes a novel fusion of the arts and sciences. But kids in thoughtful schools use computers to bring the arts alive in myriad ways, from making movies with studentcomposed scores to creating animations to using software for set-blocking one-act plays they wrote. Many of these creations may be shared with an authentic audience via the web. Computers may enrich the arts and breathe life into a wider range of expression, but only if schools value the arts as much as the study of any other subject. Experience suggests that computers did not kill the arts but that administrators have done so through mistaken priorities.
Electives: All or Nothing
I understand the inclination to reduce or eliminate "electives" in order to raise test scores, but this effort is in vain if kids drop out physically, mentally or spiritually from your school. Removing the purpose that students derive from various activities may have a deleterious
effect on the outcomes you hope to achieve.
There should be nothing "elective" about arts education or the study of a host of other subjects. Why not make algebra II elective? I never factor quadratic quations, but what I learned in music class I use every day. It enriches my life, helps me solve problems, urrounds me in beauty and makes me a better citizen. Learning to be human is not elective.