By Karl Androes
Quick, when I say "arts-based education program," what picture forms in your head? Let me guess: it's a picture of smocked children painting wall murals, or dancing on a stage, pint-sized violinists performing in squeaky unison for adoring parents and friends. Happy kids, proud parents, beautiful schools. These are all desirable and appropriate images.
Now, what if I say "arts-based reading program?" Does that change the picture in your head?
I'll bet the answer is "no." I've been saying this to principals, teachers and parents in Chicago for the past 19 years as head of Whirlwind, an arts-based reading organization. From my experience, once I say the word "arts," a picture forms in the listener's mind. That's a problem. It shortchanges children's opportunities to succeed. Here's why and how to fix the problem.
First, a story to illustrate my point: I walk into a school. I meet with the principal. The principal says, "Great, let's have Whirlwind come work with our children for 10 weeks." I think, "Terrific. Another chance to help children improve their reading skills. This principal must have been impressed with the rigorous studies showing students in Whirlwind classrooms make two months of reading progress for every month we're there."
Jump ahead 10 weeks. It's the last day of the project. Younger children at the school have been dancing letter shapes to spell out words. Older students have been acting out stories they've just read, and making inferences (an important higher-order thinking skill) about why the characters are doing the things they are doing. On the last day of our program, the principal stops me in the hall and asks, "Hey, where's the final performance with my students dancing on stage in the auditorium? I thought you were an arts program!"
This used to happen to me all the time. When I say an arts-based reading program, the principal thinks we're there to do arts. So, at the end, the principal is unhappy, and we are not invited back, despite the dramatic improvement in the students' reading skills.
So I've stopped calling Whirlwind an "arts" program. It may be one reason why Whirlwind has not been threatened with funding cuts, but it's not why I have stopped using the word "arts." I have stopped because once I mention arts, people conjure up images of little artists and it's nearly impossible to replace that with images of kids sounding out new words, reading fluidly and with expression, remembering what they've read and eagerly discussing the meaning afterwards.
The arts are fluff to most principals, teachers and parents--something to do once the real teaching is done. Fluff is easy to ignore. So, too often, saying "arts" means we'll never even get the chance to help the students at that school.
That's a real shame because cutting-edge research increasingly shows the arts can be key to a wide range of essential skills. For instance, an exhaustive study in 2000 by Harvard University researchers found music instruction clearly enhances math skills, and drama instruction improves a wide range of essential reading skills. In addition, a compendium of research last year by the Arts Education Partnership (a broad association supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education and some private funders) makes a strong case for the link between arts education and student achievement in a range of areas.
I'm proud to say each of these studies included research on students and schools here in Chicago. Specifically, each included a study of the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) and two studies of my organization, Whirlwind.
Bottom line, when a principal only thinks of the arts as fluff, it is likely children in that school will get less arts--or none at all. Thus, they'll miss the full range of opportunities the arts could provide them for a better, richer education. In that equation, children lose.
What's the solution? Here's one: Help principals, teachers and parents see the arts as a teaching tool. In Chicago, six non-profit organizations that teach with arts in the Chicago Public Schools have done that, creating a model that uses the latest research and defines multiple specific ways the arts help schools improve. Together, the six groups call themselves the Chicago Arts Education Organizations. The members are Art Resources in Teaching; Creating Pride; Merit Music; Suzuki-Orff School for Young Musicians; Urban Gateways and Whirlwind. Each works in the schools in a different way, but all believe the arts help schools succeed.
The group's model says the arts are valuable to schools in multiple ways, not the least of which is children's arts skills improve. Arts programs give the young Picassos and Pavorottis a chance to discover their life's passion. Others get the chance to realize they are unique, with wonderful ideas all their own, which can be painted or acted or danced for others to see and enjoy. These things make any school a better learning environment.
A colleague of mine talks eloquently about a school in the Chicago Housing Authority's Cabrini Green project where kids couldn't cross gang lines outside, but inside they were able to create a permanent mural together and transform a drab entryway. It's just one example of how the arts have changed school environments--bringing students together, increasing school unity, and improving the way the place looks and feels.
But my favorite thing the arts do to help schools succeed is to improve children's academic skills. Just having the arts around in large quantities will improve children's academic skills, studies show. But when the classroom teacher begins to use the arts in everyday teaching--having children act out the stories they are reading, for example--the effect is even more powerful.
Also, the arts can help schools succeed by teaching kids to work more cooperatively to solve problems; helping teachers learn new classroom techniques and encouraging parents to get and stay involved in their children's school.
The Chicago Arts Education Organizations model already is having an effect in Chicago. The six organizations are training cadres of principals with the help of The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.
These sessions give me hope. We start by asking the principals to tell us what dreams they have for their schools--not what their boss insists they pay attention to in order to keep their jobs, but what they, as dedicated educators, want to accomplish for the children.
A sample of the responses reads like a paraphrase of our model:
• More pleasant, respectful environment for learning.
• Kids who can think at a higher level, creatively, not just memorize facts.
• Children who love learning to read and do math and, thus, do well on the tests.
• Kids who can work together, solve conflicts themselves and get along.
• Teachers who are energized and eager to use the best methods available.
• More parent involvement in the school.
When the arts organizations showed this model to Chicago Schools Chief Arne Duncan, his response was, "This is the same as my agenda for the Chicago Public Schools." He then pledged to use his bully pulpit to help us get the model and its message out to as many schools as possible.
Someday, when we say "the arts," people will immediately think of the ways they help schools succeed. Along with my colleagues, I'll keep working hard to make that day arrive. Children's futures are riding on that day coming sooner, rather than later.
But, until then, when I walk into a school for the first time, I'll be saying "Hi, I'm Karl Androes. I run a reading organization."
Karl Androes is executive director of Whirlwind, a non-profit organization that improves Chicago Public School children's reading skills through the arts.
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