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Why learning about the arts really matters

Many people believe that instruction in the arts is critical to academic success and a variety of Chicago-area schools are taking unique approaches to integrating it into their schools.

At Alphonsus Academy& Center for the Arts in Chicago, the focus is on arts integration, which provides a format for developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, says Katia Marzolf Borionne, director of Arts and Culture.

The school has a music Artist-in-Residence and a band director, Robert Yaple, who helps integrate music into the academic curriculum. At the first grade level, for example, songs like the African-American Folk Song “Chicka Hanka” uses rhythm and onomatopoeia to create the sounds of trains approaching. By fifth grade, students are using music to explore U.S. history.

A Theatre& Drama Teaching Artist-in-Residence, Shannon Evans, uses drama to enhance learning. Second-graders write, rehearse, design and perform a character showcase, while seventh- and eighth-graders have created a Current Events Project focusing on Immigration, she says.

In fact, the school’s curriculum is designed to integrate a variety of art mediums into areas including math, science, reading and writing as well as having parallel classes in visual arts, drama and music. This means not only do the students learn about the arts as stand-alone disciplines themselves, but also how to demonstrate an understanding of a subject by using the arts.

“This is the kind of teaching that will benefit our students as 21st century learners, driving them towards their own personal discovery of authentic connections outside of the classroom,” she says. “It opens their minds to a different angle of how they can approach the world.”

Mehreen Alvi, academic program coordinator for Intercultural Montessori Language School in Oak Park, says the arts provide an important opportunity for non-verbal expression.

“We view the arts as an integral part of the child’s learning experience, and therefore, children are encouraged to incorporate the art techniques they learn into their academic projects and studies whenever possible,” Alvi says. The visual arts curriculum varies with the age level, but plays a vibrant part of every classroom, she says.

Children ages 3-6 engage in a variety of art activities ranging from painting, to drawing, to crafting. At the elementary school level, the lessons expand to include a wide range of visual media and techniques, as well as art history and the fundamental elements of art.

“For instance, a report on ancient Egyptians might be accompanied by a beautiful painting of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Though they are naturally prone to include those techniques that are their favorites, they are also encouraged to always try new media and foster as much creativity as possible.”

Music also plays a part in the curriculum. The students learn to sing songs and poems in two languages, and also learn about Spanish, Chinese and Japanese culture through different styles of music. The school also offers a variety of extracurricular activities, including piano, guitar, cello and violin lessons.

Students are also encouraged to incorporate drama into their learning, she says.

“Children are naturally drawn to drama as a form of creative expression, especially when their imaginative abilities flourish during the elementary years and beyond,” she says. “In the course of their academic studies, children choose to summarize and share what they have learned with their peers writing and performing small plays that bring the subject matter to life.”

Rachel White-Hunt, director of music at British International School Chicago, believes there are dozens of reasons why music education is important. Experts say playing an instrument challenges the brain to think in a different way and make different connections. Music can also help children develop skills to express themselves and work as a team, as well as develop confidence and self-motivation, she says.

Ninth-grader Victor Ogunyankin, who plays guitar and piano, says “Music has changed the way I think, and it allows me to develop my creative ideas with more detail. Ever since starting music, my grades in English and creative subjects like art have improved.”

Children who regularly create and perform music also become experts in peer and self-assessment, and are able to set targets and goals for improvement, White-Hunt says.

Sasha Doytcheva, a ninth-grader, has played piano for 12 years.

“Piano requires an outstanding amount of focus as well as attention to dynamics, tempo, coordination and the notes all at once. Studying piano and music theory all my life has dramatically helped me in school and in other areas of my life, like public speaking and computation,” she says.

British International School of Chicago is the only school in Illinois to offer music, drama and dance curriculum in collaboration with The Juilliard School. The curriculum, which begins in preschool, equips students with the tools, curiosity and cultural literacy necessary to engage with and appreciate performing arts throughout their lives.

“I’ve seen the power of performing arts in all the schools where I’ve taught and believe the key to a successful performing arts curriculum is delivering it early and in a way that enables all children to contribute and develop—not just be assessed on how good they sound,” White-Hunt says.

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