When someone asks me why the arts are important to learning, I usually respond by describing my own experience in using the arts to excite learners. One such experience follows. Here is the scene: A narrow, windowless room in an urban middle school, with twelve desks and twelve teenage bodies that don’t quite fit sitting in them. The desks are positioned with two feet between them, so each student is in his or her own orbit. In the back corner behind the students, there is a grey metallic desk, the teacher’s home base. As I enter, I see ten boys and two girls bury their heads in the nest of their arms.
I have convinced the teacher to let me work with the students integrating the arts and stories. I walk in; a few students lift their heads and peek at me over the tops of their wrists. I introduce myself telling them that I want to share a story about something that happened to me, about an unwelcome intruder. One night a bat got into my bedroom, roused me from sleep, and sent me into hysterics. When I realized the bat was more terrified than I was, I calmed down caught the bat in a towel and let it fly into the night. Some of the students are engaged by the story, a few heads coming off the desks.
Now that I have some of their attention, I ask, “Is there anybody who likes to draw?” Two hands shoot up. I invite those two students, “come up and draw a favorite part of the story on the chalkboard with this colored chalk.” One student, a tall boy in baggy pants, approaches and tentatively begins drawing, carefully choosing each new piece of colored chalk. A picture emerges of a woman sitting bolt upright in bed with a bat caught in her hair; her mouth is a pronounced zig – zagged line. Hands flail in disorderly hair. Another student asks, “Can I draw part of the story?” Another picture emerges, this time with an oversize, menacing bat peering out from a towel. They are retelling the story in sequence.
There are still some heads on the desks. I ask, “Are there other ways we can tell this story in addition to words and pictures?” There is a long pause, some deep sighs and no replies. I ask again, “Can you think of another art form we could use to tell this story?” A student suggests “we could do it by writing a song about the bat.” I ask the students to think of some words to go with the pictures on the blackboard. The girl who suggested the song comes up and webs some words linked to the illustrations.
I ask if there are any desk drummers in the classroom that could tap out a rhythm for us. A young man volunteers and begins tapping a short repetitive rhythm. Soon we have a rhythmic pattern for the song.
We work on the lyrics, using the pictures on the board to help us sequence the song and identify key parts to include. “A bat got into my bedroom…”
Finally we add movement to the story, telling it through movement exercises in our seats. By this time every student has not only raised his/her head but has joined the action. If they aren’t interested in drawing, they’re interested in adding rhythm, lyrics and music; if the music isn’t of interest, the movement piece is. Using the rhythm of the music the students create a very angular, staccato piece.
The movement piece begins in a familiar position, head in arms a sleep; the sound of something in the air, a slow lifting of the heads off the desk, a stretch, groan, and rubbing of eyes. And a quick neck collapse back on the desk, still groggy. Then, necks snap up and frantic looks. A movement of arms is added, swatting the bat away. There is a wonderful phrase when the students scoop up the bat in towels and lift their arms and eyes into the air, releasing the bat. A seat movement piece is created.
Finally, all the students are engaged and there is energy in the classroom, the students are working together, drawing on each others’ strengths. Someone suggests turning the seat dance into a full scale movement piece. There isn’t enough space in the classroom; the teacher suggests using the hallway. We end up in a phalanx 3 across and four deep moving down the wide space lined with lockers. The students dance down the hall as one with dynamic energy and bodies moving in punctuated staccato rhythms.
After class, when I have chance to sit down and reflect with the teacher, she comments, “ I was worried at first, I didn’t know how they (the students) would respond, but it turned out okay.” “There was so much energy in the classroom, the kids were singing, dancing and working together.” She adds that all students were engaged in some part of the lesson reminding her of the importance of providing different ways for students to enter into learning and the role the arts play in making that possible. Using the arts, the students interpreted a story through drawing, writing music, and choreographing a dance. We discuss next steps, what she is willing to try in her classroom. She is looking for ways to motivate her students and engage them in reading. We design a plan for her to use drawing as a tool for reading comprehension. She likes the idea of her students drawing to learn and drawing to demonstrate their understanding.
In our classrooms we know students like the students in the story have a wide range of abilities and interests. The arts help engage ALL students. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein is quoted as saying: “Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate, inspire and motivate.” When students interact with the arts, listening to music, or watching a dance performance; when they look at an unfamiliar object, like an Egyptian artifact they begin to experience themselves in relation to a world of possibilities.
See these CTL blogs for ideas related to the role of arts in learning: Let’s Make Good Art, Visiting Google Art Project, Visiting Google Art Project Take 2, and The Central Role Arts Play in Student Learning.