Tuesday, December 8, 2015

No Art Left Behind: Art Helps Students Become Whole 

By Amanda Koonlaba,Visual Art educator and a Mississippi BAT

Originally published on her blog: http://www.msedblog.net/2015/12/06/no-art-left-behind-art-helps-students-become-whole-by-amanda-koonlaba/

I believe arts education is the antithesis of the corporate reform and privatization regime. I believe arts education is the best tool that schools have to reach all learners. I believe the arts belong in every school because they are important to our humanity. I believe all students deserve access to high-quality arts instruction. I also believe that the arts should be integrated with the traditional subjects of math, science, reading, etc.
You don’t have to take my word for it though. There is more than enough meritable research to back up my arts belief system. In fact, my school partners with the Whole Schools Initiative (WSI), which is a special project of the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC). The MAC has conducted more than one research study that shows the significant role the arts play in closing achievement gaps and creating a school culture that is most conducive to meeting the needs of the whole child.

This partnership began three years ago. I was asked by my administrators to write a grant to the Mississippi Arts Commission to fund the start of this partnership and to serve as the coordinator of the program. I was thrilled to do this. I had previously taught at two Model Schools for arts integration (both public schools) as a third and first grade teacher. Now, as the visual art teacher at my current school, I was so proud to be able to bring such an amazing opportunity to my new students.

So, the teachers at my school began attending professional development workshops on the arts and how to integrate the arts into instruction. These weren’t the typical, mundane workshops that come to mind when you think about CCSS and data analysis. These were fun workshops where teachers were able to participate in artistic processes and learn how to use those to integrate their instruction. They were engaging and worthwhile. The same as what we want for the instruction of our students.

We put a very concentrated effort into using this new partnership to change the image of our school within our community. Over time, our school began getting positive press which had been lacking for many years. The staff led students and the community in painting murals, revamping outdoor spaces, and hosting events to get all stakeholders into our school. This speaks to the cultural change we are experiencing as a result of our efforts.

I certainly feel happier at my job than I ever have in eleven years of teaching. Yes, we still have to test and we still have data conversations. It is still stressful, but we are combatting that for ourselves and our students with the arts. On the days a teacher is able to integrate an art project into their instruction, both the teacher and students enjoy being at school.

As I reflect on what the arts have accomplished at my school, I can’t help but think about the many conversations that I get to have with students and educators in my role as the arts integration coordinator.

Last year, a fourth grader asked me if I realized they had been doing art in their math class. I said, “Of course, I helped your teacher get those materials for you guys.” He was surprised. He said he hadn’t realized you could do art and math at the same time. He went on to say, “I needed that. I only get to come to your class once a week. I need art more than once a week. It helps me forget about all the bad things.” I know that student very well. I have been his visual art teacher for three years, and I know what he is referring to when he mentions “bad things.” I know what his home life is like, and I know he was being so sincere.

I remember the Saturday that we finally finished renovating one of our outdoor courtyards. We had spent quite a bit of time writing grants for funding and organizing the students, staff, and community to complete the work. We painted a mural, planted flower beds, built a walkway and repaired a patio. It was quite a bit of work and most of it had taken place on the weekends, which shows the level of commitment we rallied for this effort. My principal and I were the last to leave. We just stood there gazing at what we had accomplished. All she said was, “It’s beautiful. They have art in their environment. They deserve this,” and we both started crying. We know our students. We work with them everyday. We know what they are up against, and we understand that our school has to be the bright spot for them and our community.

I also think about a conversation that I had with a member of our Arts Integration Team. This teacher pulled me aside one afternoon recently to tell me about how she had been using drama in her classroom. She said at first she didn’t think her students would be able to do it, because she has many low performing students. However, she couldn’t believe what happened in her classroom as she was teaching her math lesson with drama. She said it was like they all just woke up from a deep sleep. Their personalities began to shine in a way she had never seen. They treated each other with respect as they worked. They were happy. She was happy. And they got it! They deeply understood the math concept she was trying to teach. She said,
Amanda, we have to find a way to keep doing this and to do more of it. Our students deserve it. I can’t look those kids in their faces anymore unless I am certain we are doing everything in our power to give them everything they deserve.
I agree with her. I am committed to helping make that happen. The biggest point that I am trying to make with this post is that if we really want whole children who live in a whole society and attend whole schools with teachers who are also whole, then we have to do whatever it takes to keep the arts in our schools. Every human being on this planet deserves to be whole.

This is a large collaborative piece that my students completed to hang in the hallway of one of our buildings.

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