Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thoughts on the Arts and Subbing

I'm currently listening to an audio version of a biography called The Churchills: In Love and War (because, The Crown). So when I saw this meme*, I had to share. Churchill is on my mind, and the arts are dear to my heart. 

Since I've been substitute teaching in the public schools, I believe in the power of the arts more than ever. 

I've been in some very fine classrooms that I would be happy for my own kids to be part of. But I've also been in places that I would have to call an educational wasteland. I'm not going to lay out here what all I think is wrong with our educational system, but in our area, poverty is a huge contributing factor.  Kids who don't have basic needs met--for food, sleep, stability, and security, as well as love, care and parents in their lives--don't have brains that have bandwidth to learn long division or the French revolution.

But what they CAN absorb, I firmly believe, is music, art, theater and PE. (In my opinion, sports are a form of art as much as dance is.) And I believe it contributes far more to brain development and receptiveness than most would think.

One afternoon I was assigned to an elementary classroom for behavior-disordered students. There were only two students, and they were eating lunch in their own classroom.The teacher was letting them watch YouTube videos projected on the Promethean board. They were choosing animated movie trailers, but when I came back from the washroom, they were watching a clip from The Nutcracker ballet. The fifth grade girl was very excited. "We watched this in music class, the whole thing!"

She located the full-length version and was immediately engrossed in the wordless drama as it unfolded through acting and dance. Occasionally she would stand up and move around, mimicking the dancers' graceful or energetic movements.

Meanwhile the fourth grade boy in the class, who'd been having a rough morning--hitting and biting--got worked up and they ended up taking him home to grandma, who didn't have a car, so the teacher and aide drove him. I was left to watch The Nutcracker with the young lady, and it ended up that we watched for over an hour. 

It was remarkable that she was able to remain attentive and delighted with it for so long. It was evident that it really spoke to something deep inside her. When we did finally turn to her worksheets, she was cooperative and pleasant, and an incentive for finishing them quickly was that she was allowed to go join a kindergarten gym class as a helper. We finished out the day there--with her insisting that I hula-hoop alongside her, until it was clear that she was much better at it than me. Before she left, she hugged me and asked if I could please come back. 

Some days, she's allowed to go help in the library too. I was so happy for her that there are adults at that school that seemed to understand her, and I prayed that next year, in middle school, she'd receive the same kind of consideration. But what I've seen at the upper levels, more and more, is kids who are just killing time in the prison walls. The really motivated students have great academic opportunities, but for the unmotivated ones, or the low-functioning ones? They are completely disengaged and checked out, on their phones whenever possible and just waiting for the bell to release them.

In my opinion, they need alternative learning experiences which the public school just doesn't provide. They need to study topics of high interest or applicability. They need hands-on learning by doing. Certainly they have non-academic abilities that they are not developing, and therefore not gaining the confidence that could come from mastery and excelling in something. 

This fifth grade girl, it was clear to me, is a dancer or an athlete! Maybe a singer, too. If she were my project, I'd have her spending hours a day on dance and conditioning. We'd study history and literature by watching ballets and musicals. We'd compare and contrast them for critical thinking and writing. We'd read the stories they are based on. We'd study the human body. For math, we'd choreograph 8-counts and 32-counts; we'd contrast beats of a waltz, a march, and a tango; we'd figure out costs of dance lessons and ballet shoes. I wouldn't sweat it if she didn't learn algebra or chemistry. 

In case she were not able to make it as a professional dancer, I'd help her explore pathways for becoming a choreographer, or a dance instructor, or at least be equipped to work in a retail dance store. I'd also have her learn to cook, budget, shop the sales and the thrift stores, and use a sewing machine to alter a costume. 

It would be a great if she could get all this in a fine arts school, but it also sounds a bit like homeschooling, eh? One thing I have come to appreciate is how even on a bad day of homeschooling, my kids had access to all kinds of enriching activities that they were motivated to engage in, even if they weren't academic ones. After they finished a worksheet, they weren't just killing time in a cinder-block classroom.

Has it made me re-think my decision to have my two youngest in public school? I'm always open to returning to it...but for now, I'm thankful that I can work. B11 is in an excellent program in an enriching environment, and he's an extrovert who loves the classroom setting. Chicklet14's school is more of a mixed bag, but she has many fine teachers that she loves, and she is highly motivated to spend her free time reading. That's an activity we filled our homeschooling days with, so I feel pretty good about her. As we have always done, we'll take it year by year!

As an aside, I am shocked at the lack of books and reading materials in high school classrooms. If students finish work early, there is no expectation that they read; they are allowed to get on their phones. If I were a high school principal who wanted to raise test scores, I'd require books and magazines in every classroom, including coffee table books of art and photography, graphic novels, and even comic books for kids who "hate" reading. (It's all available cheap at garage sales and thrift stores, and book lovers would donate.) It's called a "print-rich environment" and again--the arts. Literature, story...it's art. I also would prescribe read-aloud time to be part of every elementary and middle school day. As a sub, when reading aloud been part of the lesson plan, I've seen incredible engagement from kids who did not tune in to other lessons.

My heart aches for kids I see who hate school, hate reading, and have not had extended exposure to the arts. Conversely, I see how life-giving the arts are for the kids who are involved in choir, theater, and dance in our high schools, and I know that sports and the visual arts are lifelines for others. I would love to see the arts, and movement generally, a bigger part of education, including bringing recess back to the elementary schools. Like the arts, recess primes brains for learning!

Stepping off my soapbox now...I've been much more long-winded than I intended. I do apologize if I sound as if my ideas are superior; please recognize this post is largely reaction and contrast, rather than proscription for educational change. I am truly humbled by those who are in these challenging classrooms every day! I've sat on this post for awhile, but feel it's time to stop overthinking. So, with apologies, these are a few thoughts...inspired by Winston Churchill! 

*So as I am about to publish, I discover that he never really said it. Disappointing....especially after using the quote as a springboard for my whole post. But I stand by the thoughts it inspired!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love these thoughts, JO! So inspiring. I agree with you about the arts, but hadn't thought of it that way before, about how they can be accessible to many kids and adults who can't access math and reading and other scholarly pursuits as easily. And sports can do that, too! So inspiring. I wish I had the energy to homeschool my girls. They have lovely public school teachers for K and 2nd grade, but spend so much time with discipline and being orderly. How important is it in the real world that we can line up well? Oh well. For now, it is so good for them to make friends with many diverse kiddos and we are so thankful for that. And we read to them a ton at home, too. Books are so important, whether you're reading yourself or being read to! It would be amazing if every high school class was filled with a variety of lit! Taryn