Look very closely at the picture above. This picture was taken at an elementary school in St.Kitts while I was on a tour. I stopped to look at the bulletin board and on the board was a list of classes that the students could choose from for the upcoming term. There choices were Cooking, guitar, drumming, steel pan, dance, drama, sewing, arts and crafts and masquerade. As an arts teacher, with a team of three to support the pursuit of arts at my school, we would not come even close to offering our students all of these subjects as a separate choice.
The reason why I was lucky enough to be taking a school tour in St.Kitts was because two summers ago I was a member of Project Overseas. As a participant on Project Overseas, I spent the month of July giving workshops to teachers in St.Kitts about autism and it was the experience of a lifetime. Although I was there to lead workshops, I definitely learned a lot about my own practice and came back with a lot of questions about our education system. First and foremost, how important are the arts?
Teaching in an elementary school, I see the benefits of the arts every day. For many of my students, it is a chance to be successful in an otherwise challenging day. For other students, it is the outlet that helps them deal with challenges in their home life. I could tell the story of my struggling student who beamed when all of his classmates gave him a standing ovation in class for his beat boxing presentation. During our Black History Month assembly, one of our students did such an amazing dramatic interpretation of a Maya Angelou poem the whole audience broke into thunderous applause at the end and she looked so happy. There are stories of art projects, songs written, original dance moves and hours upon hours of critical thinking and creative expression.
The arts also support learning in all other areas of the curriculum. The scientific inquiry process and the creative process follow a very similar trajectory. They both encourage a lot of curiosity and a chance to try something out and revise as needed. The arts also support learning in math. Music notation and instruction in rhythm is basically a different way of thinking about fractions. Many music posters with division of beats look identical to fraction strips. When I walk around my school, I also often see art projects based in tessellations or symmetry. Social studies is basically embedded in the third overall expectation in the arts curriculum. Analyzing historical contexts and the past and present community perspectives is taught every term in Ontario arts classrooms and that is directly tied with the Social Studies curriculum. Finally, language is often what drives music melody and dramatic presentations.
The arts are also bring us together and make us feel good about ourselves. I have read so many studies about how music and the arts provide stress relief and comfort in times of need. With a very important move towards providing support to our students in the area of mental health, we need to recognize the important role that the arts can play in achieving this goal.
I recognize that I teach in a school with a large staff that requires a lot of planning time so having specialized arts teachers is easier for us than many others. However, when you start looking at the research conducted by People for Education in 2013 versus the same study in 1998 about specialist teachers I start to wonder about the direction we are taking. In 2013, only 44% of elementary schools had specialist teachers dedicated to teaching the music curriculum. In 1998, the number of specialist music teachers was 58%. My question is if planning time went up over the last 15 years why are there fewer music teachers required?
Can classroom teachers do an amazing job at teaching, drama, dance, visual arts and music? Of course they can! I see amazing instruction in the area of visual arts at my school all the time. However, with funding for arts performances and programs down as well as declining commitment to have specialist teachers are we moving in the right direction?