January 17, 2012

Can We Talk Arts Advocacy?

One of the great things about social media is how well it brings people together to share ideas, questions, and best practices. Through Twitter, Facebook and other blogs, I've been able to connect with brilliant educators, parents, and advocates from around the country and the world, and I will begin to share some of this wonderful discourse via posts to this site.

This is how I discovered the article "Speak Their Language" by theater director Bora "Max" Koknar at the blog "2AMt." Mr. Koknar articulates a point that is often overlooked by many passionate and well-meaning arts educators: that it is important for us to be prepared to back up our advocacy with hard data that demonstrates a clear connection between art experiences and academic achievement
"Instead of focusing on the ‘soft’ skills we can anecdotally show we improve such as creativity, critical thinking, empathy, ability to make judgments etc, we need to speak the language of the policy makers." [Bora "Max" Koknar]

He goes on to provide specific data connecting one of his own theatre programs to improved language fluency for his students.

“On average, what we saw was 17-21% improvement in our 3rd Grade class in language fluency over the course of an academic year in comparison to the average of all the other 3rd Grade classes.” [Bora “Max” Koknar]

It would certainly seem that these are the type of "hard" facts that are respected and used by those that influence educational funding and reform.

However, this article actually made me reflect on the reasons why we haven't always seemed to “speak their language.” Some arts educators may have been reluctant to state these correlations because of their dedication to the notion of "arts for arts sake." In other words, some might say, "Why should the arts be in the classroom only as far as they can support other content areas (such as math, science, literacy, etc)? There are aesthetic elements that make art inherently valuable in a child's life in and of itself."

Related to that, is the concern that if too much is made of these correlations, that arts educators may be compelled to abandon their specialty in favor of addressing subject areas that are contrary to their expertise. I don't know anyone that wants to end up like that musician in the movie "School of Rock," where an administrator stumbles upon him conducting a music lesson, and he quickly has to pretend that he was only using his guitar to sing math-related tunes with the students.

Furthermore, while I agree with Mr. Koknar that the data is out there, how many busy arts specialists, classroom teachers, or teaching artists feel that they really have the time to do the research, interpret it, and then present it in a compelling way on demand? I've held all three of those titles, and I can attest to the fact that it's not easy.

This was a big part of why I wrote and published "The Playmaking Way: Using Dramatic Arts to Support Young Readers and Writers." As an actress who also has years of experience teaching in challenging urban classrooms, I understand what it's like to want to give young people these fantastic constructivist arts experiences, while also feeling pressure to "teach to the test" or whatever curriculum is mandated at the moment - all within an extremely tight daily schedule. Yet I developed a way to do so, and in a manner that helped my students meet grade level standards in English language arts at the same time. How I did it and the research that supports my methodology is detailed in the book, but in a straightforward way so that other teachers can replicate what I've done easily, and also arm themselves with those "hard facts" if they are called upon to justify engaging in such activities during the course of the regular school day.

Most people do not enter the field of arts or the teaching profession thinking that they will also have to be statisticians. Managing the instructional needs of students in highly diverse and often overcrowded classrooms can already make the one job you have seem like ten! However, in light of the current trends in education reform, including increasing emphasis on using data to drive instruction, and the call for teacher accountability based on student performance on standardized tests, anyone interested in bringing or keeping arts in the classroom must be well-versed on how the arts enhances core curriculum skills, and be able to provide evidence that this is taking place in their own classrooms.

So how can we begin to do this in a way that’s practical and has impact? Here are a few of my suggestions.

Sometimes we don't even realize that what we are already doing to accomplish learning goals in drama, music, dance, or visual arts are simultaneously helping our students accomplish learning goals for reading, writing, oral language, math, science, or social studies. Knowing the basic state and national standards in other content areas can help us recognize these connections and use them to advocate for our programs.

(By the way, if you want to become more familiar with those "Common Core" standards everyone is talking about, I have included a link on the sidebar of my blog for your convenience.)

We can start by gathering data on how our activities and lessons help children develop skills specific to other content areas. If teaching your middle school students the basics of square dancing facilitated their understanding of fractions, turns and quadrants, collect evidence of that. Did that play on bullying not only improve social skills amongst your first graders, but also increase their vocabulary? Gather evidence of that. When the children who participated in your spoken word program ended up outperforming their peers in the writing portion of the ELA exams, did you keep evidence of that?

Specific assessments, whether observations, checklists, anecdotal records or the rubrics that go with them, will be crucial in helping to gather and analyze the data about the great work you're doing with your students. In the last chapter of "The Playmaking Way," I include tips on creating both formative and summative assessment tools for dramatic arts. Whatever your artistic field, it's important to use both types of assessments because data in regards to student progress and thinking during a particular project can be just as powerful as data on student competency levels at the end.

You don’t have to be the national spokesperson for arts in education, but it’s still a good idea to keep up with the latest policies and trends, because whether it’s the president’s “Race to the Top” funds, Common Core Standards, or a new study released from an education journal, to a greater or lesser extent they will affect you and your practice. If browsing the daily papers or professional magazines on a regular basis presents a challenge, following a few relevant websites, blogs, or Tweeters can keep you informed of news and data that may support your work in the classroom. For example, on my blog I maintain a list of “Great Drama/Literacy Sites,” while my Twitter lists include categories such as “education news” and “arts organizations.” Through Twitter you can also follow and participate in live, scheduled discussions about these topics and what they mean for you. This is especially useful for dramatic arts educators or classroom teachers interested in incorporating the arts, because they often feel very isolated, particularly if they are the only ones providing these services in their school communities.

Ultimately, I don't think that arts educators are from Mars and everyone else is from Venus. We already speak the same language in terms of our mutual desire to effect positive change and development in the lives of young people. Going a step further and communicating with educational administrators and policy makers by sharing specific evidence of how our work impacts academic achievement will only facilitate understanding and benefit the children and families we serve.

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