Are the Arts a frivolous leisure activity or is there more? Can the Arts serve as an educational tool, an economic driver, or an instrument for social empowerment? These questions and many more were answered on November 22nd, 2014, when Art is Power attended the 6th annual Arts Really Teach Marion Cilker Conference for Arts in Education in San Jose, California. The conference provided teachers with methods for integrating the Arts into academic curricula and highlighted the power of the Arts to cultivate creativity and the habits of mind essential for students to succeed in a constantly changing world. The two day conference was organized by Artspiration, Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Arts initiative, and San Jose State University’s Lurie College of Education. Included in the roster of partners were The San Jose Museum of Art, Artspark for Symphony Silicon Valley, San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, Red Ladder Theater Company, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, The Tech Museum of Innovation, and many more.
The opening reception began with a challenge. Participants were instructed to design and build gummy bear parachutes that not only functioned, but were aesthetically pleasing. The assignment transformed tables of strangers into teams of innovators implementing cross curricular methods to solve a unique problem. This challenge reflects how companies like Google, Adobe, Apple, and many others tap the creativity of their workers to generate technological advances. These habits of mind also echo the mental capacities necessary to build strong communities and solve current and future political, economic, and ecological problems.
After the opening reception, groups of teachers left the conference and hit the streets en route to workshops being held at the sites of the partnering organizations mentioned above. Examples of these workshops were The Rhythm of Mathematics, Dance! With Earth Science, Visual Art with English Language Arts and Social Studies, and Theater with English Language Arts, English Language, and Special Needs. I attended the workshop titled The Rhythm of Mathematics at the California Theater, which was taught by Endre Balogh, Vivian Euzent, and Lee Kopp of Toones Academic Music. The workshop focused on teaching multiplication, division, and fractions through music and was as informative as it was engaging.
After the workshops, everyone headed back to The San Jose Museum of Art for the closing ceremony. The room was abuzz with enthusiastic teachers chatting about newly acquired skills and their plans of implementation. I sat down with Dr. Robin Love, Dr. Susan Sandford Verducci, and Dr. Donna Bee-Gates, all from San Jose State University, and Charlee Wagner of the Villa Montalvo Arts Center. We discussed the impact of the Arts on everything from personal health to economic success. The energy was high and the exchange of ideas flowed better than I could have ever wished for.
My first question was why have the Arts become such a hot topic in education over the past six or seven years? Dr. Sandford Verducci quoted the previous day’s key note speaker and author of Tinkerlab Rachelle Doorley in saying,
We are moving out of the information age and into the innovation age which has intrinsic design needs. Both the lack of the Arts in schools and the need to be Arts literate are combining to create an excitement around design thinking, habits of mind, all those kinds of things.
Dr. Robin Love pointed to research and examples of innovative programs that consistently demonstrate the positive effects of the Arts in schools. Dr. Love and Dr. Verducci’s ideas go far beyond the scope of many schools who, in their overemphasis on passing standardized tests, can forget that the role of education is to provide students with the skills and imaginations to take charge of the world they will inherit. Charlee Wagner added,
The U.S. doesn’t really have much internal industry, so if we don’t have free thinkers, innovators, and creative people in our communities, we can just keep watching jobs go elsewhere.
The natural question then was, if the Arts are so important to education and economics, why are school administrators not rushing to integrate the Arts into their programs? Dr. Bee-Gates agreed that administrators are familiar with the research; however, because of political pressures to meet certain standards and prepare for standardized tests, infusing the Arts into curriculum and building community take a back seat. All agreed that teachers have to start the process in their classrooms first, and once the excitement happens, then others will join in, creating a kind of grassroots movement.
The conversation transitioned to the question of whether focusing exclusively on the instrumental value of the Arts for teaching math, science, and language Arts invalidates the true power of the Arts? Dr. Sandford Verducci explained,
The Arts in and of themselves are a value. They teach something that the other disciplines do not teach. You can engage in mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, and English Language Arts and get part of what you get from the Arts, but you don’t get everything. Arts instruction teaches process and the process of observing Art is beneficial for all of humanity, not just for creating economically productive workers.
Charlee Wagner, herself an Artist and musician, believes,
The Arts reflect the world around us and communicate our observations, takeaways, and thoughts. Art is integrated into everything we see and hear, so if as Artists, we integrate our world into our work, then why would we not use that process and work to illuminate other subject matter for students.
She continued by citing Stanford University’s Design Thinking framework which identifies empathy as its central theme. In addition to Art’s ability to teach academic subjects, skills, process, and persistence, the Arts inherently cultivate empathy, a capacity essential to any thriving community, organization, or institution. We then discussed the desired impact of the conference. Dr. Verducci explained that she hopes every person goes back to a classroom and tries to work with some of the ideas the conference touched on, especially the habits of mind and the design process. All were in agreement.
The conference was an obvious success, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to speak with such passionate, knowledgeable, and articulate experts. I walked away hopeful that the message will spread and transform schools into places that truly engage, educate, and empower students and their communities through the power of the Arts. I’d like to thank Esther Tokihiro, Dr. Robin Love, Dr. Susan Sandford Verducci, Dr. Donna Bee-Gates, and Charlee Wagner for taking the time to sit with me and have such a powerful discussion.