The Arts Matter — in March and Throughout the Year

More than 4,000 art educators gathered in Fort Worth, Texas, early this month to “draw connections to their communities” — the theme of this year’s annual National Art Education Association (NAEA) conference. And what a great way for these P-12 teachers of art, along with museum educators; university professors of art education; and school-, district-, and state-level arts and education administrators to also kick-off the month during which all the arts are recognized for their importance to a well-rounded education — Dance in the Schools Month, Music in Our Schools Month, Theatre in Our Schools Month, and Youth Art Month.

There was no question what mattered in Fort Worth during the recent NAEA conference. (Photo courtesy of NAEA and Seth Freeman Photography)In Fort Worth, one phrase — ART MATTERS! — became the mantra of the conference. It was emblazoned on tee shirts, tote bags, and, especially for this group, aprons for the studio art room. It was also on banners attached to light posts throughout the downtown, a great affirmation of Fort Worth’s world-class commitment to the arts — witness the Amon Carter and Kimball Art Museums and the Bass Performance Hall, to name only a few — as well as a sign to let locals know that NAEA was in the house.

NAEA President F. Robert Sabol, in the opening session, used the rhetorical device of entreating his audience to respond to each of a long list of reasons why the arts are important in the education and lives of young people; the response was "ART MATTERS!" The most enthusiastic response came after he cited former NAEA president Elliot Eisner’s “10 Lessons the Arts Teach,” a must-have resource for any serious arts education advocate.

The NAEA attendees, representing virtually every state and the District of Columbia, as well as more than a dozen other countries, took advantage of more than 1,000 professional development opportunities, some as plenary sessions with renowned artists such as Jesús Moroles, whose monumental granite sculptures are featured at CBS Plaza in New York, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institute. There were also Super Sessions, focusing on hot topics such as the Next Generation Arts Standards and connecting with community resources like museums, performing arts centers, and libraries.

One Super Session examined three Texas models of community partnerships, two of them — Dallas and Houston — supported currently or in the past by Office of Innovation and Improvement grants. Big Thought, a past grantee of the Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) program, facilitates the efforts of more than 100 community cultural partners that believe in the power of imagination, creativity, and innovation to change the way children learn. Its Thriving Minds program promotes creative thinking, project-based learning, and experimentation, changing the way Dallas and its public schools think about educating youth for the 21st century.

With a 2011 grant award from the Professional Development for Arts Educators program, Houston Arts Partners is collaborating with the grantee, Houston Independent School District, and other local cultural partners to implement and evaluate CAPP, a unique professional development project designed to put the arts at the core of every school and promote a college-bound culture in Houston’s middle and high schools.

Another former AEMDD grantee, the University of New Hampshire, shared evaluation findings and a range of instructional and professional development resources resulting from its art and literacy project, “Picturing Writing: Fostering Literacy Through Art and Image-Making Within the Writing Process.” OII support helped to develop, pilot, and rigorously evaluate an elementary-grades approach to giving children visual and kinesthetic as well as verbal modes of thinking as they master the writing process. Session participants viewed a DVD that documented the picture-writing process in several New Hampshire schools along with evidence of students using the picture-writing process outperforming peers on reading assessments. Click here to see how two schools used picture-writing to bridge cultures and learning styles, helping ELL and newly immigrant students to appreciate and celebrate diversity.

The inherent connections between the visual arts and literacy are the point of this year’s Youth Art Month observance in Maryland’s Howard County Schools. (Photo courtesy of the Visual Arts Office, Howard County Public Schools)

I returned from the conference ready to write this blog and also continue to see how the ARTS MATTER to the students we serve. And just a week later, the Howard County (Md.) Schools opened its Youth Art Month exhibit, “The Visual Storyteller: The Narrative in Art,” at the local arts council’s gallery. The show’s a great way to see not only the skills that students are acquiring in visual arts, but also how the arts are a natural part of the new Common Core State Standards. Rather than pigeonholing literacy to the silo of English language arts, students are crossing over academic boundaries to express themselves in ways that connect with others, inspire their creativity, and prepare them for a world that increasingly communicates in words, sounds, and images. Or, as the kids would say, “it’s all good.”

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and works on issues of national arts education policy and practice.

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