A Balanced Education

Remember those commercials we used to watch for cereal when we were kids. The sugary cereal would be bookended by bran toast, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk, and a bowl of granola topped with a sliced banana. "Sugar Cereal X is a part of this nutritionally balanced breakfast!" the announcer would inform us.

I would never consider the arts as superfluous to a child's education as sugar cereal to a breakfast, but I wonder if others due. Recently I posted a project on DonorsChoose requesting support for a project that will give my kids pastels, charcoal, water colors and picture frames. I posted the proposal on this blog, and I got this comment from "Mad Jack":
The thought that occurs to me is that time in school would be better spent teaching your budding Picasso to read, write and speak English rather than fine art. But perhaps that's an invalid opinion, since I'm not a certified school teacher.
Mad Jack pointed out that in my proposal I stated almost all of my students are below level in reading and math. With that in mind, does he have a point? I think a lot of us from "touchy-feely" backgrounds certainly embrace the role of the arts in education, but do my students have time for them when some of them are reading at a kindergarten level or can't subtract basic minuends?

I want to say emphatically to Mad Jack, who I hope isn't serving as too much of a straw man, YES. I am certain there's research to support my claim, but for the purpose of this post, I'm going to speak from personal experience.

As part of a year long inquiry project, my class and a second grade self-contained Special Education class are using visual arts as a gateway to literacy. Our theme is "Artists as Storytellers". Our most recent field trip paints the clearest picture (pardon the pun) of how the arts are helping my students.

Last Friday students from my class and my colleague's went to the International Center of Photography (ICP). We looked at artwork from a Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong whose photo's play on classic Chinese images to critique globalization's impact on Chinese culture. We also looked at photos by Alonzo Jordan, a barber who took up photography in the Jim Crow era to give a realistic depiction of the black community in Jasper, Texas.

Before the visit to the ICP, we discussed Wang's photos as fantasy-like, connected them to fiction writing, discussed elements of culture, and compared the "artist's purpose" of (a play on author's purpose) Wang's artwork to Edward Hopper's. We also discussed the history of segregation in the South, compared Jordan's photos to personal narrative writing, and discussed the tone of his photos.

During the visit, my students learned new vocabulary like documentary, stereotype, globalization, and portrait. We discussed the importance of Buddha to Chinese culture. Our discussions about the photos required my students to engage in a lot of critical thinking.

Afterward, my students chose American symbols to "play with" like Wang Qingsong. Some of my students' artwork included a Statue of Liberty on top of a Coca-Cola bottle and a holding a shopping bag. Next, my students will use our class's new digital camera to create portraits of our community similar to Alonzo Jordan's.

In short, art is allowing my students to engage in critical thinking that many of them can't or won't when it comes to reading, writing and math. Many of my students are still learning to read, so they can't engage critically with texts independently. With art, every single student in my class can add their opinions. And they're eager to do so!

So, would my students' time be better spent if I was teaching them reading and math? I think my students' experience this year speaks for itself.


Mad Jack said…
The sugary cereal would be bookended by bran toast, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk, and a bowl of granola topped with a sliced banana. "Sugar Cereal X is a part of this nutritionally balanced breakfast!" the announcer would inform us.

The cereal was some variant of Captain Wham-Oh's Sugar Frosted Rockets - Now with a sweet chocolate filling! - which was 'fortified' with 8 essential vitamins and iron - and was almost guaranteed to give any adult diabetes if there was more than one box of it in the kitchen cupboard. The bran toast wasn't; it was Wonder Bread. When I was in first grade I conducted a scientific experiment with Wonder Bread. I tried to get mold to grow on it. After six weeks it was still free of mold. The orange juice was some version of FCO mixed with something else. Suffice to say that it was a long way from freshly squeezed orange juice. And the milk? Milk is good for calves, not people. Check any food pyramid not paid for by the American Dairy Association. There wasn't any granola with five miles of that breakfast.

I would never consider the arts as superfluous to a child's education as sugar cereal to a breakfast, but I wonder if others due.

Eye wonder if they due, two.

I'm glad your students visited the museum and had a good time talking about all the things they saw. Experiences like this broaden their horizons, and that's important. Here's my caveat:

If a person can read, they can do pretty much anything they want in this world. If you want to learn about auto mechanics, origami, biology, chemistry or American history you can just check out a book or three from the public library (your kids do know about the library, right teach?) and have at it. But if you can't read, you are well and truly screwed.

When I see you soliciting funds for art supplies instead of library books, I begin to wonder where your priorities are.
Ruben Brosbe said…
Wow, that use of due was pretty egregious. I need to proofread my writing. On the other point - reading is without a doubt the gateway to all other knowledge. But, the point I'm trying to make is for my lowest readers still learning how to decode, art provides a chance for them to practice critical thinking skills they can't with basic texts. But, nonetheless, if you worry about my priorities you can check out my other Donorschoose proposal for books: http://www.donorschoose.org/donors/proposal.html?id=508648&challengeid=32195 Feel free to donate or pass this along to friends.
Mad Jack said…
I'm not set up for pay pal. Will you take a check or money order?
Ruben Brosbe said…
If you're interested in donating to my proposal for classroom books, you can give through Donorschoose.org. They accept credit card or check. I really appreciate your support!
Unknown said…
One of the most poignant stories of this tension between experience and text is of inner city children who take a standardized test as a measure of their abilities and ask their teacher things like, "What's a porch?" It is so difficult for the middle class to conceptualize of the kind of experiential deprivation caused by generational poverty. (Although my personal comedic favorite was trying to teach a class of middle school ELD students what the word "minority" meant--well, you see, you're a minority, well, not in this class, and well, not in this school, and not in this state, well, how should I put this?)

The work you're doing is perfect and amazing and affirmed both by Piaget's observational research and current MRI research. What matters is the brain's engagement for dendrite formation, the more formation the more pathways, and the more agility for sophisticated analytical thinking beginning in the teen years. They MRI kids in different tasks--in reading it is a very tiny part of the brain engaged.

Keep up the good work!

I'd make a donation but as I am in CA I am buying my own white board markers, paper, paper clips, etc.
Unknown said…
I'm teaching college freshmen and I use the same approach to teach rhetorical analysis, starting with the visual and working toward the textual. My students can see through the elements of an advertisement much faster than a letter to the editor or a news article, and it gives us a common vocabulary to talk about texts later on. I think that understanding visuals is just as important as learning to read when such a great deal of information is given to us in a visual format. And creating visuals is just an extension of analyzing them.

In other words, I think this project sounds like a lot of fun.

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