Learning the art of teaching

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

If Patti Jolin's elementary school students had seen her trying to hit a note by blowing in water-filled beer bottles or free-handing a portrait of herself meant to represent the mood of a certain style of music, they probably wouldn't think her activities had anything to do with them.

They'd be wrong.

Though the sculpting, painting, dancing, storytelling and other artistic endeavors going on at Kenai Peninsula College this past week were for adults only, chances are many Alaska students will be doing some version of those activities themselves in the upcoming school year and their education will be better for it.

The activities were part of the seventh annual Integrating the Arts with Integrity Summer Arts Institute at KPC, a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which draws together teachers including home-school, private and public education administrators, artists and parents to explore ways to boost the role art plays in education.

"Anytime you bring the arts of all kinds into the classroom, you're capturing their interest," Jolin said.

Jolin, who teaches in Anchorage after getting her teaching degree at KPC, returned to her alma mater for the institute last week interested in learning new ideas for bringing more art into her classroom instruction.

Institute participants could chose up to three workshops for three college credits from an offering of 13, one each in morning, afternoon and evening sessions that ran Monday through Friday. Each workshop offered participants an opportunity to become mini-experts in various art disciplines. Performances and presentations also were held during the week that offered even more learning opportunities.

According to Celia Anderson, content director for the institute, about 50 people participated this year.

The program sounds tailor-made for art teachers, but most participants were classroom teachers, which Anderson said she was happy to see.

"You don't have to be an artist to teach arts well," she said. "You just have to have some training."

 

Violinist Liang-Ping How of the Riverrun Chamber Quintet and pianist JulieAnn Smith of Homer take a bow following a morning concert. Three times each day, students in the institute took a break to absorb a presentation by a different artist.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jolin is of that mentality.

"I'm not an artist," she said. "I don't draw, I don't sing, but I know the value of it ... and that's why I come, so I can learn it and teach it authentically."

Jolin especially likes using music with her students, which prompted her to take a music appreciation workshop. Taught by area music guru Maria Allison, the class covered telling stories with music, creating personalized soundtracks, music history and demystifying opera.

The workshop culminated in class members performing a waltz by blowing in water-filled beer bottles. Each bottle was wrapped in colored paper, which corresponded to colored circles placed in sequence on poster paper. When each dot was "read" on the paper, a student blew in the corresponding colored bottle to create the appropriate note. As adults, the participants probably have more experience drinking the contents of beer bottles than using them for musical purposes, but on Thursday they were doing an admirable job of coaxing out their tenuous tune.

Though Jolin said she had a hard time getting her designated note to sound, she commented on how engaging the activity could be for her students.

"If you do this with kids it would have so much more value than getting out their text books," she said.

The goal of the institute is not to do away with textbooks or the information they contain, but to show teachers ways of using arts to convey that information more effectively.

Not all students learn best by reading from a textbook or listening to teachers lecture. Some may learn by hearing a concept explained, while others struggle to comprehend the information until they can see it for themselves and actually manipulate it in front of them.

"It's so easy for anybody in general just to give art instruction solid art instruction short shrift when it can be just so incredibly valuable ... in how it can reach so many different learners," said Roy Shapley, who teaches at Sterling Elementary School.

In a puppetry class on Tuesday, Shapely was molding a piece of clay into a very nose-dominated head to adorn one of the puppets that would be used in a show later in the week. Puppetry class members learned how to make and operate six styles of puppets, were introduced to the elements of staging and production, discussed story forms and tried their hands at puppet performance. The discipline encompasses just about every school subject imaginable and it does so in a way that accommodates different learning styles.

 

Educators share a laugh while they create a story in a class that taught how to integrate art and literacy.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Everyone learns differently, and this can really just support that," Shapely said while trying to elongate the stub of clay at the bottom of his facsimile face to be somewhat proportionate with the bulge in the middle.

"This kind of experience kind of opens up possibilities for many different learners," he said.

Theories on learning strategies aside, there's another benefit of art that institute participants were happy to experience throughout the week:

"It's just fun," said Sharon Jones, a third- and fourth-grade teacher from Anchorage who was brushing up on her watercolor painting techniques during afternoon sessions.

"Those are the things kids can remember because it's fun," she said. "It's not just a cute activity, a fun activity, it's an activity that will help them remember something."

The idea that fun and learning can go together is one that needs to catch on, Anderson said.

"We have an odd history of a notion in this country that if it isn't painful, it isn't rigorous education," Anderson said. " ... Learning should be exciting. Children should want to go to school. If they want to be there, that's half the battle."

Judith Conk, keynote speaker and instructor for the institute, agrees.

"It doesn't have to be drill and kill at all," she said. "... I believe all schools need to be joyful and rigorous."

Conk, who now works as an education consultant, spent more than 30 years working at various levels of education, including teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent in New Jersey and New York. In that time, she realized and became an advocate for the value of arts education.

 

Kenai Peninsula College professor Jayne Jones, center, helps Barbara Ralston of Sears Elementary School as Roy Shapley of Sterling Elementary School ponders a dilemma in a class where students combined photographic portraits with written narratives to tell a story.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Arts for arts' sake builds kids' thinking abilities," she said. "The processes of art are the processes we need to live," including problem solving, collaboration, creativity and resource management.

"I believe in the research that says using arts as a vehicle helps kids learn better and deeper."

However, as education budget cuts plague schools across the country as well as in Alaska, it becomes difficult for some educators to devote the time, effort and funds to arts education that they may like to.

"The resource issue is a big one," Conk said. "I don't have any magic bullet to solve that, God knows."

But in her career, she has developed an outlook that helps her deal with the problem.

"As a superintendent I spent many years lobbying the state and the federal government for more funds, but at the same time you also have to make music with what you have left," she said, referring to an incident where violinist Itzhak Perlman supposedly broke a string during a concert but kept playing with the remaining ones rather than leaving the stage.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act also can be a threat to arts education because a common result of the act is educators structure their instruction around the standards that students will be expected to meet in mandatory tests.

"There's real tension between preparation for the tests and teaching in a more engaging way," Conk said.

However, dwindling budgets and test requirements don't have to mean an end to arts education, Conk said. One solution is to incorporate the arts into other subjects using strategies like the ones taught at the arts institute.

"The data are in. It has been proven that education that is arts rich is beneficial to higher test scores," Anderson said.

 

Watercolorist Paula Dickey uses student artwork to set up the next lesson for educators interested in using watercolors in their classroom.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

But that doesn't mean incorporating more art into education is easy, however valuable it may be.

"Teaching this way is hard work," Conk said. "There's no teachers' manual. It relies on the professionalism of the teachers and the problem solving of the teachers."

On Tuesday, Seward second-grade teacher Jennifer Carr was demonstrating her problem-solving skills in the woods behind KPC. She was taking a workshop that focused on combining art and writing.

The task she and other group members were attempting to complete was making a nature sculpture, which they would later write about and share with the rest of the class. The problem was the collection of angular sticks they'd interwoven was not holding together as hoped.

"Do you have any tape?" Carr yelled out to anyone walking by.

What drew Carr to the institute was the opportunity to get some new ideas and projects to try in her classroom, she said.

"I'm very arts and music oriented in my class. I like to get new ideas. It just pumps you up. It just inspires you to get you invigorated again to realize how important it is to education."

The fact that she got to try out all the new projects before teaching them to her class didn't make for a bad time, either.

"It's just nice to be the student for a change."



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