by Dr. Susan Snyder
When you walk into an ARTS-INFUSED school, there is an immediate feeling of welcome, openness, and comfort. The absence of threat is reflected in the children's art on the walls, the sense of diversity, the smiles of welcome from children and adults, and a willingness to draw you into the community. The tangible evidence is supported by a spirit and texture in the air - invisible and yet enveloping. It's not too neat. This is a good place to be!
The school has a mission statement crafted through dialogue between administration, staff, parents, and students. This statement is mirrored in individual and group actions, and is reviewed and revised regularly over time. The review process keeps dialogue open and alive between the parties that make up the school community.
In an ARTS-INFUSED School, the voice of the child is heard. This central statement puts the child, or all students, at the center of decision-making. For any decision, the first question is, "Why?" and the next is, "Is it in the best interest of the students." The most obvious evidence of the child's voice is expressive art, writing, and voices around the school. But this voice is equally evident in decisions made every day, and the school's policies. While budgetary constraints, scheduling, and adult convenience are considered, they don't overshadow what is best for students. Although quality materials help students learn, "stuff" is not substituted for process.
An ARTS-INFUSED School has central philosophical umbrella of higher order thinking (sometimes called critical or creative thinking), which focuses on learning to learn rather than learning of facts for their own sake. Higher order thinking skills, according to Bloom, are application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. While knowledge and comprehension (lower order thinking skills) are important, they are imbedded in instruction toward deeper understanding and skill.
Many theorists have described the creative thinking process that leads to higher order thinking. Parnes describes: problem identification > brainstorming > problem solving/incubation > AHA! Graves' writing process includes prewriting > rewriting > draft > problem solving/ incubation (includes self and peer review) > draft > problem solving/incubation > final draft > publication. The artistic processes of creating, performing, and responding all have sequential steps for developing products. And there is a global model: imitation > improvisation > creation.
Higher order thinking is supported by three major, inter-related components: strong arts programs, arts-infused curriculum, and democracy.
The ARTS-INFUSED School's curriculum wraps higher order thinking skills around academic disciplines which include dance, drama, language, math, music, science, social studies (alphabetical order), and any other district mandates. (It is possible to substitute intelligences (Gardner) for disciplines, which may encourage blending of artificial categories.)
The learning process, in which students experience, explore/imitate, describe, label, practice (visually, aurally, and kinesthetically - 8-2,000 times for each concept or skill), create, and then maintain; is the key to teaching for higher order thinking. This learning process not only demands hands-on, brains-on teaching and learning, it is the process through which the arts are naturally assimilated and learned. Therefore, by teaching in, about, and through the arts, the arts become the lab for learning in all disciplines. They also become the avenue for learning how to learn throughout life.
The outward manifestations of ARTS-INFUSED School curriculum are seen in the teaching/learning materials available in the classroom, the classroom layout, and interactions between students and adults.
The learning materials are open-ended, to encourage links to be made across information systems. There are no "canned" worksheets, because they waste time that will be used for discovery learning through the learning process. Learning is unique to the group, and sometimes to the individual child. Hands-on manipulatives are available and used. Writing tools, including flip charts, markers, paper, pencils, musical instruments, costumes, props, and art supplies, are readily available.
The classroom layout may be different each time one enters a room. There is space for movement, comfortable places for independent reading or small group meetings/work. Worktables that fill a portion of the room replace traditional desks and chairs. Work materials are displayed attractively on reachable shelves. Details, roles, and goals for the day and week are posted, and there is lots of space for charts, three-dimensional display (possibly overhead), flip charts, and display of student work.
This classroom is a busy place, with a high level of engagement. However, different students may be doing very different things at any given time. Choices have been provided and made. The teacher's voice is one of many in the room most of the time, and kid watching is part of the teacher's role. These teachers will tell you that they learn from their students every day. And the students will most likely be able to tell you what problem they are working on, and where they are in the problem solving process.
Teachers collaborate together to determine the curriculum. While content is often district driven, the teachers are encouraged to ask, "Why is this important to the students?" "How does it relate to their lives?" "How can I approach this through my specific discipline?" "How will it help enhance building understandings and skills in my discipline?" "How can I teach and students learn this content in, about, and through the arts?" and "How can I construct teaching/learning experiences about this content that also build higher order thinking skills and democratic process?"
Communication between teachers is essential in an ARTS-INFUSED School, and the schedule is designed to make this communication possible.
Music, movement/dance, visual arts, and drama are the languages of the arts. They also relate strongly to more than half of Gardner's intelligences, or ways of knowing and learning about the world. In an ARTS-INFUSED School the arts are academics, and each is taught sequentially to develop skills and understandings in that art.
The minimum requirement for arts in an ARTS-INFUSED School is at least one art each day, and each art at least once a week. ARTS-INFUSED Schools eventually work toward two periods of 35 or more minutes for each art each week. Arts are additionally infused into teaching/learning in other disciplines. And there are additional "clubs" or extracurricular student choices to further engage in the arts.
Arts specialists are highly skilled in guiding students to create, perform, and respond in the specific art; and also understand the importance of inter-arts and interdisciplinary collaborations. They understand the processes that lead to higher order thinking and democratic process.
The processes followed in learning the arts also become the processes through which understandings in other disciplines are developed. As the ARTS-INFUSED School matures, arts skills and understandings are learned by the classroom teacher through interactions with the arts specialists, visiting artists, and in-service opportunities within the school, at retreats, courses, and the summer institute.
Because the arts often engage emotion as well as intellect, arts experiences become powerful real-life experiences that bring meaning to developing language, math, science, and social studies concepts. Learning in the arts provides the problems, skills, understandings, and strategies. Learning through the arts provides the motivation, stimulation, and authentic routes for demonstrating understanding. After a brief period of adjustment, arts-infusion becomes the normal route for teaching/learning throughout the school.
Democracy is a complex educational ideas, and difficult to achieve. Traditional schools are not democracies, and usually neither government(s) nor families reflect democratic procedures. Therefore in an ARTS-INFUSED School, administrators and teachers have expertise and guide students, and perhaps the school community, through a sequence of steps to functioning democratically. This guidance is done through structuring real situations that build democratic skills and understandings. One place to start is determining the balance between freedom and responsibility. Another is the balance between individual value and communal membership. These considerations affect the amount of competitive, collaborative, and individual time spent. Each member of a democracy explores and refines these balances.
Democratic processes take time, and school time is constantly being squeezed. Therefore, the democratic process is taught through learning in all disciplines. As students write, compute, compose, draw, experiment, or explore the world, they do it through learning strategies that require use of aspects of the democratic process such as speaking, listening, paraphrasing, expressing a point of view, compromising, sharing, comparing, celebrating different approaches, representing, and so on.
The concept of representative town meetings is a staple of ARTS-INFUSED School philosophy, and includes student government and regularly scheduled community meetings. These meetings are times for sharing and celebrating, build a sense of community within the school, link the school to the larger community, and provide information. They also afford an opportunity for students to develop leadership skills.
Additional signs of democracy are committees that put decision-making and power and responsibility jointly into the hands of students, parents, staff members, and administration. Students run some of these committees, when appropriate. Others are a combination of interested or necessary parties.
Democratic principles, moreover, are practiced every day in every classroom. Teaching strategies are designed so the voice of the child is heard, and children can hear their own voices emerge. Teachers incorporate the role of problem provider, facilitator, guide, and learner along with teller. As students learn to solve problems, they learn facts, democratic principles, higher order thinking strategies, and independent learning processes.
An ARTS-INFUSED School administrator is THE essential cog in leading the school through the change process. Starting with a personal vision, this individual leads the school and community to share that vision and make it their own. This administrator is expert in change theory, and knows when to expect or plan resistance, elation, depression, celebration, diffusion of energy, and documentation of success. S/he plans proactively to build a collegial team, unified mission statement, communication channels, democratic institutions, community support, and necessary funding. S/he also is an artist, ready to join students, faculty, and community in the joy of artistic engagement and reflection.
The administrative team monitors the balance between routine and spontaneity, providing a comfortable blend of satisfied expectations and new stimulation. This master teacher monitors the individual comfort levels of staff; pushing, prodding, encouraging, and relieving as required.
Scheduling is a critical responsibility of the administrator, as teachers need regularly scheduled time to meet and plan together. This is particularly crucial between classroom and discipline based teachers.
The administrator is also the lead advocate in maintaining a balanced approach to mastery and high-stakes testing. Misplaced emphasis can lead to inappropriate interpretation and use of test scores. Assessment is meant to provide information about where a student is, and what goals are appropriate next steps. Mastery testing is only a snapshot measure of easy-to-measure skills and understandings. They can be biased, or simply not compatible with the way students have learned to demonstrate their understandings. They rarely measure higher order thinking skills. Assessment through authentic products provides far more than a snapshot of one moment, and allows students to demonstrate understanding through multiple routes. Providing information and a rational, well-articulated approach to assessment is key to an ARTS-INFUSED School's success, and sometimes a challenge for the administrator.
The key ingredient in a staff member of an ARTS-INFUSED School is openness. Very few teachers begin with the expertise to integrate the arts and other disciplines, or with the model of democratic process in the classroom and school. Teachers who are willing to learn with their students, make mistakes together, and have a childlike sense of wonder about new ideas will probably become a great team member. It takes only one or two nay-sayers to make the environment uncomfortable for risk-taking. Teachers gain expertise and experience through interactions with one another, visiting artists, and in-service opportunities related to integrated curriculum, multiple intelligences, learning theory/brain-based learning, and the artistic processes. An open, collaborative spirit forms between faculty members.
The process of becoming an ARTS-INFUSED School takes at least 5 years. During those years, funding is provided to train arts specialists, classroom teachers, administrators, office professionals, and parents. Students also need time to adjust to this student-centered approach that requires thoughtful interaction and decision-making on a regular basis.
Some schools choose to focus on one aspect at a time: strong arts programs, democracy, or integrated curriculum. Others work across the three pillars, beginning superficially and digging a little deeper each year.
Regardless of the route, there is a point at which the process feels overwhelming. This is when all superficial changes have occurred, and true change must occur. This challenge, once met, is the threshold to powerful learning, and an ARTS-INFUSED School is truly born. Rather than "adding on," the process of teaching and learning changes into one of problem solving and integrated arts throughout the school.
In the end, an ARTS-INFUSED School is about people. ARTS-INFUSED Schools are built on a base of community. Families and communities can grow together, celebrating similarities and differences equally. The philosophical foundations lead to education of the whole student through multiple knowledge and symbol systems developed through problem solving processes that will meet society's future needs. Thoughtful and visionary administrators guide equally thoughtful and creative teachers. Communities are built and sustained. And the voice of the child is heard. The ARTS-INFUSED School is a joyous, challenging, stimulating places for teachers, children, parents, community members, and visitors. You will say, "Wow! I wish I went to school here!"