Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 28, 2013

Tidbits: Arts can provide so much more

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — There's a great resource available to our students to help them learn about reading, writing and arithmetic. It can also teach those values some would say are missing in our society — perseverance, problem solving, doing your best work and trying again when you don't get something just "right."

What is this amazing resource? Our art programs.

Last week, the Cumberland County Board of Education heard a presentation on the Common Core Standards, which are currently being implemented across Tennessee. Basically, the common core standards seek to provide students with a deep understanding of key standards in math and English and language arts and to test students to see that they have a deep understanding of those principles.

And here is where those "extras" like art and music can help our students to shine. It's about more than understanding the aesthetic quality. It's about reinforcing the lessons of those more "academic" subjects and providing hands-on activities that not only help students to see those principles of math, science, social studies and history for themselves, but also to help them retain that knowledge.

I think back to fourth grade when we studied Native American cultures that pre-date the European colonization of the Americas. We were discussing cave drawings and how those provided insight into the history of these tribes and their culture. We were all given a brown paper bag and paint and instructed to make a cave drawing of our own, depicting some of our culture.

In college, one of my literature professors included at least one project where we were to take a piece of literature from our studies and translate it using art. It could be sculpture or painting or drawing. It could be a song. We could use whatever medium we wanted. Then, once that work was done, we had present our work to the class and explain why we chose to interpret the text in that particular way, including the symbolism of the imagery. It helped to understand symbolism, literary theory and taking information from a text, all key points of this new curriculum.

Recently, I was working with my mother on an art project, something new and different for the both of us. I threw up my hands and said, "I didn't realize I'd have to do math and science today."

My mom, an art teacher, looked at me and said, "Well, of course it does. Most art involves understanding of those math and science principles."

My frustration with my calculations quickly subsided as I watched our artwork take shape, and I understood a few things I might have forgotten since my days in a classroom.

A few months ago, I spoke at length with two teachers, both of whom taught math and art. It seemed a strange combination to me. Math can be rather restricting, with one right answer. Math is not subjective. Two plus two will always equal four, no matter how much or how convincingly you argue otherwise.

But, one made a great point. "Math and art are both about problem solving," she told me. That made perfect sense. You try something, experiment, and it doesn't go according to plan. That doesn't mean the experiment was a failure. It just means you have to take a look at what happened, adjust and try it again.

I think that's a lesson we'd all like our students to learn.

The National Art Education Association adds that art teaches three values that are vital to a complete, well-rounded education: work, language and values.

Art teaches young people about the value of work and completing a task to the best of his or her own ability for no other reason than for the satisfaction of a job well done. It's about teaching the value of good workmanship, whether it be a painting to hang on the refrigerator or writing a report for your day job.

Art also teaches a visual language that transcends our own language. Many of the images found in artwork are iconic images and art helps provide the ability to describe, analyze and interpret those images.

Art is also tied to our values. Each artist takes their own experience and values and shares a piece of that through their work. That includes the kindergarten student cutting and pasting flowers to posterboard to the acclaimed artist whose work hangs in museums. From expressions of beauty to images of destruction and war, art helps expose students to a variety of values and concerns and how art can help express hopes for a brighter future.

A few months ago, it was announced several states would experiment with a longer school year, adding 300 hours so that struggling school districts could add more art and music instruction, as well as additional time for individualized instruction in those academic areas where students were struggling. I don't think a longer school year is the answer for those struggling schools. I think a robust art and music program starting in kindergarten can reinforce those academic standards, and there are studies that back this up. It can also make our schools much more fun for our students.

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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.