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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

For Art’s Sake


The value of art in the classroom

This is the second installment of a two-part story about the arts curriculum and funding in the Davis Joint Unified School District. Read the first part here.


Because teachers value art in their classrooms but are limited by the number of art programs, art must be incorporated into other subjects.

“There are things we have to do, but we have a lot of flexibility,” said Gigi Bugsch, a third grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary. “We have times where we have guided reading, and we have to do it at a certain time and make sure we have the minutes of math in. We can weave the art and the cooking and the crafts in throughout the day as long as we are making our minutes required for different subjects.”

With the large amount of curriculum expected to be covered in elementary schools, this integration is a main way for arts to continue its presence.

“The curriculum for 6th grade on is enormous, so for me I find that most all my art is worked into something else other than art,” said Marla Cook, a 6th grade teacher at Robert E. Willet Elementary. “This is my 29th year, so probably for my first 10 or 15 years I always had art […] but now we have so many demands on us having a regular time does not work.”

For Cook, the embedded nature of art is best displayed in social studies, where art naturally arises in the material that is covered.

“In 6th grade we teach ancient history and there is so much art during that time that we can do it when we are studying social studies. I think the best thing about doing art through social studies is that we put it in more context. Mosaics were discovered in Mesopotamia, so we will create mosaics when learning about that. I used to do it with real tiles, but that became cost-prohibitive, so now we do them with paper […] We also do art in math with tessellations, for example.”

This extensive curriculum stems in part from Common Core standards, the educational initiative to establish a consistent nationwide curriculum.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Common Core,” Bugsch said. “I like it because it feels like it is more challenging. The only thing that is impeding arts in education is the amount of meetings we have to go to because of it. I can weave art in here. I can weave technology in here. You just need to give me the educator unstructured time to think about what I want to do and how I want to do it. The lack of confidence that administrators have in educators is what is impeding art. The district office or those at the state level, those people who are making plans for us, don’t know what we have to do or what hurdles we have to go through on a day-to-day basis.”

Indeed, such structure outside the classroom can mirror how the teacher will teach in the classroom. A lack of time to be creative behind the scenes dictates the level of ingenuity a classroom activity will entail.

“If our time outside of the classroom is always so structured that is only going to teach us to be more structured with the kids,” Bugsch said. “If you’re stubborn like me, that doesn’t get in the way, but if you’re new [at teaching] and if you want to stay in a particular district, you’re going to follow what they tell you. I think that is what’s going to be difficult in the future: when you have structured meetings and structured things for teachers outside of the classroom, you are going to mold a teacher who favors structure. And structure does not favor art.”

For Cook, the problem is not Common Core in itself or what it aims to teach, but rather the structure in how material is taught and what lessens the availability of art in the classroom.

The current educational trend of high-stakes testing similarly inhibits arts within the classroom.

“There has been a narrowing of curriculum that has happened over a number of years,” said Steven Athanases, a professor at the UC Davis School of Education. “In the last 15 years, big accountability contexts, high-stakes testing and the No Child Left Behind push in many ways yielded this testing mania. There is generally a pattern in which teachers are denied the opportunity to be innovators, and there is the expectation that they will follow a curriculum that is scripted.”

With these current programs and educational trends, the prospect of teaching art exclusively, its principles and techniques alike, and not in the context of other subjects, diminishes.

“The way I have been talking about the arts so far, some might say it is instrumentalist in nature,” Athanases said. “It’s using the arts so they can learn content better and express themselves better. There are also some who say that we need to teach art for art’s sake. When you study or are involved in art what does that yield? And some folks have theorized about problem-solving; that is, [when] you are making a painting you need to solve problems about what is going to be my focus, what colors and textures and materials am I going to use.”

Cook, however, argues that this more embedded instruction might be a more organic way of instilling art in education. Requiring students to take an art class might produce projects that yield the same outcomes — every student ends up drawing a version of the same flower. Such art of an embedded, informal nature might be the best method to express creative thinking, the true essence of art.

Nonetheless, in whatever form it takes, art instruction itself can hold value in educational settings.

“I can say there clearly have been many documents written about the multiple ways arts can be explored from kindergarten all the way up,” Athanases said. “Art as its own curriculum or to extend into other forms of academic content — there is value in all of those.”

One such value is its ability to aid a teacher in conveying information while still abiding by the curriculum and fundamental standards they are required to teach.

“I used to show pictures to students and ask ‘What do you think this author wanted you to get out of this?’” Cook said. “Students would say ‘Don’t you mean artist?’ ‘No, I mean author because it’s something they created and had a message they wanted to get across to you.’ I would show them a picture, and we would talk about the colors and what do you think the author would want to take away from it. It was all about reading, but reading a picture.”

The instructional design of teaching literature concepts without using a book aids students in learning to go deeper with the material, according to Athanases, ridding students of “dry curriculum” in favor of “emotional contours and texture.”

In the same vein, Cook spoke of an activity she did with her students to demonstrate this concept: comparing two pictures with her students and the message each was trying to convey.

“When I did this activity and asked if students wanted to make a comment, I had 27 out of my 29 students raise their hand,” Cook said. “That particular lesson intrigued them, it was interesting. How many times can you ask a question and have that many kids have something to say?”

Going deeper is not the only motive to apply art within learning, but the ability for it to engage a multitude of students. Art can appeal to the different learning styles of various students, those who are kinesthetic or visual learners, for example.

“Kids may not take in information the way that you do,” Cook said. “There is not one way to deliver what you have to say and take it in. And many students in here would rather draw pictures than take notes. And it’s not that they want to be an artist, but that’s how they think […] art has to be part of it because that’s how so many people learn.”

More fundamentally, art aids memory and understanding of complicated ideas, according to Athanases. In addition, the genuine creativity that is required from art is an essential skill for students to acquire.

“We’re hearing a lot from the tech world and corporate world of other kinds that folks who are graduating with college degrees and also those without degrees, that they don’t understand the nature of innovation and creativity,” Anthanases said. “There is a cookie-cutter way that they are graduating and entering the workforce, so many are calling for innovation and creative thinking. And the arts can really fuel that. When we value the making of something, whether it is something visual or performance or communicative art, it can promote the idea that success is often dependent on thinking creatively and out of the box.”

Not only does art have long-term impacts, but it also directly impacts the work students do in elementary schools. Bugsch noticed the direct implications a knitting project had on her students. Not only did the students want to make beanies with pom-poms on the top, but their cursive handwriting improved by fostering strong fine motor skills.

For parent Ashley Muir Bruhn, whose son attends first grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary, the skills her child learns through art make it an important aspect of her child’s education.

“When kids are encouraged to express themselves and create their own art, they develop a sense of innovation that will be important throughout their lives,” Muir Bruhn said. “Making art requires decision-making, helps with motor skills, an acceptance of mistakes and sets the stage for the kind of visual learning we all use daily. I think it’s crucial to a well-rounded education.”

The question of the future status of arts in California elementary education still remains how to balance resources, how to allocate funds effectively. For Athanases, in order to fully comprehend the value of arts in education, more empirical research needs to be conducted and properly conveyed to the public, those developing curriculum and those in the policy position.

“I think folks who are in decision-making positions need to be aware of the 21st-century individual and the increasingly diverse context that folks are really engaging in,” Athanases said. “I think that conventional ideas about schooling are no doubt part of the function of what occurs, and then art gets cast as fluff and cute. It is incumbent upon educators and researchers to do the work of demonstrating the linkages between art forms and other forms of academic learning.”

Until then, the future of arts education in the Davis Joint Unified School District is in the fiscal hands of the state, allocation decisions of the district and the instructional discretion of the teachers. Bugsh’s and Cook’s students, respectively, will be making beanies and Mesopotamian mosaics in the meantime.


Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org



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