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The value of arts in education

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One dreary spring morning, I entered Robert Moton Elementary as opera resounded through its halls, stirring my soul like never before. As a school psychologist with limited exposure to classical genres, I was startled but tremendously invigorated by this music. I then noticed some students bopping down the halls — also seemingly uplifted.

I immediately sought out the assistant principal, a former music teacher who selects Moton's morning melodies, begging him to identify this inspiring music. "'Nessum Dorma,' Pavarotti's most famous work," he smilingly responded.

Well, I thought, if a geezer who failed art, hated clarinet and has no sense of rhythm could feel rejuvenated by a shot of culture, just think of how it might benefit struggling students possessing more talent and inspiration.

Indeed, research demonstrates that students exposed to the arts develop better academic and social/ emotional skills. Accordingly, some Baltimore-area schools have implemented "Arts Integration," which counters the "Cut the arts and teach to the tests" model that proliferated following No Child Left Behind.

Initiated by its former principal, Judy Walker, Robert Moton Elementary, one-third special education (housing the county's only program for students with very intensive emotional needs) and now a "Total Title One" site (for its high percentage of disadvantaged learners), recently became Carroll County's first Arts Integration school.

Last summer, several Moton staff acquired Maryland Artist/Teacher Institute training to help faculty initiate Arts Integration. This requires teachers and fine arts specialists to work together in fostering collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking (the hallmarks of 21st century learning), as students naturally connect music, art, drama or dance to content areas.

For instance, Moton second-graders hosted a fall reader's theater of created songs and dances about the developmental stages of insects and modeled their researched writings after a mentor author. In reading, some classes routinely act out literature to facilitate comprehension or make pop-up books to re-create stories. These efforts have renewed most struggling and competent readers' interest and skills. Plus, students are more actively engaged and have fewer discipline issues.

Moton's energizing morning music exposes students to diverse genres that often reinforce our three R's of Respect (think Aretha's), Responsibility ("Lean on Me"), and Readiness to Learn. During "Classroom Meetings," some students utilize puppets to express feelings and use drama, art and song to showcase talents and increase class cohesion.

While all students gain from Arts Integration, students with musical, dramatic and artistic talents, unconventional learners, and disengaged students benefit most in increased competence, self-awareness and confidence.

For instance, an African drumming exhibition mesmerized students, and some routinely started drumming to express their mood and discharge energy. One child with severe emotional and reading disabilities became so accomplished that he performed a stirring schoolwide drum solo this past spring. This and other targeted interventions caused his attitude and grades to improve, and he is now fully mainstreamed for 2012-13.

While Moton quarterly assemblies still salute academic stars, they increasingly recognize other talents. Interestingly, parental attendance at arts activities has risen, and interconnected afterschool clubs, music and drama programs have become quite popular.

Harvard psychologist Robert Brooks stresses our need to identify struggling students' "Islands of Competence" to develop their resilience, motivation and self-confidence and help address their weaknesses. For children experiencing disabilities, frustration, poor attendance and/or disinterest in school, broadening and integrating school-related competencies thus seems necessary.

To address such Moton students, we are also planning special "jobs" they can assume, and clubs (e.g. the Lego Club) that will capitalize on their strengths and interests and help them feel more a part of their school. One Moton teacher has already utilized struggling students as computer "consultants" that help others while gaining confidence in their skills.

This year, Moton staff have embarked on a new bullying prevention program as part of the school's "Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports" process. In a very natural fashion, we discussed how to integrate this initiative within the classroom meeting, health, music, social studies and art programs and began brainstorming skits, dance and music to make it more meaningful and attractive to students at an upcoming assembly.

Integrating the arts, as well as individualized academic and behavioral interventions, clubs, service opportunities, hobbies, sports and other student interests are all needed to help students access and enhance their learning. Otherwise, we will leave many children behind in our Race to the Top.

In response to surprising student demand, primarily from those with special education needs, I'm planning to start a chess club this fall. I'm now thinking Pavarotti should inspire us as we play.

Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County. His email is mcgrewclark@hotmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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