Arts for Education’s Sake

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Visual arts teacher Diane Sosa grabs Hawthorne Academy students’ attention by pointing to Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” print with its swooping, whirling star formations, then scurries to the light switch    ̶ off with the lights and on with tiny LED lights she’s strung across the blackboard.

“Ahhhh,” the students look at the glowing lights and then to “Starry Night” and are immediately engaged. Sosa leads the children to study parallel lines, curves and color variations in the painting and then to draw their versions of a starry night   ̶ and mind you she stresses, there’s no right answer. Think outside the box.

“When students create art, they get lost in what they consider fun,” says Sosa, winner of the state H-E-B top teacher award. As she passes K-8 students in the hall she hears, “Miss, are we having art today?” “Can I show you the picture I made?” or from a first grader “Are we staying after school again today for a special art project?”

Sosa has been teaching art in the San Antonio School District (SAISD) for 30 years   ̶ observing daily how the arts enhance self-esteem. She weaves math and science into her arts lessons, knowing intuitively there’s a positive spillover into the core curriculum.

And now there’s new science on how the brain functions to back up the positive influence of arts on mainstream studies.

“Arts used to be relegated to extracurricular activities, but brain research is now suggesting a causal link between arts education and student performance in other classes,” explains Ronnie Sanders, a Fine Arts teacher at Jefferson High School in SAISD, and doctoral student at Boston University.

“Through images taken of the brain, there now is proof that arts education helps students think better and helps with math and sciences.”

Indeed notes Sanders, a study by the College Board from 2006 to 2010, showed “students enrolled in fine arts courses scored from 11 to 13 percent higher on the SAT than students not enrolled in any fine arts courses.”

Meanwhile, across town at Roosevelt High School in the North East School District, pigs capture art students’ rapt attention. Art teacher Sue Ferris led her grades 9-12 students this year into making papier maché pigs in an “If pigs could fly” lesson which included forays into anatomy, habitat and socialization of porcine subject. The result was 250 winged pigs, made from milk cartons and three-liter plastic bottles, all hung over the basketball court in a flying  pig fest at an annual all-school exhibit at Blossom Athletic Center.

Like Sosa, Ferris observes that the creative process “has a great influence when students’ work on more concrete and technical subjects.

“My goal is to have every kid who comes in the room enjoy themselves, to learn something and produce something they are proud of,” says Ferris, one of four art teachers at Roosevelt.

Tina Barajas, an arts teacher in the North East District at MacArthur High School, says, “I tell my students coming into art class is like going to a buffet where they get to sample lots of different mediums but not just pig out on one.”

Students at MacArthur have the chance to take a second or third art class specializing in drawing, painting or sculpture.

And, as with Sosa and Ferris, Barajas notes, “Any art lesson you teach can apply to academic subjects, for example how light affects the surface of a painting.”

A proud Barajas tells about student Bizyanna Torres, who placed tops in Texas with one other student in the Doodles for Google contest, an opportunity (eventually won by another student) to have your design displayed on the Google search engine site.

“Art education is just good education, period,” explains Laura Schultz, an Artist in Education with the SAISD. “It teaches children to think visually, trains them to think non-linearly and creatively and helps them with problem solving, i.e., there’s more than one way to get to an answer.”

The three largest districts in Bexar County, in order of district size, have the following numbers of visual arts teachers: Northside School District, 125; North East School District, 49; and San Antonio School District, 38.

But it’s not just the visual arts that enhance students’ critical and creative thinking skills, it’s the fine arts in general explains Sanders   ̶ from choir, which he teaches, to band, orchestra, dance and theater.

Just in time to substantiate Sanders’ premise came a report in May from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) – “Re-Investing in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.”  The report concluded “schools are improving test scores and fostering their students’ competitiveness in the workforce by investing in arts education strategies, even in the toughest neighborhoods.”  (This publication is available free of charge at www.pcah.gov, the website of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.)

In the meantime, an animated Sosa will be whirling around the classroom throughout the school year, introducing delighted students to masterworks from Egyptians to the Renaissance to Modernists. The walls of her classroom will be smothered in Aztec masks, Cubist puzzle-like paintings, surreal Dali-like drawings and, displayed on a table, a series of spiders, ants and lizards made out of donated wire and shiny beads.

“I take students on a journey that nourishes their natural curiosity,” says Sosa, who laughs at the thought of retiring. “Never,” she says.

Across San Antonio and Bexar County, in every school district there are fine arts teachers getting behind the curiosity and natural creativity of children   ̶ and they believe, with evidence now to back them up, that students and society are the better for arts education.

NOTE:  As of publishing time, information is not available about how pending cuts to Texas schools by the Texas Legislature will affect Fine Arts funding.

*Source:  Arts at the Core: Recommendations for Advancing the State of Arts Education in the 21st Century by the National Task Force on the Arts Education.

Mary Lance is a San Antonio-based freelance writer, mother of two grown children and grandmother of five.

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