Planting the seeds for arts education

Dawn Lewis of SEED School will make those disciplines part of her students' experience

Work In Progress

June 08, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

At the SEED School of Maryland, a tuition-free public boarding school for disadvantaged youngsters slated to open this summer in Southwest Baltimore, administrators and staff are working overtime to integrate art, music and theater into the regular academic curriculum.

Some people still have a hard time with the idea that instruction in the arts is as essential to a well-rounded education as training in the liberal arts and sciences. Yet educators have known for decades that the arts play a crucial role in the development of young minds.

Studies have shown that the arts enhance children's cognitive skills and encourage the development of social skills, such as attentiveness, concentration and self-discipline, that are vital to the learning process.

SEED Head of School Dawn Lewis, who was the founding principal of the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School in Boston before coming to Baltimore, is an enthusiastic promoter of the arts in every aspect of the school's operations.

Last week, she talked about her plans for making the arts an integral part of her students' educational experience.

THE DISCIPLINE OF ART --Art and music require considerable self-discipline, and that kind of discipline gets transferred to every other aspect of students' learning.

How do you get better as an artist or at playing an instrument? It takes practice, it takes hard work, it takes setting aside time to think about what you're learning, it takes learning to accept advice and feedback and then incorporate it into your practice.

Many times, the students who are most successful in school are the ones who are involved in some kind of art or music program, or a sports program, or both. Because the kind of discipline that's required to pursue those things is the same as that required to pursue your academic subjects.

A NATURAL CONNECTION --As educators, we have to stop thinking of these things as separate - of art and music over here and academics over there. Art influences everything that we do.

If you look at the people who go into teaching, most of the time they are wannabe theater majors and drama people. They have an audience every single day. And the best teachers are the people who bring the drama and the theater into their classrooms and into the work their kids do.

For example, you shouldn't have a language arts class without theater and drama being part of it. Students should be writing and producing their own plays. It's part of the natural process of how kids learn, but somehow adults make it unnatural. We need to use those connections rather than try to undo them.

FORGING IDENTITIES --For students who are literally in the process of creating themselves - because that's what happens in the sixth through eighth grade - theater is a natural way for them to explore multiple identities and to find themselves on that stage.

All of a sudden, they're somebody else that they never thought they could be. They're in this other character.

There'll be a school play this year. But I don't want them to do the traditional things. My feeling is that school plays should be as authentic as the students are.

I would like to see students write their own plays, or see an August Wilson play and then write something from there. I'd like them to write and produce plays from beginning to end, so they see themselves as creators.

That's the richness and the beauty of teaching students to write. That's where curriculum really becomes relevant.

A PART OF LIFE --I want art and music to be as much a part of our students' lives as they are in my own family. Because when you think about a boarding school, we're raising other people's children. Think about what that means. We're not just raising the academic side of children, we're raising the social and emotional and the artistic - all those aspects that build their identity.

We're not just raising people who do well on tests. We want to raise people who appreciate the arts, who appreciate science and math, who appreciate sports. People who can sit at a football game one day and the next day be in the Baltimore Museum of Art and appreciate both. We want well-rounded people.

I say of my own daughters that I've raised Renaissance women, athletes who are also artists and academicians. They don't have to choose to be just one thing.

I have seen it over and over again with kids in the arts. A kid that's not confident as a reader who is all of a sudden blossoming on the stage, and people are recognizing that and saying, "My gosh, you're amazing!"

And all of a sudden that child says, "Yes, I am an amazing, competent person, and people can see that."

That's the person we're going to bring out here: kids who start approaching their work with the same confidence and creative self-discipline they brought to that artwork or dramatic or musical performance. There's no substitute for that.

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