The real ‘Glee’

Glee really exists at a Levittown, Pa. high school, reports the New York Times. Harry S. Truman High draws from a blue-collar town that’s lost its union jobs.

Eric Ogden for The New York Times

Mariela Castillo, a star of “Good Boys and True.”

“As the community was going to pieces, (Lou) Volpe built Truman’s drama program into one of the best in America, and the school itself into something like a de facto high school for the performing arts. He and his assistant director, a student of his in the early ’90s, taught nothing but theater — three levels of it, plus musical theater. A third teacher, also a former student, taught theater to ninth graders.”

Athletes also are actors at Truman High.

A football player who left the team for theater, a baseball player and a lacrosse player won the male roles in “Good Boys and True.”

Volpe draws would-be actors “from every self-defined and self-limiting clique” in the school.

 

Teach music for music’s sake

Teach music because it’s a universal language and “the arts are our most potent means of human expression,” not because it might help kids learn fractions or raise test scores or develop teamwork, writes Nancy Flanagan, a music teacher.

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance asked Can Arts Education Help Close the Achievement Gap? I appreciate the perspectives and data assembled by Anne O’Brien–who points out that students from high-poverty schools who study the arts are more likely to graduate HS, attend and finish college, and register to vote. But I believe the real question is:  What do the arts teach children that other subjects can’t?

Teachers defend music, art, dance and drama by arguing they help teach something considered more important, such as “enhanced brain development, spatial/visual/temporal processing, improving memory and attention, physical coordination, personal discipline and teamwork,” Flanagan writes.

But where did we get the idea that artistic expression is less useful or important than the sciences? How did music, art, dance and drama get pushed aside in our American school curriculum? I’m not surprised that studying or listening to music has beneficial effects on learning fractions or other academic skills, but those are side effects.

Kids should study music because it’s central to every human society on earth and has a vitally important role in every aspect of culture, from history to literature to media and communication studies. Music is part of what it means to be a human being.

Discuss.

Art as salvation or education?

Arts education is being sold as a way to “save” unmotivated students, writes Mark Bauerlein, a veteran of the National Endowment for the Arts,  in Education Next. If the arts aren’t valuable for their own sake and for all students, they’ll lose out.

If you want to advocate a field, you have to justify it as a discipline. It has to form a body of knowledge and skills that students study at least partly for its own sake. In the case of the arts, a graduated curriculum would incorporate technical skills and art history and theory, just as English language arts integrate literacy skills and the lineages of English, American, and world literatures. Yes, arts learning may have social and moral and professional benefits, but if people don’t value the materials of the fields themselves —if they can’t say that if High School X doesn’t acquaint students with Renaissance painting, classical music, and modern dance, its graduates will be undereducated — then arts educators lose in the competition for funds and hours in the day. Arts education remains an extracurricular, and school administrators focused on math and reading can push it aside: The arts are fine, so let kids who are interested in them study in an afterschool program like band practice.

As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia told staffers that  arts education should enable students to encounter “lasting works of force and beauty.”

Gioia insisted that “Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth” grant recipients must “apply national or state arts education standards,”  and assess whether students were learning those standards — not just whether they enjoyed themselves or participated.

Gioia also developed initiatives such as Shakespeare tours,  American Masterpieces and Poetry Out Loud, a competition in which high-school students memorize and recite a poem from a list of classic and contemporary poets.

The content of art and artistic tradition was at the center of each initiative. When Gioia first unveiled Poetry Out Loud, some state arts officers protested because it didn’t allow students to present their own compositions. Gioia’s reply was, in effect, “That isn’t what the competition is about.” With this particular effort, he wanted to encourage more reading of great poems, not more writing of adolescent verse.

As editor of my high school literary magazine, I applaud the last sentiment. (When I was in college, the editor of  the literary magazine, Dana Gioia, rejected my submission. Still a little bitter.)

In my school days, we didn’t study works of force and beauty. We drew bad pictures in art class and sang in music. There was no dance class. Drama was a high school elective, though we all read lots of Shakespeare.

My daughter had a dab of cultural history in a humanities class. I vaguely recall her writing about how a work of art — Kandinsky? — made her feel.

With the exception of music, which still requires hitting the right notes, the arts are seen as a way for kids to be creative — with no “wrong answers” — not as a discipline to be mastered.

Politicizing the arts is the easiest way to kill arts education, Bauerlein writes in a blog post.