An Arts Education: Is It Really that Important?

By Debbie Moon

With the achievement gap persisting, who has time for arts education? Don’t our children need to learn to read on grade level? Don’t our children need to be able to write an articulate and well-crafted essay so that they can pursue higher education and reach their full potentials? We need to cut out the excess “fluff” and focus on the academics.

Right?

In 2009, Paul Taylor walked into my life. Through the arts programming at my school, I had the opportunity to learn his original choreography from his team of dancers, and then perform for him. For the non-dancers out there, I might say that a comparable experience could be acting in an action film being directed by Chuck Norris. Or playing a basketball game with the Lakers while being coached by Kobe Bryant.

Taylor and several of his dancers had unconventional paths to their careers. Taylor began at Syracuse University as a swimmer, wanting to be an artist, and then transferring to Juilliard at age 22 to pursue dance. Madelyn Ho, a current dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, studied Chemical and Physical Biology at Harvard College before dancing for a few years, went back to Harvard to attend medical school, then finally returned to the stage putting her medical career on pause.

No one will tell you that it is easy to pursue a career in the arts. While a career may be difficult, what is inarguable are the benefits of arts education. According to Americans for the Arts, arts education can improve student success in school, work, and life.

Aside from artistic skill, arts education can equip students with other skills such as problem solving, goal setting, and interpersonal skills. With the recent increase in student behavior issues that have a negative influence on teaching and learning, schools have been working on finding ways to teach students to cope with and self-regulate their emotions. Programs focused on social-emotional learning and behavioral interventions are cropping up across the country. These types of programs that explicitly address some of our students’ greatest needs are valuable tools but can leave some with wanting more.

The arts have been shown to keep students in school, even through graduation. According to Facts & Figures, the arts have such a great impact as they can reach students “who might otherwise fall through the cracks,” or “with different learning styles.” They also create “a feeling of connection and cooperation between students” and redefine school as an exciting place of “learning and discovery”.

I thought for sure I would not be using my dance or art training once I entered the classroom as a teacher. Yet, I found my students crave art. I tried to create opportunities for arts integration in our learning from writing with paint to creating dioramas to retell texts and identify key details. To facilitate efficient and calm transitions in the classroom, I used my knowledge of how bodies move in space to choreograph our travel patterns. To help my students identify their feelings and develop self-regulation skills, we listened to different types of music and reflected on how it impacted our moods and readiness to learn.

Deborah created awesome inclusive clip art for her students and shared this and other arts resources in Curio. Check out his Card here to collaborate with her & download the other resources she shared.

Although I am not in a career directly related to the arts, I use the skills I learned through my arts education programming every day and see the benefits my students gain from these brief exposures.

Since the introduction of No Child Left Behind, moving on to the Race to the Top, to more initiatives focused on school performance improvement, schools with high populations of lower socioeconomic status families are seeing a decrease in arts programming. When students are being denied opportunities to learn more about themselves as individuals and develop important life skills, we must reflect upon what they are being provided with instead.

Are the learning opportunities students have today sufficient to put them on the path to success? Is there only one path to success? Some students may be able to learn grit and perseverance from their Calculus classes while others may need to learn it through learning a new piece on the saxophone. Some students may be able to go straight from high school to college to a career, while others may need a few years developing skills and talents outside of the classroom. We see that every student is unique, but our education system needs to see that too.

If we want to close the achievement gap, let’s look at who’s falling through the cracks and build them up so that they can be successful in areas they may never have experienced success. In the words of Paul Taylor, let’s help our students “know about themselves” — that they are more than readers, more than writers, more than mathematicians. Let us guide them to discover their whole selves and celebrate all of their talents.

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Deborah Moon is a special education teacher at Nānāikapono Elementary in the Nānākuli-Wai’anae Complex. Over the last three years, she has had the opportunity to work with students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in resource and medically fragile settings. Debbie is also a Teach For America — Hawai’i alum and has spent the past two years serving as the Elementary Content Specialist for TFA’s elementary teachers on Oahu. Debbie graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Studies and Communication, and from Johns Hopkins University with a Master’s Degree in Educational Studies. Find her on Twitter @themoonroom808.