Contributed by Rekha Rajan
Think about your favorite form of the arts: Music, Theater, Dance, Musical Theater, Opera, Visual Arts, and Multimedia Arts. Which one most represents you? Which one is your favorite?
Much of the ways in which we respond to the arts depends on our own experiences with each art form. I often have my graduate students reflect on which arts form they feel most comfortable with – I will typically get an array of responses:
I love singing, but only in the shower!
I’m not very good at art.
I used to dance but not anymore.
Then, we pause and reflect on those statements. What changed? How did our natural inclination to be artistic develop or decline over time?
What we often discover is how our earliest experiences with these arts forms shape and influence our later understandings and associations. My students will recall how a teacher told them that they “did not draw very well” or in a group choir, they forgot the lines and sang the wrong note, or how they experienced stage fright and never overcame that fear. The things we do and say as teachers deeply influence our students, even more when it comes to the arts as they are a personal reflection of our self-expression.
The reality is the arts are very much a part of our lives. We have music on our iPods, we engage in theater and drama when watching our favorite shows, we dance informally with our friends. No matter how ubiquitous or important the arts continue to be, they are traditionally relegated as extras and often the first to be eliminated when budget cuts roll around.
As an arts educator, musician, actress, dancer, performer, the arts have always been very much a part of my life and my classrooms. I always found ways to use theater to supplement reading, to bring songs in for transitions, to encourage my students to get up and move if we didn’t have time for recess. There are a myriad of exemplary educators (both general and arts specialists) who are doing the same in classrooms across the country, but meeting the requirements of standardized tests is often daunting, let alone trying to find ways to be creative.
Over the past decade of teaching, performing, and realizing that teaching is often performing, I have found several strategies, ideas, and activities that encourage learning through the arts. Here, I focus on a triad of ideas, beginning with a reflection of the arts in our own lives, then inviting our students’ to share, and finally bridging classroom and community experiences.
Draw From Your Own Repertoire
Which arts form did you feel you most resonated with? A large majority probably say music, as it tends to be the most present and accessible. Take a moment and glance through the music on your phone, your iPod, your CD’s your radio stations. What songs do you turn to when you are celebrating? What songs support you when you are having a rough day? Our students have similar associations with songs and bringing age-appropriate examples into your classrooms can be springboards for discussions about our feelings, culture, and just living in the moment.
Invite Children’s Ideas
Our students come from diverse backgrounds, representing cultures, and speaking languages that broaden our own experiences every day. Ask your students if there are any songs, dances, shows, that are special to them and their families, represent a unique culture, or tradition. Our access to watching and experiencing the performing arts has expounded with the existence of social media, the internet, and platforms such as YouTube. Finding excerpts from a musical, a traditional dance from another culture, or the latest pop song is a great way to engage students in the classroom, making an activity relatable, meaningful, and personal to them.
Experience Live Performance
As wonderful as it is to see our students perform in school, to be audience members for peers, taking a field trip to see a live performance is a unique and exciting event. For many students, going downtown to see a play is their first opportunity with this medium, and some of our students will never have the chance if we do not provide them through school. It is well documented that field trips are more than just “extras” as students make academic connections through real-life experiences.
Of course, the costs, transportation, and logistics of finding a show and taking students can be daunting. However, a majority of professional venues offer discounted programs for schools, free dress rehearsals, and the opportunity to “meet and greet” with performers before and after the show.
Reflecting on the Arts in our Lives
As state and national standards continue to place pressures on both teachers and students, finding ways to support and foster creativity and the arts becomes ever more important. Bringing the arts back into our classrooms doesn’t have to be expensive, through elaborate performances or costly projects. Rather, it provides another way to connect to our students, to draw from our own ideas, and value the role of the arts in our lives.
Rekha Rajan is the author of Integrating the Performing Arts in Grades K-5. She is an Arts Education Specialist and recipient of a two-year research grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to examine the relationship between live performing arts attendance and the cognitive function of older adults.