Today I'm observing a sixth grade music lesson in Finland. The students are working on a pop song. Ten girls are gathered around four microphones, four girls are at two keyboards behind them, two boys are on conga and bongos, one boy is on drum set, one boy is playing a bell tree, and the rest of the students are at desks playing shakers, recorders, and tambourines. The music teacher is walking around trying to keep everyone together and the classroom teacher is at the piano. The song begins and ends with a recorder melody played by the kids in the class and the girls at the mic. Various combinations of accompaniments are used with the verses and chorus of the song. The music teacher creates the arrangements from tablature and by writing out some parts using Sibelius software. During this 45-minute class, they ran through this song about five times. The biggest issue the students were having was staying on the beat, especially the drums and tambourines. [Keeping the beat really is the fundamental skill in music teaching and learning and should be reinforced constantly.] Anyway, what is music education like in Finland? Well, this is just one class that I visited today, but it does reflect the value Finns place on popular music and musical expression. The classroom which serves grades 1 through 9 has a set of guitars, electronic keyboards, and percussion. Here's a picture.
Anyone's natural inclination with many math manipulatives is to play with them—to create interesting designs and structures. Rather than threatening students that you will take them away if they play, direct their natural inclinations by including play throughout the instructional sequence. Let them show their answers to problems in creative ways. For instance, with base 10 blocks, they could make three digit numbers in the form of a robot or insect. For added interest, have them make their pictures symmetrical. With the fraction bars, pictured here, they could created a structure and then add up the fractions in the structure. They could compare the structure they made with that of their neighbor. Have the students discuss what they made and why they designed it as they did. Compare and contrast structures. I'm not saying that the entire lesson needs to involve play, but if you want them to remember what you are trying to teach, active engagement should be the goal. Art play is a great way to get there!
A common language arts lesson is to review vocabulary words and then read an excerpt that has the same vocabulary words in it. Whether this process is interesting or boring is up to the teacher. The arts can electrify an otherwise sterile instructional sequence. Let the students explore the word, how it sounds, how it feels to say it. Say it using a variety of inflections and expressions. Change the volume, tempo, and pitch. Clap the syllables. Sing it, like an opera singer or like a pop star. Spell the word. Write it in the air. Then, act out each word and its definition. Write the word and do a quick draw for the definition. Divide into groups and create skits or tableaus. Create a motion or pose to accompany each word. Then, when you read, do the motion or pose when the word comes up. Be sure to read with expression (vocal, facial, gestural).
One day I watched a pre-service teacher teaching compound words with first graders. She had the students put one word in one hand and the other word in the other hand and then everyone clapped the two words together while saying the compound word. Then they put one word in one foot and another word in the other foot and jumped them together into the compound. They could also put one word in their hip and a neighbor could put another word in their hip, and then bump the words together for the compound word. Or in hands and high five them together. Oh, the possibilities!
My daughter is in third grade this year. Her teacher—warm, caring, and creative—is my favorite teacher in the whole school. However, like most teachers in today's high stakes environment, arts integration doesn't seem to figure prominently in her thinking. I asked my daughter on the second day of class.
"What did you sing today?"
"Did you dance?"
Would it be so difficult to include a name game/song on the first or second day of class? Couldn't the students stand by their desks and learn a simply repeated movement sequence with a recording? In fact, it could even be a song-that-teaches. More fundamentally, why is it that my favorite teacher apparently is not thinking along these lines?
The kind of outlook I am recommending has a lot to do with focusing primarily on quality of life and quality of experience rather than thinking primarily (or even exclusively) about a limited range of measurable outcomes (e.g. STEM).
Imagine that you are a tour guide. The destination for this particular tour is, say, 100 miles away. If you are an amazing tour guide you will make sure the trip is interesting for much more than just the destination. You plan some stops along the way so, at the very least, people can stretch their legs and you will have some activities to engage travelers en route (maybe even a song).
Just like the best tour guides, teachers ought to consider the overall quality of the classroom experience for their students. Are students finding it engaging and fulfilling. In other words, the means are as important as the ends; nor do the ends ever justify the means.
Today I'm watching one of our wonderful university students teaching a class of second graders about the use of apostrophes in contractions and possessive nouns. For contractions, she had them come up with actions with a partner to demonstrate the process of turning two separate words into a contraction. The children came up with some creative ideas complete with signs for the apostrophe. She invited multiple partnerships to share there ideas. It could also be memorable to have the entire class imitate each one.
This is an example of a small and powerful integration, which includes the introduction of brief arts experiences as part of a larger lesson. Often children add these on their own. They drum on their desks, they use a particularly expressive voice along with facial expression, or they doodle. For example, the teacher in the above example had the students write P or C on their individual white boards to show whether a given word was a possessive pronoun or a contraction. Some of the students were creating interesting designs with their P's and C's. They could also strike a pose for P or C, do a specific action, or make a certain sound (drum on desk, stomp feet, clap hands).
Other small and powerful integrations for this lesson could include 1) using a song or chant about contractions to remember the rules and to create the contractions or 2) using dance to create contractions: one student moves into position and says the first word and then the second moves into position (whole body or just hands) somehow complementing or filling the negative space in the first students pose and saying the second word, then they both say the contraction — developing contractions becomes a performance.
For an extended integration activity, the students drew pictures to demonstrate the differences between two sentences, identical with the exception of apostrophe placement.
I wonder about the concept of “fine” arts. When referring to culture, refinement means “elegance in behavior or manner” and is synonymous with “finesse, polish, sophistication, urbanity.” Generally, refinement is “the process of removing impurities or unwanted elements from a substance.”
But, is refinement always better? This morning I ground some wheat and made waffles (freshly ground wheat flour, eggs, salt, milk, baking powder, and olive oil). They were delicious! We ate them with pure maple syrup or homemade jam. I left the much finer white flour in the cupboard and, as a result, our waffles were more nutritious and will stick with us much longer than more refined alternatives.
The concept of refinement in the arts is typically applied to differentiate “high” art from “low” art: for example, classical music from popular music, live theater from movies, ballet from hip hop, and visual art from crafts. Artistic distinctions parallel distinctions between people — sophisticated upper classes from unrefined lower classes.
I would like to join with others to develop and promote a more down-to-earth, holistic, inclusive view of the arts that avoids the dominance of one culture over others and, by the same token, one group of people over others. Yes, some practices might feel more refined and sophisticated, but I would like to suggest that how we think about refinement may simply be an extension of our own cultural and social biases. Plus, some things that are less refined could, in fact, be more deeply fulfilling and lasting.
Let's come down to earth and participate joyfully with each other in a variety of arts, without pretentiousness, without hierarchy.