AZ Educator Highlights Importance of the Arts Amid Pandemic

“Close every door to me, hide all the world from me, bar all the windows, and shut out the light” (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).

Despite social and physical distancing, artists all over the world have found ways to create, collaborate, and share their work. Sir Patrick Stewart reads #ASonnetADay on Twitter. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber offers #TheShowsMustGoOn, releasing his filmed hit musicals one at a time for free on YouTube. The Rotterdam Philharmonic went viral when they filmed the finale of Beethoven’s 9th with all the musicians playing their parts by video from their homes. Author and illustrator Mo Willems shares his daily doodles. Actor John Krasinski reunites the cast of Hamilton on his YouTube-show-from-home Some Good News. Popular music artists like Pink, John Legend, and Bono are holding live concerts from home. Thank goodness we have these professional artists because something cultural has to balance Tiger King.

But the powerful urge to create is not unique to professionals. You’ve likely seen the videos of Italians singing from their balconies. My social media feeds have been filled with pictures of children and parents making chalk art. Many of my friends have picked up out of tune guitars and ukeleles and dusted off the family piano. My daughter has practiced her solo from her canceled Disneyland performance nonstop… “Tell the guards to open up the gate!” (Frozen).

As a history teacher, I recall many examples of artistic treasures brought on by difficult times. Art flourished with the Black Death for 300 years during the Renaissance in Europe. Art projects were a major part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal federal relief programs during the Great Depression, like the Public Works of Art Project, and directly funded visual artists who created iconic posters for agencies like the National Park Service. Saving art and artists was a huge project during World War II (read Julie Orringer’s Flight Portfolio or Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men –two incredible books about that time period).

What can we do to continue this new and unexpected period of renaissance? ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) may be key to increased arts education in our schools. One interesting requirement of ESSA is that Local Education Agency plans must include a description of how the district will provide a “well-rounded education.” In ESSA, “The term ‘well-rounded education’ means courses, activities, and programming in subjects such as English, reading or language arts, writing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, geography, computer science, music, career and technical education, health, physical education, and any other subject, as determined by the State or local educational agency, with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience” (ESSA, Title VIII, Section 8002). For the first time, the arts were listed with core content areas.

Engagement in the arts nurtures the development of cognitive, social and personal competencies. Many studies found evidence that learning in the arts has significant effects on learning in other subjects/content areas. Studies show that the arts reach students who are not being reached and in ways they are not otherwise being reached. Research shows that the arts provide new challenges for those students already considered successful, such as gifted learners. Arts have been shown to increase retention and engagement in STEM classes. Studies have found that arts-integrated instruction may be more effective than traditional remedial programs. The arts are a valuable and often underutilized resource in helping to close the achievement gap.

Speaking of the achievement gap, arts education in our schools is an equity issue: 50% of people surveyed in Americans Speak Out About the Arts Survey (2018) believe everyone in their community has access to the arts but data shows this is way too optimistic. According to the US Department of Education, only 28% of high schools in high poverty areas offer theatre education. But the arts benefit students of all zip codes, abilities, and readiness.

Some states, like my state of Arizona, will present information on student access to a well-rounded education, including arts and music programs, on their school report cards. This could be an opportunity for us to spotlight the arts in our classrooms and schools!

What can you do to bring the arts to your students? Advocate for Title-I spending on the arts in your school and district. According to a Wallace Foundation report, at least 44 different types of arts-integration efforts could potentially qualify for federal funding under ESSA, including professional development for teachers, support for English learners, arts integration, instructional materials and more. Check out the Assistance for Arts Education program under ESSA where programs that provide arts education for disadvantaged students or students with disabilities can apply for funds.

When these quarantine days have passed, remember that in isolation you watched hours of Netflix, danced to music, or read a book for comfort. In our darkest times, we turned to the arts. It’s time to address the lack of equity in theatre education in our schools. The arts bring hope and comfort to our humanity and remind us “how lucky we are to be alive right now” (Hamilton).

Beth Maloney is currently in her twentieth year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in her fifth-grade classroom. Beth holds a doctorate in higher and post-secondary education, is a renewed National Board-Certified Teacher, and serves as a Candidate Support Provider for other teachers undergoing certification. She is the co-founder and past president of the Arizona National Board-Certified Teachers Network and a blogger on Stories from School Arizona. Beth is the founder and president of the Arizona chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and was honored to be the 2014 Arizona Teacher of the Year.