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    The Innovation Agenda and the Arts, Part Two 

    The middle school years can be difficult in many ways.  Children begin separating themselves from their parents, and self-confidence can fall to an all time low.  Hormones change the way children look, act, and feel about themselves and others.  Their brains are developing quickly, and their relationships to the world around them can change drastically.  The arts can help children progress constructively through this stage.  They build self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-esteem.  They allow children to express themselves in positive ways, all this while teaching problem-solving and getting along with others. Experiencing the arts shows children that they are capable of creating something larger than themselves, something beautiful.  Best of all, they motivate students, at this most awkward age, to engage more with school. 

    The arts become a gateway into school for students who otherwise have difficulty.  Upper school arts teachers consistently report helping to “save” otherwise disaffected students.  One teacher said: “Students who have trouble elsewhere do work for me. ...I can ask them to perform at their own level and avoid making them look bad in front of their friends. ...  Then it’s no big deal when I say: ‘This is how you play B flat.’ They see it as help, not as a way to embarrass them. It works with everyone, but it is the greatest benefit to students who are challenged....” Another teacher put it this way: “There are band nerds now, who come before school, after school, and at lunch.  I’m a mentor for them.  The band room is a safe, welcoming place.” And another teacher sees it like this: “A student who is a ‘handful’ in other classes and with other teachers, does very well in band, enjoys it, is enthusiastic.  It is his musical outlet and he excels here. He experiences success.”  That experience of success is vital in middle school.

    An important part of the Innovation Agenda change was allowing middle school aged children to choose their elective classes.  It used to be, for instance, that grade 5-8 chorus included only children who did not want to study an instrument.  Some of them wanted to sing; many did not.  Now chorus is a choice, and the results have been extraordinary.  Many more children choose chorus.  At one school the chorus increased from 8 to 40.  At another school the band has doubled from 40 to 80.  Ensembles are fuller at all schools, making the experience more enjoyable.  One student described her music class as “... a breath of fresh air in the middle of the day.” 

    Students are choosing to come after school to extend their in-school arts experience.  Attendance at out-of-school-time arts activities has increased 124% since the Innovation Agenda.  Because students want to be there, they are more focused, more motivated, and more invested.  Said one teacher: “There are no behavior problems at all.  They want to be in my class.”

    Teachers are also delighted with the change.  They are able to develop more positive relationships with students and faculty, because they are a regular part of the school, with homerooms and hall duty that allow students to see them every day.  Administrators know the arts teachers by name now, and see them as part of the community instead of just traveling visitors.  They recognize the impact of the arts on students and therefore, have given the subject more legitimacy.  Teachers are able to have more contact with parents, and are more appreciated by parents.  Families now flock to concerts and exhibits.  At one school, parent attendance at band concerts increased from 5 to 160 per performance.  

    The Innovation Agenda has been a boon to the approximately 75% of students who enjoy the arts.  It has increased the number of students who choose to participate, it has allowed for teachers to deepen the curriculum and engage children in more challenging activities, and it has made school more welcoming to many who need encouragement.  English and math are still important, but the arts too have proven their value.


    ** All quotations taken from interviews with CPS teachers, students, and parents.

    This post also appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle.

    Posted by jyoung On May 20, 2016 at 11:49 AM