Students at Westminster Elementary drama class explore a Mexican trickster story, “The Rabbit and the Coyote”

My greatest joy during the years I was with the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles schools was observing our theatre and dance teachers light up the minds of children. It drove me to distraction, to see what I saw, knowing that access to regular instruction in the performing arts is not available to every child, every day. During my tenure with the Arts Branch I went to dozens of state and national conferences and symposia on arts education where the enthusiasm among arts teachers was palpable; but in the broader field of educators, the general malaise about the performing arts in pedagogy grated on my mind. That is what compelled me to write my book.

Theatre teacher Afsaneh Boutorabi with third grade students

This is the twentieth year of the Elementary Arts Program that my colleagues and I started in 1999, adding dance, theatre, and visual arts to the existing music programs in the schools. It’s incredibly gratifying, today, that both my granddaughter and my great niece are kindergarteners in LAUSD schools that embraced the arts program early on and are receiving drama lessons from fabulous teachers that I hired twenty years ago. But that is just the luck of the draw. My delightful, expressive, creative grandchildren and their peers in other cities in other states are in fine public schools with great teachers, but they don’t get regular instruction in drama or creative movement, and that breaks my heart.

There is a massive amount of research that proves beyond any doubt that the performing arts do much to foster cognitive skills: curiosity, inquiry, and reflection. The researcher James Catterall often said he would stake his life on the bet that daily incorporation of drama into the classroom would increase verbal skills and those test scores that, sadly and misguidedly, are the holy grail of every district. (I’ve expressed my personal view of our testing culture vs. arts education in a previous post.) When used by skillful teachers they are also roads into deeper and more lasting learning in subject matter content across the curriculum.

Students planning possible solutions to the trickster story

Here’s the problem I’ve found with research: As time consuming and effortful it is to complete and publish credible research, it is even more difficult to get anyone to pay attention to it! (Unless, of course, there is a significant economic benefit to be proven. Thus the tsunami of testing that school children are experiencing now.)

Students create beginning, middle, and ending tableaux of the story

Here I’ll just summarize a couple of my favorite research stories. First, the REAP Report that came out of Harvard’s Project Zero about twenty years ago. REAP stands for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project. This study did not conduct its own investigations, but instead analyzed the results of hundreds of research studies carried out over the past half century, hoping to find irrefutable links between classroom arts and academic scores. In the executive summary the editors caution the reader, pointing out that 1.) It is difficult to establish irrefutable links because of the infinity of variables in education and 2.) It is a shallow task. It is shallow because it implies that academic achievement in the three Rs is the only reason that the arts should be taught. In fact they needed this caveat because in some ways the project was a disappointment. They were only able to find irrefutable links in two of the ten areas they had identified. However, significantly, they did find a strong link between classroom drama and verbal test scores. Again, statistically, it was an irrefutable link, and, what was even more important, the increase in achievement was transferable from subject to subject. So theatre was the winner in that particular study.

Student “sculptor” creates a frozen statue for his tableau

I’m not sure if the other report was ever published, but I’m looking into it. The brilliant linguist Shirley Brice Heath, at Stanford, became interested in arts education because of her observations of verbal development in children. Several years ago she was a speaker at a symposium on arts education that we presented at the Getty to school administrators. She described a study that was ongoing at the time. She told us that she had research assistants who went into classrooms covering subject areas across the curriculum, and that all they did was clock the seconds that students in each class made direct eye contact with the lesson—either with the instructor or with the task assigned. Obviously, eye contact is not the only indicator of attention, but it is one that is easily observable and measurable. In eye contact alone, attention in arts classes far exceeded that in any other subject. Indeed, student attention was “off the charts” in comparison. Students were attentive and engaged, and engaged learners are open to new ideas that mesh with the patterns of knowledge they already have inside of themselves. Their learning is thus enhanced and enduring.

Research in the impact of the arts in learning is limited by the fact that funders, so far at least, are mainly interested in accountability as measured by test scores. Research investigations looking for “soft data,” such as school attendance, teacher retention, and evidence of improved school morale (e.g. joy) definitely show positive results but get far less attention. Another perhaps more fertile area of research is the booming field of neuroscience and cognition, but I will save that for a later post.

 

 

 

      A Sloyd Woodworking Class

When I was in elementary school a zillion years ago, we had wood shop for one afternoon every week. ALL afternoon. An old garage on the campus was fitted out as a complete workshop, with big wooden tables and all the tools and lumber we needed. I made a boat, a book shelf, and a soapbox car for our soapbox derby. I also carved a wooden spoon that my mom used in the kitchen for the rest of her life. Entire classes at the school took on projects like building playground equipment and lunch tables and a covered wagon. I learned how to use a ruler, a tape measure, a compass and protractor, and I learned all the mathematics of measurement. I learned to use hand tools: the saws, the drills, the vise, the rasp, and the sander. I learned that you have to see a project through to the end and not do a slapdash job of it. Pretty good lessons!

         Children working at sloyd benches

My school, Antioch Elementary, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still exists. It was founded in 1923 on the educational theories being developed at the time by the education philosopher John Dewey, and today it is the longest uninterrupted Dewey-based school in America. I had always thought that the educational justification for such a luxurious use of my school time was Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing. I had absolutely no idea that it was based on a nineteenth century pedagogy from Finland.

Once when I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch, our staff took a little field trip to the LAUSD archives to visit our curator. She was preparing a trunk of artifacts to take around to schools as a local history lesson. One of the items was a second grade report card from the year 1900 on which there were grades for five subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and sloyd. We were baffled. What the heck was “sloyd,” and why was it so important that it actually had to be graded?! Back then iPhones were brand new and only one person present had one. He whipped it out and within seconds we learned that sloyd means “handicrafts,” and it was a Finnish pedagogy started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865 and refined by the Swedish educator Otto Salomon (who, like Richard Mulcaster, who trained Shakespeare’s teachers in the 16th century, worried about the fact that elementary school is too boring for children, and solved the problem by giving them something to DO!). The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was introduced in the United States in the 1890s by Meri Toppelius. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of my theatre teachers is married to a man from Finland, and she tells me that he still proudly displays embroidery he did in his sloyd class in school when he was a child.

The Antioch School is affiliated with the college, and my peers there, in the 50s, were mostly the children of professors—a fairly rarified community. Dewey’s educational philosophy was certainly studied and admired back then: it influenced education in public schools but was never fully implemented. After Sputnik and A Nation at Risk it fell out of favor almost completely and we seldom hear of it now. But sloyd pre-dated Dewey, and there in the archives of the Los Angeles schools was rock solid evidence that the project-based learning Dewey promoted was alive and well and mandatory at the turn of the century, in at least one major school district in the United States, a generation before Dewey began writing about education.

It turns out it was more than just Los Angeles. Toppelius and her sister Sigrid were invited first to Boston, where they set up training programs. Sigrid stayed in Boston while Meri went on to Chicago where she started a sloyd department in Chicago’s Agassiz school. They also trained teachers as in Bay View Michigan as part of a Chautauqua summer program. So by the end of the century, at least three major cities in the United States were employing sloyd in at least some of their schools, and there were major training programs in sloyd attracting teachers and administrators from across the country. (I’ll keep researching this. If any of my readers know anything more about it, please share!)

If you’re interested in learning more about sloyd, here is link to a PBS program called “Who Wrote the Book of Sloyd” that’s pretty entertaining. It features the very old book on the left, which was re-issued in 2013: “The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slöjd” by Otto Salomon. Sloyd is really about all of the handicrafts, including sewing, weaving, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and paper folding, all of which we learned at the Antioch School, but its most lasting impact on education in the United States was on programs that included woodworking.

John Dewey was certainly influenced by the sloyd movement, as he was by the Settlement movement I have written about in a previous post. It has always struck me how completely the arguments for arts education align with the philosophy of Dewey and of sloyd. Engaged learning. Productive learning. Project-based learning. Hands-on learning. They’re all related and they all lead to deep and enduring learning. They all incorporate the body and the mind into the cognitive process. I didn’t know at the time how incredibly lucky I was to be educated in that way, but I loved school, and for all of my years as a teacher and arts administrator I have endeavored to give my students something of the joy I experienced as a child in the wood shop.