Spelling - and Art. History - and Art

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Spelling, says Megan Shada, is her favorite subject. It didn't used to be, the earnest fifth-grader explains, but that's changed. Why? "Because of sculpture," she answers quickly, looking a bit surprised that the question need even be asked.

Spelling and sculpture. It may sound like an odd pairing, but at the Kenwood Elementary School in Kearney, Neb., the intertwining of art and academics is nothing unusual. Here students learn about shapes from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, farm animals from the paintings of Grandma Moses, and basic concepts of physics while designing mobiles inspired by Alexander Calder.

Art is expected to enlighten all the learning that goes on at this and a network of other schools that are taking part in an ambitious experiment in arts education. "It's a holistic approach," says Vicki Rosenberg, senior program officer for the Getty Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, which sponsors the program. It teaches schools to "place art at the very core of the curriculum." After decades of neglect, the notion of the essential nature of arts education is winning fresh support in many schools. The Getty program reflects the deep-seated belief of many arts advocates that giving art a central place in a school's curriculum enhances creativity, stimulates student interest, and provides a glue that can connect seemingly disparate disciplines. But a discipline-based approach like that supported by the Getty goes a step further. While some schools focus on either the creation of art by students, or on exposing students to the art of others, advocates of disciplined-based arts education (DBAE) say such approaches don't go nearly far enough. They believe that arts education should include art making, art criticism, art history, and aesthetics, and that these disciplines, to the extent possible, should be incorporated into lessons throughout the school day. That's why the Getty has spent more than $10 million over the past decade to set up six regional centers in Nebraska, California, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Ohio to promote DBAE in both public and private schools. While the Getty estimates that it has now offered assistance or support in establishing DBAE to schools in about 500 districts nationwide, Kenwood Elementary is one of only 35 schools in the country partnering with Getty in a DBAE effort that has included both the creation of a curriculum and the training of teachers. (Of those 35, 18 are also receiving funding from the Annenberg Foundation in Saint David, Pa. The Annenberg contribution to the project is expected to reach $4.5 million by 2001.) Huddling with Van Gogh At Kenwood, the program is now midway through its second year. In kindergarten, students huddle around paintings by Vincent van Gogh as they explore questions about feelings and identity. ("How does 'Starry Night' make you feel?" "Why did Van Gogh paint his own picture? How would you paint yours?") A second-grade class studying the history of the Southwestern United States ponders a diorama depicting a native ceremony indigenous to that area. …