Why the Arts Make Sense in Education: The Boston Arts Academy Demonstrates the Value of Incorporating Arts into Academics, Rather Than Segregating Education into Two Separate Spheres of Learning

By Nathan, Linda | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Why the Arts Make Sense in Education: The Boston Arts Academy Demonstrates the Value of Incorporating Arts into Academics, Rather Than Segregating Education into Two Separate Spheres of Learning


Nathan, Linda, Phi Delta Kappan


Art is not a very new idea.

Our ancestors knew the arts were synonymous with survival. We created art to communicate emotions: our passions, jealousies, and enduring conflicts. We designed pageants to dramatize the passing of seasons and other more temporal events. Daily life, communication, and rituals were circumscribed and delineated in a range of artistic expressions.

We went into battle with the sounds of trumpets, piccolos, and drums all over the globe. We buried our dead with song and even dance. We created theater that proposed solutions to our woes. We drew pictures of our kings and queens, and also cave drawings to tell the history of our day. Was this our primitive form of expression, or were we informing future generations in a way that language will never do alone? In short, the performing and visual arts have been the foundation of our recorded existence. I believe the arts are key to how we educate ourselves.

I have spent 30 years in public urban education working in the arts (specifically theater) as well as teaching history, Spanish, and math. I have also been a high school principal for quite some time. I now have the privilege of leading one of the most exciting high schools in urban America--the Boston Arts Academy (BAA). BAA sits in an old brick warehouse in central Boston in the shadow of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The student body of BAA reflects the diversity of our city and school system. We have 420 students in grades 9-12. Our students are 52% African-American, 25% Hispanic or Latino, 21% white, and 2% Asian-American. Over 50% come from homes where English is spoken as a second language. About 60% qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is the poverty indicator for the federal government.

The students are chosen on the basis of their interest in and passion for the arts. There are no academic requirements for entrance. In fact, over 13% of the students have a learning disability. Yet, the school has established a remarkable record of acceptance to college of more than 95%.

From its inception, BAA has had a dual curriculum: arts and academics. The importance of teaching the arts for art's sake has been a given from the school's beginning. Of enormous importance was the belief that studying, making, and integrating art into academic subjects would vividly engage students of widely varying abilities and thus increase enormously their success in high school.

We integrate the arts and academics into many classroom experiences. For example, imagine a math class in which students are working with a composer on syncopation in order to deepen their understanding of the quadratic equation they are studying.

In Spanish classes, students study Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Gabriela Mistral, or Celia Cruz. They research these famous Latin American artists and scholars and then present or enact them in costume, often with props, and with a deep sense of their history and context. And, what a meaningful way to learn a language. Our visual arts students are exposed to Spanish when, for example, they are taught by an artist in residence from Mexico who communicates solely in Spanish.

In engineering classes, BAA students are introduced to math and science principles by learning how to design and create a container of their choice. The array of belt, cell phone, and CD holders that young people can imagine and produce is impressive. Students then work with a visual arts teacher to produce brochures and advertisements for their containers. They add more levels of intellectual and creative learning to their projects while strengthening their reading and writing skills.

We are committed to empowering students to be active learners. The BAA is a very lively place, filled with the sounds of students creating, working, and rehearsing throughout the day, into the evening, and on weekends. One also can note how the high level of student engagement in arts courses carries over to the humanities and math, writing and science. …

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