Arts-Based School Reform: A Whole School Studies One Painting

By Short, Georgianna | Art Education, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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Arts-Based School Reform: A Whole School Studies One Painting


Short, Georgianna, Art Education


What happens when a whole school decides to study one painting? One elementary school decided to find out.

The idea resulted from a grant-based whole-school reform initiative that called for placing art at the core of the curriculum (Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge Grant). Fair Arts IMPACT Elementary, an alternative school in the inner city, always required study of visual arts, music, drama, and dance. However, content taught in each arts area was determined by the classroom teachers. Every month or so, the Arts Team and classroom teachers would meet. Classroom teachers would explain content to be covered in succeeding weeks. The Arts Team would then scramble to find art content that fit the content specified.

The new arts grant called for reversal of this practice. The arts would now be considered a core subject (equal in stature to language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies). Further, and more importantly, arts content would now determine the direction of classroom lessons. Responsibility for making connections between learning in the arts and learning in core subject areas would shift from the Art Team to classroom teachers.

However, implementation of an arts-based curriculum presented numerous initial difficulties even for this arts-based school. Fair's Title One status presented the biggest challenge. Fair Avenue received the lowest reading scores on proficiency tests in the city the previous year. As a result, teachers schoolwide were already committed to a new intensive reading program. Meeting demanding expectations of the Title One reading program and requirements of the new Arts Grant would not be easy.

Decision-Making Tirne

A Leadership Team composed of 10 classroom teachers, four arts teachers, a school principal, and university mentors met weekly to resolve the two-grant dilemma. After an extensive 2-month discussion, the Leadership Team decided upon an integrated arts-reading curriculum.

Combining arts content with reading curricula is not without precedent. Visual and verbal communication share certain similarities. Studies indicate that when teachers make a conscious effort to link visual and verbal expression, students can attain in-depth understanding in both (Olson, 1997). Persons exemplifying both visual and verbal aptitude include visual artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Manet, who were also known for their writings, and writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, ee. cummings, and T.S. Eliot, who were also known as artists (Olson, 1997).

Also of importance are research findings that curricula that combine visual and verbal language are highly effective in teaching inner-city children

(Alejandro, 1997; Mesa, 1997). The analytic thinking needed to decipher works of art is similar to that required in analyzing written text (Alejandro, 1997). literary critics analyze character, plot, feelings, and relationships in writings while art critics look for use of formal qualities, composition, media, and meaning in artworks. In addition, both subjects are visually dependent.

Alejandro (1997) believes such parallels enrich learning rather than making one the "handmaiden" of the other (see Eisner, 1998), particularly when teaching inner- city populations.

At Fair Avenue, the integrated arts-- reading curriculum would require study of the same artwork at every grade level. Team members agreed that if teachers had the same arts-based focus, they could work together more easily in development of integrated units. The Leadership Team considered various works of visual art, dramatic and musical plays, music scores and dance performances in its deliberations. Finally they selected Georges Seurat's SundayAfternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886). Choice of a Eurocentric painting for a predominately African-American school seemed unusual. However, the Grande Jatte met three previously established criteria.

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