Celebrating the Arts: A Children's Fine Arts Festival

By Fromherz, Robin Wright | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Celebrating the Arts: A Children's Fine Arts Festival


Fromherz, Robin Wright, Phi Delta Kappan


The arts have always gotten short shrift in the schools, but the current standardized testing craze has put them in even greater jeopardy. At one elementary school in Oregon, however, the arts take center stage for a full week each year.

SOME OF OUR best ideas are developed around a table laden with food. And conversations around a bountiful table were the beginning of the Fine Arts Festival, an effort launched in 2000 to enhance the role of the arts in the elementary curriculum of schools in the tri-county area surrounding Willam-ette University in Salem, Oregon. The festival was a success and has been repeated annually ever since.

Colleagues at Willamette University and friends were brainstorming what could be done to combat the increasing encroachment of standards-based test preparation on the school day. While teachers understand the need for standards and the criteria for meeting them, in an attempt to meet the goals of standards-based assessments, they may tend to "teach to the test." The time necessary for such test preparation often comes from lessening a school's emphasis on the arts.

The National Standards for Arts Education (NSAE), published by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, refer to the arts as "society's gifts to itself." And we saw it as our responsibility as educators to see that children are able, in the words of the NSAE, to "construct a vital relationship with the arts." Because of my strong interest in enhancing the role of the arts in elementary education, I volunteered to chair a project designed to do just that.

The first contact to be made was with the principal of Richmond Elementary School. Schools in the mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon have partnerships with businesses or institutions in their neighborhoods, and Richmond Elementary is the partner school of Willamette University. Therefore, it was the ideal pilot site for the Fine Arts Festival.

Principal Kathy Bebe met with me, and we mapped out what we wanted to happen for the children and their teachers at Richmond. We estimated costs and drew up schedules. We decided that a weeklong festival, to be held on Willamette University's campus in late spring, would be the best arrangement. Teachers and classroom assistants would attend the festival with the children, not as teachers but as learners. The "teachers" at the festival would be professional artists from the surrounding area. Children would be bused from Richmond to Willamette at 9 a.m. and returned to Richmond by 2:45 p.m. each day for an entire week. We hoped to have one day devoted to each of the following: visual arts, dance, writing, music, and theater. The order of the days would depend to some extent on the schedules of the artists enlisted as "teachers."

But this was just brainstorming. We took our plan to the teachers of the intermediate-level classes (grades 3, 4, and 5) at Richmond. Their response was highly enthusiastic. However, the teachers reminded us that children who attend Richmond are primarily of Hispanic backgrounds and that the school is a bilingual school. Children from Asia, Russia, and Europe are also represented. Thus we would need to make sure that we had translators for children so all could benefit equally. Moreover, children with special needs at Richmond are fully included in all classes and activities, and the teachers outlined the specific arrangements we would need to make to comply with their IEPs (individualized education programs).

Kathy and I gained considerable momentum from our interaction with the teachers. Our energy levels were soaring, and we decided to take the next step: ask the dean of the Willamette University College of Liberal Arts for his blessing and for some of his money to fund the festival. We came to our appointment prepared with outlines and budgets. (If you try to replicate our festival, be sure to send a copy of your plans and budget to your prospective funding source before your meeting to allow the funding agency time to review and understand your project. …

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