Art and creativity belong in the classroom. I know this for a fact. My practice as a teacher of history and English has been transformed by art-integrated instruction. Sadly, there seems to be little support for this concept. Despite that, I find myself doing the work, mostly alone. In a perfect world, the arts are well-funded and students have access to qualified art teachers, no matter their zip code. This is not a perfect world.
What a mess.
After crawling under a desk for yet another stray colored pencil, I sat on the carpet. I didn’t have the energy to clean up my classroom, but I didn’t want to leave it for the janitor in such a condition.
Looking around, I thought about how my classroom had transformed over the last several months. True, my classroom has never been tidy. I don’t function in a sterile environment. I have always had decorative touches – flowery vases and peacock feathers, a collection of old globes. But now….
Now each corner sported a new stack of colored paper or a cardboard contraption, a leftover project kept as an exemplar. One table near the whiteboard had become the “art supply and chessboard table,” with baskets of pencils and markers surrounding two ready-to-play chess sets, pieces askew. The computer table overflowed with baskets of wigs and props, next to a lovely cardboard replica of the Admiral Benbow Inn. Students had craftily tucked ongoing projects between the three monitors, pulling keyboards aside to make room.
Chaos. Well, not exactly, but, from my view from the floor, it looked like it.
And my desk? Piles of debris represented leftover paperwork and props from the recent drama class play. Stacks of student work covered every flat surface – freshman research projects, seventh-grade reading response tasks, drama reflections… Sighing, I pulled myself up to pack up for the holiday break.
Why? Why had I allowed it to get this way?
The echoes of student chatter and laughter reminded me of my purpose – ART.
I had vowed to renew the arts in my district, one way or another. We had lost our visual arts program, due to staffing and funding issues. No painting, no drawing. Time had passed, and nothing was resolved. I even heard that art projects were being discouraged in the elementary, as they were not “standards-based.” With the new evaluation system, teachers were afraid to do anything that wasn’t “core.”
Now, I’m – generally- an English teacher. My school is small, rural, and economically challenged. My plate started out full, teaching Washington State history, drama and two grades of English. No matter, before I knew it, I was advising the brand new Art Club and restructuring my English and history units to allow artistic options as part of daily work and assessments. In no time, construction paper, glue sticks, scissors and colored chalk were piling up on my bookshelves.
You see, the world is not always a clean and organized place. Our future depends on a generation of creative, solution-oriented young people who can make sense and beauty out of the messes we have made. Art-integrated lessons promote problem solving skills and risk taking. Students become comfortable with making mistakes and fixing them. Researchers tell us that this is what we need- the growth mindset and determination to create high quality work that expresses our ideas and opinions. Not to mention, there is evidence that art-integrated instruction increases achievement, engagement and positive classroom culture. So, is it worth it? How can we get our legislature and our administrators to see its value? Shouldn’t art be a part of every child’s education, no matter the zip code?
Currently, our zip code does not get this support. So, is it worth all the mess and exhaustion for me? Yes. Yes, it is. I know that creativity and expression will take my students far in this world. I know that offering them options that bring out the artists in them is fulfilling for them, and for me, too. Strong relationships are forming over collaborative art projects. They are excited about learning and stretching their capacities to share ideas and give evidence. It is working… in so many ways. I see positive proof that creative solutions to big problems can inspire growth, both academic and .
In the meantime, the busy and messy atmosphere of my classroom is full of love, laughter, and learning, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
It’s a beautiful mess.
For further reading:
For an excellent study on the effects of art-integrated instruction:
For a concise reminder of what art instruction does for growth mindset: