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April 27, 2014

Teachers bring art to Good Hope Elementary

Good Hope Elementary art teacher, Celeste Weaver, is understandably proud of all her students, especially this year. The students have produced some amazing artwork, which is prominently displayed throughout the school.

The county-wide art Fair Will be displayed at the county courthouse April 28-May 9. Every year at this time, the Good Hope Elementary (GHE) art department has its own art fair. “We choose the county participants from our selection. This year, the artwork is so fantastic, we want to share it with the community,” said Weaver.

“We wanted to invite everyone to come see some of the awesome artwork hanging in the halls of GHE. Our school has been transformed into an art museum, with over 400 fantastic art pieces from each child in the school,” said Weaver.

“The categories include Still Life, Landscapes, and Native Alabama Wildlife, which were our units for this year,” Weaver explained.

GHE has seen the results of incorporating art into their curriculum. Because of those results they have become one of the few remaining schools which have not cut back on the arts.

“A few years ago, we thought we could never have an art program at our school,” recalls Weaver. “We had no extra money, no facilities, no highly qualified art teacher, no school support, no community support, and no interest.”

That was five years ago. Then, in 2010, in a small office, a simple discussion between principal Annette Creest and Weaver, turned the tide for the students of GHE.

“We were both in agreement that this needed to happen at our school,” said Weaver. “We envisioned a school of excellence that provided for the widely varying abilities, talents, intelligences, and needs of the students.”

From each of their combined 25-plus years of teaching experience, the dedicated teacher and principal realized that not every child is a bookworm; not every child is an athlete; some are physically/mentally challenged; some are economically challenged. “We wanted to reach every child,” said Weaver, passionately. “Additionally, we realized that so much of our teaching time was being swallowed with math and reading, because of high stakes tests that are administered at the end of the year. The arts were being silently erased from the curriculum, because it was not a ‘tested’ subject. We decided to be forerunners in the movement to bring back the education of the whole child, both left and right brain. We knew an arts program had to happen for our school, regardless of the cost.”

GHE partnered with community groups and received grants from various sources, including the Student Investment Foundation. Due to the overwhelming support of teachers, parents, and community, Creest took the initiative to make provisions for the arts program, by manipulating the existing teacher units. Weaver began a diligent personal study in order to take the Praxis exam, to become certified to teach visual arts. After many hours of studying, she passed the exam and became a highly qualified K-12 visual arts teacher. They got busy and ordered basic supplies, such as paper, crayons, markers, pencils, paint, and began what has turned out to be one of the best investments they’ve ever made…

In fact, because of the results of their initiative, GHE just received a $20,000 grant from the Alabama State Department of Education to continue and expand the art program.

“Sadly, a majority of public schools emphasize test prep, which means lots of reading, math, memorization, rote learning, following directions, and test taking skills,” Weaver lamented. “It might sound like a good thing until you realize what subjects are being sacrificed in order to accomplish higher test scores. In today’s world, kids who receive arts instruction are the exception and not the rule. The arts have been silently evaporating from the public school curriculum in favor of high stakes test subjects. But why make room for art? Is it really that important?” she asked.

When you look deeper into the subject, and into the past, you find the answer to that question.

“There is no doubt kids naturally love art. But does it really improve education? Does it really make kids smarter? Is it really that good for kids, that we should make room in our curriculum and spend money for it?” prompts Weaver. “The answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’” says Weaver.

According to Nancy Kalish, author of “Why Art Makes Kids Smarter,” research shows that in spite of the emphasis on test prep in the public schools of the United States, test scores have not risen to the expected level. According to a report from Common Core, a Washington, DC educational research and advocacy organization, other nations are still outperforming us in math and reading. Hong Kong as well as Japan, Canada, Finland, and five other countries that consistently outperform us, but look at this little tidbit of that information… all require extensive education in the arts. National guidelines in Hong Kong recommend that fourth graders visit artists’ studios and study great works of sculpture and painting. “The situation here (in the U.S.) is extremely frustrating,” says Common Core Director, Lynne Munson. “We have lots of proof that a broad education that includes the arts, works better than what we’re doing – and yet we are ignoring it.”

These results were based upon the difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, each side being responsible for different processes. The right brain, the creative side, is also used for intuition, and emotional perception, art, imagination, and other intuitive processes. The left brain is used in logical thinking, math, reading and analysis, all critical to functioning in today’s world, making it the focus of education in public schools, where curriculums consist of the three Rs, and science.

Schools are providing for the development of the left brain but in doing so have neglected the right brain of students by eliminating any outlet for creativity and imagination.

“Education for the whole child, including both sides of the brain, strengthens the connections between both sides of the brain, allowing the brain to mature cognitively to its full potential. This cannot be achieved without the arts in the curriculum,” said Weaver.

“A child’s brain is still growing and developing during the elementary years,” Weaver pointed out. “Research shows us that parts of the brain that we do not use, eventually become dormant and unusable. Art needs to be introduced at the crucial time of brain development that will allow for future use.”

“Three-year participants (who had art instruction) had significantly higher report card grades in the field of language arts, math, reading, and social studies.” Two-year participants gained 16 percentile points, (but non participants did not show any gains) on Standardized Achievement Tests. (The Contribution of Arts Education to Children’s Lives, Kaori Iwai).

In another well-documented national study, using a federal database of over 25,000 middle and high school students, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles found that students with high arts involvement performed better on standardized achievement tests than students with low arts involvement.” (Critical Evidence, How the arts Benefit Student Achievement www.nasaa-arts.org).

In 2005, a different study showed that students who took four years of arts coursework significantly outperformed other students on the SAT. Those who had 4-plus years of arts scored an average of 534 on Verbal and 540 on Math. Those who had 1/2 year or less of arts scored an average of 485 on verbal and 502 on math. (Source: 2005 College Bound Seniors: Total Group Profile Report, The College Board, 2005, Table 3-3; SAT Scores of Students Who Study the Arts: What We Can and Cannot Conclude about the Association, Kathryn Vaughn and Ellen Winner Fall 2000.)

Weaver has used the research and data to validate what she has already experienced in her art classes. “From my personal observations I have my own reasons for believing art is good for kids and for public education. It helps to develop problem solving skills, a very important life-long skill that is strengthened by art. When children make art, they examine study, analyze, describe, and remember it in their mind’s eye. The students are problem solving without even realizing it.”

 Weaver shows her art students that there can be many solutions to one problem. “Art creates an open mind, allowing for questioning. Rather than working by a specific set of rules, students are using their whole brain to discover how and why, thereby strengthening their judgment.”

Attention spans have become shorter since Weaver first started teaching 30 years ago. “There are just too many distractions in our modern world, such as the endless chatter of iPhones, video games, texting, commercials every few minutes, Facebook, Twitter, TV, and other things. It’s hard for children to focus on something and devote all of their effort to one thing at a time because of these distractions. It is hard for them to be quiet.

Art is a way to increase the concentration skills of students. The more they do it, the more they are able to do it for longer periods of time. “I think simultaneously listening to classical music also aides in the focus of students as well. The more students practice concentration in art class, the sturdier this skill becomes until it can be used in other disciplines and subjects as well, such as taking a high stakes test.”

Today’s job market is much different than what it used to be. Top companies are interested in innovative people who can “think outside the box.” It is creative employees who have made companies like Disney and Apple so successful.

“Art is much more effective if we can select art experiences that are relevant to the particular community. Knowing that some things are just too good to keep inside the school walls, and knowing that my students’ work was so spectacular that I wanted to share it with the outside world, gave me an idea. We could use our spectacular art for community projects.” Weaver said.

“Once, our art classes did a pencil sketch unit on historical school buildings from Good Hope. We focused on an old wooden part of our school that had been there since 1926. The students had “plein air” classes (outside on location), where students sketched what they saw. I also painted an original watercolor from this project. We sold prints of the artwork as a school fundraiser. We raised $2,500 for our school.”

Another valuable GHE project is Christmas HeART, where students design and paint original Christmas cards for patients in a local nursing home. They attach the card to donated items that are used as gifts, then deliver them right before Christmas. “Not only is this good representation in the community for our school, it is also good for the hearts of kids. It gives them a sense of connectedness and a sense of belonging. It helps them become beneficial members of a society,” said Weaver.

“I have no scientific research to prove that projects of this sort are beneficial, but when I see the gratification the children receive from giving a personal item they have created from the heart, and I see the light in the eyes of the elderly patients when they receive it, I know this is worthwhile. When I see the pride in my students after they have completed a beautiful piece of artwork, I know it is right. Hopefully, my students will always remember these projects and will carry this attitude of service with them into adulthood,” she said.

“Art builds self esteem and confidence, which lasts a lifetime.”

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