Academics

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We understand the challenges of raising and educating kids in the 21st century. Here are some insights we have picked up along the way. 

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Art Education and The Middle School Years

By Vinny Alexander, Chair of Performing Arts Department
Director of The Walker Center for the Arts at The Harvey School
 

Art education gets a bad rap – well, maybe not a bad rap, but certainly, it is often misunderstood and ignored. The last string of U.S. presidents placed the importance of education in the hands of math and science teachers, citing the need to prepare our young people for competition in a global economy. And while it is obvious that we need to create leaders in business and technology, art education must remain prevalent, if not central in our curriculum. Art brings balance and emotional stability while developing cognitive abilities that are not always nurtured by other academic offerings. Art education is crucial at every grade level, particularly in the middle school years.

Think back on your middle school experience for a moment. It is one of the most difficult times of life to navigate. The term ‘middle’ implies transition in that there is something happening between the beginning and the end. The month of March is in the middle of winter and spring. The cliché "in like a lion and out like a lamb" is used to characterize the seasonal changes that happen in March. The same is true as we move from childhood to becoming young adults: the middle school years are accompanied by great change.

Remember middle school when our bodies were held hostage by puberty? We went roaring through those preteen years, fighting off cracking voices, emotional upheavals, sudden hair, and unwanted smells. Eventually, things settled down and because of some powerful middle school teachers, we started to consider our lives as young scholars exploring the opportunities that await us after graduation. And in the midst of all this, the art class, acting as a silent agent, aided our emotional development and cognitive growth.

The Constitution of the National Art Education Association, says, "We affirm our faith in the power of the visual arts to enrich the lives and endeavors of humankind. In a highly technological society such as ours, the visual arts serve as a humanizing force, giving dignity and a sense of worth to the individual." With a mission like that, it is impossible to ignore the value of art education to the middle school student. At a time in life when a young person is trying to make sense of the world, art classes provide a road map and sanctuary.

I am so lucky to work at a school that has an extremely comprehensive middle school arts program, offering classes in music, theater, art, writing, and dance. The Harvey School not only recognizes the emotion benefits of art classes but also supports and celebrates the contributions art makes to the cognitive development of the teenage mind. Renown art educator Elliot Eisner says, “The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.” Problem-solving that allows students to search for more than one answer is more applicable to real-life conflicts that rarely require just one correct solution.

"Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education," the best-selling book that compiles research and examines the role of art education in schools, lays out the skills associated with art classes: “Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflections, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes. All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today’s standardized tests.”

Independent schools like The Harvey School have the ability to exercise the full scope of art classes, allowing for exploration because they are not tethered to the requirements of federal and local governmental offices. Many public schools are committed to this as well despite the restrictions. Whatever the case, the arts need to breathe in the curriculum and provide a necessary breath for young, formative minds. Schools and parents must work together to secure the study of art as a staple of a standard curriculum.

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