No Art? questions possible cut in district’s arts funding

Until May 23, you can see a testament to the importance of the arts as part of school curriculum at Rockford Art Museum’s 63rd Young Artists Show.

The annual youth division exhibition features the artwork of local students in grades K to 8. Representatives from most local elementary and middle schools, including private, parochial and home schools will be there. This year, the teacher-selected entries were limited by school size, which has made for a smaller and better show than in years past.

Talent abounds in our schools. Those of us who have left school days behind will be pleasantly surprised to see that today’s children draw and paint better than we ever did at their age. Realistic portraiture is being taught in the fourth grade now, and digital imaging in middle school. The instruction of technique hasn’t harmed creativity, either, judging from the number of colorful and original works on display.

One notable piece is an apt comment on the threat arts programs in local schools are facing. No Art?, a collaborative collage by students at Flinn Middle School, questions the possibility of electives and arts courses being cut to help districts save money:

Imagine no electives, no art or music. How on earth could this be?

Fostering children’s artistic expression may be far more important than improving their test scores. Saving money is good. Yeah, right.

At the students’ expense? It’s enough to make you scream.

A utilitarian viewpoint implies that the arts aren’t really important in learning. Materials are expensive, after all, and few students will go on to careers in art or music.

Those who do support the need for art in education cite the benefits from an exposure to culture, or the chance to explore creative skills and be provided with other avenues for success. All valid, and yet the most overlooked and important benefit of the arts is that they help students learn.

It’s easy to overlook the real educational benefits of art. Art does not work directly with the verbal skills of reading, writing, and listening that are central to regular academics. However, not all students excel in those skills. Some need to see or touch things to understand them, or to help remember them. Art provides the visual and tactile cues that aid memory and learning.

The RAM show includes pieces based on ancient Egypt, Aboriginal Australian culture, modern culture, and philosophy. An untitled tempera painting by Keshonda Townsend, a kindergartner at Stiles School, is a replication of a painting by Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s spare lines and basic geometric forms coupled with his use of primary colors are concerned with discovering the basic components of things in real life and their relationship to each other. Try explaining that to a kindergartner. Give him or her some paints, and they begin to grasp the idea. What do you remember better: the faces on Mount Rushmore or the names of the presidents they represent?

Many people struggle with the abstract concepts associated with math. Art uses math in its most concrete form. With images, you can see the proportions that make up faces and figures. Students can understand space and distance through perspective and volume through light and shadow. Perhaps a fourth grader who can’t grasp fractions will understand them by drawing a self-portrait.

Images make ideas concrete and easier to understand, and art makes concepts come to life. Drawing an illustration to a poem helps the student understand the meaning of words and the more complex techniques of creating images in writing. Ashley Vanbarriger, a fifth grade student at Lewis Lemon, created “Sunset Beach,” an original illustrated poem. Would she have written so well without the use of images that complement words? Or Camille Pruitt’s “Invention,” illustrating the Shel Silverstein poem of the same name—isn’t that a reflection of how language and images work together?

Much of learning is learning how to think. A teacher’s goal is to show his or her students how to think using a variety of methods to encompass all of the different learning styles. Taking away those methods, regardless of their perceived usefulness, handicaps the learning process. Our students deserve better.

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