Arts and Humanities

“Specials” may help traumatized students succeed in academics

Some of the best-known therapeutic techniques for people suffering the after-effects of trauma include art therapy, music therapy, and exercise. Sound familiar? These also happen to be the “specials” that we sometimes think of as distinct from academics. However, for traumatized students who have trouble concentrating, they could hold the key to accessing learning throughout the school day, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin proposes in the December 2017 issue of Educational Leadership magazine.

Goodwin recalls that it’s been 20 years since the director of a popular weight-loss program revolutionized our understanding of the long-lasting impact of emotional trauma by observing that nearly half his patients had experienced such difficulties in childhood as being abused, witnessing domestic violence, or having an incarcerated parent. Perhaps these “adverse childhood experiences” contributed to their overeating—and other risky behaviors—as adults.

Brain research has supported this proposition, uncovering brain abnormalities that would make it hard to regulate emotion and concentration—and thus make it hard to learn—in people suffering from chronic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Supporting the whole child, but not with arts education

There is a lot of talk these days about meeting the needs of the “whole child.” Once past the bizarre visual image of a less-than-whole child that the phrase tends to conjure up, we understand its intent, and, in near unanimity, we agree there should be more student supports that actually prevent problems from arising in the first place.

In April, the National Education Association convened a panel of 100 of the country’s top educators. Many asserted that students need more than a curriculum focused in reading and mathematics, saying America’s students also need opportunities to learn more about career technical education, social sciences, and the arts. Yes, that’s right—the arts, as in music and art classes. It seems reasonable that to fully address the issue of whole-child supports, we need to nurture children’s minds in every way, including the unique ways that music and art offer.

Last month, the president’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released the report, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools, the result of an 18-month in-depth review of the current condition of arts education, research about its benefits, and opportunities for advancing it. The report acknowledges one effect of high-stakes testing has been a trend away from arts education, but it also identifies the increased interest of civic and business leaders in arts education as a positive and promising development that somewhat counters that effect. Then it dives into some lesser known research. How many educators know the work of anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath or education researcher Milbrey McLaughlin? Do parents and teachers know these researchers found links among arts education, school attendance, and high academic achievement? The report’s authors also describe impressive longitudinal studies and findings from neuroscience that suggest “early arts education is a building block of developing brain function” (p. 22). Lastly, they make several recommendations, including developing the field of arts integration and reinforcing the role of arts education through federal and state policies. Yet, the larger question is whether there is enough public will to act on any of the committee’s recommendations, despite a few influential voices.

It may be that neuroscience will be the driver that restores art and music to America’s classrooms.

Knowing this, one can only ask, if we really care about supporting the “whole child,” and we know that our brains work better when we are being creative, why in the world are we eliminating arts education from our schools?

[Go here to watch a TED Talk on artistic creativity as a neurologic product: Charles Limb: Your brain on improv | Video on]

See how two teachers are integrating art and politics: Schools That Work: Integrating Art and Politics to Improve High School Student Engagement | Edutopia

Move over technology, make room for liberal arts

Americans always have been obsessed with time. In his book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything, James Gleick wrote over a decades ago that American society was moving ever-faster forward toward a pace that is so accelerated, we can’t slow down enough to realize it isn’t working. We are not saving time, using time more wisely, or creating more leisure time (although we like to think we are); we are just doing everything faster. And as author Nicolas Carr asserts in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, technology and other advancements are now crowding out time we might otherwise spend in prolonged, focused concentration. Carr writes that our increased dexterity with technology comes at the loss of our ability to spend time in reflective thinking, thus producing a country of shallow thinkers, which is a very scary thought, when you really think about it.

And that is why this recent headline in The Denver Post was so striking: “It’s old school—and it’s the future.” The article profiles Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs, where single-sex classes, Latin classes, and reading the classics are the norm. All of the school’s 110 students follow the same liberal arts curriculum, including learning how to play a stringed instrument. This is not an elite school, curriculum, or group of students. One-third of students are on free or reduced lunch, and one-third belongs to a minority group. School leaders say they simply aim to attract and keep students for whom the curriculum and approach is a good fit.

Similarly, educator Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, calls for a return to the essentials of providing students opportunities to engage in authentic literacy practices. This, too, sounds “old school,” but it’s hard to believe that today’s generation will be ready to lead globally until it has mastered the skills we most often need and use—not the ability to multi-task, but the ability to read widely, think deeply, and question courageously.

Read about China’s entry into the liberal arts arena here: