Why We Need the Arts and PE in Our Schools

by Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan: two teachers challenging the status quo

Brace yourselves for CNN’s report by Kathleen Porter-Magee; this is going to hurt:

Affluent youngsters, especially if they were also white, were much likelier to get rigorous curricula, advanced courses, college-prep “tracks” and “gifted and talented” classes. Poor and minority students were apt to be placed into low-level courses and into vocational tracks.

More than that, reliable studies show that even the hardest-working teachers with the best of intentions can unconsciously hold students to lower expectations, depending on where those students come from.

For instance, one study published in 2012 by Rutgers psychology professor Kent D. Harber reported what happened when his team gave a poorly written essay to 113 white middle-school and high-school teachers. The teachers were told that the essay was written by a black student, a white student, or a Latino student, and that their feedback would be given directly to the student to help him or her improve.

The result? The teachers provided more praise and less criticism if they thought the student who wrote the essay was black or Hispanic.

Thanks to Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, we know that the stresses of living in poverty change children’s brains.  Jensen writes, “Most low-socio-economic kids’ brains have adapted to survive their circumstances, not to get As in school.  Their brains may lack the attention, sequencing and processing systems for successful learning” (p. 57).

While that means low s-e students typically begin kindergarten behind their middle class peers, it doesn’t mean that our impoverished students’ backgrounds doom them to academic failure.  Why? Brace yourselves again: teachers and schools matter.  Educators are game-changes for students, especially for students living in poverty, but schools need reasonable funding to make that happen.

How School Changes Students’ Brains First, teachers must believe that change is possible and that every student can succeed. Here’s what research tells us:

  • Clear expectations (standards) on what all students should know and be able to do helps students and teachers focus on what matters most: a shared quality / equality of learning.
  • Aligning instruction to rigorous standards boosts learning.
  • Aligning assessments to instruction increases achievement.
  • Giving meaningful feedback on students’ work lets students understand what to focus on–Joan uses this student-reflection guide to help students consider their drafts before handing their work in for her feedback.
  • Intelligence is fluid, and the brain is more malleable than researchers once thought.
  • Certain activities prime our brains for more learning:imgres
    • physical activity can increase production of new brain cells (Pereira et al, 2007)
    • playing chess can increase students’ capabilities in reading and in math (Cage & Smith, 2000)
    • art education can improve attention, sequencing, processing, and cognitive skills (Gazzaniga et al, 2008)
    • computer-assisted instruction can boost IMG_1333working memory, reasoning skills, and attention span (Kerns et al, 1999; Klingberg et al, 2005; Westerberg et al, 2007).
    • music impacts self-discipline, verbal memory, core math skills, and other wide brain functions (Chan, Ho & Cheung, 1998; Spelke, 2006, 2008).

Want to know what doesn’t work?  Teacher Kelly Gallagher described the “chop-chop” approach to over-teaching in his book Readicide.  Gallagher’s toxic recipe:

 The Kill-a-Reader Casserole

  •  take one large novel.  Dice into as many pieces as possible.
  • douse with sticky notes.
  • remove book from oven every five minutes and insert worksheets.
  • add more sticky notes.
  • baste until novel is unrecognizable, for beyond well done.
  • serve in choppy, bite-sized chunks

In addition, research shows us that the following moves will decrease student achievement:

  • focusing on the basics (drill and kill) demotivates students
  • maintaining order through show of force
  • eliminating or reducing arts, sports, and PE
  • installing metal detectors
  • lecturing and assigning instead of teaching

Early in our blog, we introduced our recipe for students:

The Create-Socially-Responsive-Learners Soufflé 

  • Take any required novel.
  • Add a little Paul Freire’s advice*
  • Stir in a few sticky notes to hold your thinking.
  • Spice it with a parallel non-fiction books and other materials
  • Let simmer.
  • Serve via conversations, investigations and projects that take students from the classroom into the world

*First assignment—not sure of the Freire reference?  Read or re-read Freire’s introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed before you don an apron.

We believe that learning carries the responsibility of action (see post from September, 2013), and we strive to integrate that core value with literacy standards, instruction, and assessments.  Check out Joan’s “Fast Car” ELA mini-performance task on exit points from poverty.  Use “Fast Car” in your classrooms, and please let us know your students’ thinking and levels of engagement.  But be warned that once your students begin to understand the inequities of their worlds, they’ll want to take action.  It’s that wonderfully human response that deeply nourishes us and our students.  May it be true for you as well.

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About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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