Part One: THE ROLE OF THE ARTS IN PREPARING CHILDREN TO LEARN ACROSS ALL DISCIPLINES

photo: Kristin Eno

I am preparing my keynote address for an education symposium. sponsored by the Wind Institute, to be given at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The subject of the symposium is The Role of the Arts in Preparing Children to Learn Across All Disciplines. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this subject and my thinking is all over the place – Isabel Allende’s incredible story of how she learned to write by falling in love with Marc Chagall and his painting; my daughter Simone Dinnerstein’s experience going into schools across the nation with her Bachpacking program, playing Bach for children in their classrooms and generating a lively discussion; the role of Visual Literacy, particularly an experience I had with a painting by George Tooker and a group of novice teachers; the experience of taking my class to MOMA to see Monet’s Water Lillies paintings; and finally, an interesting discussion that I had with a neighbor yesterday. I asked him if he would write up what he told me.I’ll begin my thoughts on the topic of the teaching of art and how it impacts on children’s learning by sharing his story with you.
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View of Florence, Italy

Nick’s story:
As a parent with 2 school age children I have long been interested in your advocacy of early childhood education that involves experimentation, imagination, and play as part of the fundamentals of learning. Rather than being peripheral, the arts can be central to education and should be an integral part of a well conceived curriculum. I thought you might be interested in the results of a family trip to Florence in April 2016.

As an artist I have long been enthralled by Italy,and in particular Florence, and wanted the children to have the opportunity to be introduced to a place that has been meaningful to me.

At the time our children were having some troubles in school.

Leo, just turned six, was in Kindergarten and having trouble with a structured curriculum. He had trouble reading and concentrating and regarded each day as a prison sentence. “Why do I have to go?” was his plaintive cry every morning. Antonia, a nine year fourth grader, was able to learn material but did not feel successful. Each new topic brought tears and tantrums.

The purpose of the trip was primarily personal and cultural, to introduce the children to a place I love and to hopefully give them a deeper perspective on the world they will inhabit. We had no idea of addressing their academic problems, but we were stunned to discover on our return that they both showed marked improvement in their school work. Leo stopped bringing home books from the A and B basket and graduated to f and G. He began writing real stories during Friday free writing time.

His drawings, which previously had advanced little beyond scribbles and rudimentary blocks, began to have scale and be placed meaningfully on the page. He started discriminating between different colors, talked about patinas and began noticing the proliferation of Renaissance derived architecture and ornamentation in our Brooklyn neighborhood. When he took an intelligence assessment test for a possible IEP he scored 10 to 15 points higher than the year before. Teachers were struck by how much more active and engaged he was at the end of the year.

Antonia, while not always appreciative of my lecturing, also responded positively to the trip.

She made a jump in the level of books she was reading and also consolidated gains in math and Hebrew. More importantly, in her case, she seemed much more confident about new ideas and material. Remarkably she made one improvement that amounted to a complete turn around in her abilities, almost as if her brain were rewired. We were convinced before the trip that she suffered from a spatial cognitive deficit. She was often confused about where we were even on a familiar walk and would have a meltdown if we turned down a different street from usual, apparently unable to tell that it was a parallel path. After nine days of finding our way around Florence, using the famous and beautiful landmarks as our guides, she became not just a calm follower but an active leader in finding our path. Her anxieties about schoolwork occasionally resurface but her inabillity to find her way has disappeared for good. She is a different person, a braver person.

What did we do? We did not spend a lot of time in crowded galleries like the Uffizi. Every day we took the same path down the Arno and crossed the bridge. Nearly every day we walked through the Boboli or Bardini gardens or up to Piazza Michaelangelo for exercise and to gain a perspective on the city. We went to small museums and took in a sampling of the extraordinary mural cycles on view in the city. The children might not remember the names Giotto and Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Andrea Del Sarto and the but they looked at their works and we discussed the differences and similarities. Leo was particularly interested in the Bargello (the sculpture museum) where we talked about the techniques of sculpture, the differences between marble and bronze, Gothic and Renaissance and how they related to classical models, public and private patronage and the relation of different modes of depiction in sculpture to contemporary animation. I kept things simple and he made genuine connections. We also talked about decorative sculptures when walking through the gardens. Somehow they were recharged for learning even though we did not do a single assignment from school!

I don’t think 9 days in Florence made our children do things that they were not capable of before. Instead I think it pulled together what they already knew. I got the impression that things tied together inside of them, as they moved through the squares and museums and along the Arno. Of course they might have done that at home, eventually. I just believe that in an environment as rich as Florence with the freedom to talk and run and ask, those connections happened much faster.

The promise of gelato also helped!

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