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Ah, Ontario's Arts Curriculum

By Heather Miller

I've been a teacher for almost my entire life. When I was about ten I used to gather up the local children, and for the nominal fee of five cents (for materials) I would allow them into my "Fun School". The reason it was fun is that all we did was make art. Even back then we knew what was truly important about school, and we knew we never got enough of it.

That's why I'm excited about Ontario's Arts Curriculum. I know it is causing many people a lot of grief. Teachers who have no arts background may feel particularly frustrated and overwhelmed. I've heard them wonder how they can possibly 'do it all'.

It's true the present situation in education places demands on all of us. That's why it's so important to remember that with every challenge comes opportunities. The wonderful opportunity that comes with the arts curriculum is the chance to ensure that all children have a meaningful, stimulating art program.

My experience as an educator for thirty-two years has convinced me of the power of the arts to transform learning. They really are what make school fun. When taught well, the arts engage the whole child in a meaningful search for deeper understanding.

A survey of primary and junior teachers and administrators conducted for the Ontario Ministry of Education found that arts programs help students learn "in the general program of studies through improving perception, awareness, concentration, uniqueness of thought style, problem-solving, confidence and self-worth, and motivation."1

When I first started teaching, a high school diploma, and the willingness to work hard pretty much guaranteed a good life. Not so today. Good jobs have become more complex, and it is increasingly difficult to survive in the workplace without computer skills. Successful people in the coming decades will be team players who can think critically, and who have a solid grounding in information technology. They will be very well educated. The future, bright for those who are educated, is very dark for those who are not.

What do we really mean when we say, a good education? Are good old fashioned reading, writing, and arithmetic enough -- or do we owe our children something more? Writing in the ASCD Yearbook 1999, Delaine Eastin discusses education in the 21st century. Her ideas echo those of other business leaders and futurists.

We now need to teach our children how to understand concepts, interpret and apply them, analyze information, and solve problems.2 When well taught, the arts are a perfect way to accomplish this. To create art, students are challenged to solve problems. They do this by coming to some personal understanding of an idea, interpreting what they think it means and then applying this interpretation to their solution. In determining if it is the best solution to the problem, students analyze what they have done, modify and further develop the idea until it is the best they can do. The creation of art requires hard work, perseverance, judgement and self-discipline. The prospect of a balanced curriculum that includes the arts is great news.

Teachers, struggling to find ways to implement the arts curriculum, speak with urgency about concepts they haven't considered before. They tell me honestly that the arts have always been expendable in their classrooms. Why? Because they didn't really understand their importance, or how to teach them. Have you ever heard a teacher say ... "If you're not good we won't have math today"? What about ..."Does anyone have a good idea? I have to teach reading tomorrow?"

We chuckle at the thought, yet when we replace reading with art, it sounds plausible. Does anyone have a good idea? I have to teach art tomorrow. I look forward to the day when this statement will seem as ridiculous for art as it does for math or reading.

Art education has always been demanding for those teachers who do not have > an arts background, or who have little confidence in their own ability to 'do art'. The difference as I see it, is now there are clear expectations that the arts will be taught. The increasing public awareness of the importance of the arts in brain development adds to these expectations. This era of extreme accountability brings new pressure to bear. What a challenge!

The challenges are many.

How do our leaders in education ensure there are sufficient in-service opportunities and resources for teachers.

How do teachers find the time, money and energy to learn what they need to learn?

How do teachers make time for the arts in their busy classroom schedules?

How will they find the necessary materials and space?

It will not be easy. Knowing educators as I do, I am confident they are more than equal to this challenge. And the struggle will be worth it, because the arts are what make school fun, and when school is fun, learning soars.

1. Ontario Arts Council, Making the Case for Arts Education. 1997 p.10

2. Eastin, Delaine. Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Education in the 21st Century. ASCD

Year Book 1999, Alexandria, VA1999 p.20

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