Thoughts About Arts Education

The Arts and Mattering

Over the last year, I have been fortunate to be involved in a series of projects that directly link arts education to wellness and belonging.  When asked to summarize how arts education promotes belonging, mattering and wellness, I went straight to the words of my students:

“I chose the arts because it gives me an outlet to explore my creativity and pursue my passion.”

This quotation has not only become the motto of my instructional program, but summarizes my beliefs about arts education, curriculum design, and leadership.

However, this quote cannot exist without supportive communities that uphold critical thinking, risk taking, and collaborative practices.  Mattering and belonging are key to all of the above in order for students to feel confident and comfortable engaging in the practices that allow them to express their voices through an artistic medium. 

I really honestly think the key to classroom success, arts based or not, is culturally relevant pedagogy.

We need to remember that, although there is a curriculum to “get through”, that students are people who all learn at different rates with different needs.

As the coordinator of  a specialized program, I work in collaboration with a team of teachers to build a culture where all students feel comfortable to use the creative process as a vehicle to understand and articulate their voices. Because well-being is at the core of all instructional activities, negative mathematical mindsets are broken down through music education, language skills are developed in our visual arts studios, and resiliency techniques are demonstrated through the performance process.

My students have had numerous opportunities to showcase their learning.  This is because I firmly believe that performance courses need to have real-life, diverse opportunities to not only engage an audience, but to engage the students in authentic learning tasks.  An audience that goes beyond the 28 students in the classroom environment provides a new dynamic where fresh perspectives and voices of feedback can push the work/thinking further. 

The secret to achieving this is rooted in belonging.  The students feel like they belong in the community, and therefore and willing to take risks because they are confident in their choices. 

How do we achieve this sense of belonging through our discipline specific techniques?

  • relevant content that relates to their world

  • choice regarding roles while providing opportunities for everyone to succeed in all aspects of performance (i.e. not everyone is an actor in the company; students can choose to play the roles of directors, writers, or engage in technical theatre)

  • invite focused, positive feedback that pushes the work forward and is not personal

  • clear and consistent deadlines/daily tasks so the students know exactly what they are working on

  • a system for dealing with conflicts when they arise with multiple entry points for voices to be heard

Throughout the year, my students articulated the impact mattering and mindset has on their sense of belonging through leading workshops, presenting performances, and collaborating with conference participants to create original work.   My students consistently the world that building positive relationships while engaging in artistic projects that provide the opportunity to individualize the learning experience is a key factor in their success.

My year started with a new split class. I gave them the framework of wellness as a topic for a performance piece and encouraged them to use their strengths and previous experiences in performance to build something new. This set-off a year of curious creativity. Now it ends with two performance projects, designed by the students, supported by my understanding of the curriculum. As we move through these final weeks, I will adapt and adjust plans accordingly to encourage their success with the learning task.

Here are some tips for encouraging student voice and belonging in your classrooms. Try to be mindful of the in these final weeks, especially going into presentation season:

  • give students a safe space to talk and get to know each other as people. A variety of think/pair/share activities with generic classroom prompts (e.g. talk about something that you are obsessed about in the media right now) will allow the students to get to know each other as people

  • insist that the students know each other’s names and work with everyone in the class on multiple occasions. Be mindful of groupings.

  • involve students in the assessment process by giving them choices in how they learn and show content

  • be present and consistent in your feedback

  • check-in with the students consistently around their successes and challenges in the course

As Ontario educators and students go into the final month of school, I think it’s important to keep present and uphold belonging communities using arts education techniques. With exams and final assessments, students’ wellbeing can be helped or hindered by the approach of the educator in the classroom. My colleagues: keep focused, and to keep encouraging student voice and choice. Students need to continue to chose the arts as an outlet for creativity and passion, and a supported environment where they feel like they matter will make their final projects and assessments 100% stronger.