Walking The Oregon High School Arts Beat

Oregon Public Broadcasting recently had an episode their show Arts Beat where they directly addressed the value of arts education in schools. There is also a “sidebar” video of three people talking about how they integrate creativity into their jobs and invite people to talk about what their lives would be like had they not had arts in school.

The science teacher in the main video, Michael Giesen, was the 2008 National Teacher of the Year and you can easily see why based on the way he gets his students acting, moving, drawing/model making and interacting in the process of learning about science. (In case you think music is left out, Giesen and his guitar figure prominently in the lessons.)

There seems to be a disconnect present though. Giesen is rewarded for his creativity up to the national level, but I suspect a teacher trying to initiate such a process from scratch might be told the activities they had the student engaged in were extraneous and consuming time best spent trying to master basic competencies for testing. (Though perhaps not in his school or district.) I am sure Giesen’s students do just fine on the testing because he creates so many powerful associations to the material through all the activities he employs. I just wonder how much latitude a teacher working toward that goal would be provided as they made missteps in the process of refining their approach.

It is the competency requirements that John Baker, the choir director in the second segment of the video feels erodes his program. At one time he had 90 people in his girls choir, now he has 14. He says his principal thinks it is because kids don’t want to sing, but he believes it is that there are so many requirements the students need to fulfill, they have little opportunity to take his class.

His students learn music theory, sight reading, sing in four languages and need to develop critical thinking skills. But all this aside, the video shows the students performing some very interesting looking and sounding pieces. I can’t think but that many students would be at least a little intrigued by the classes. The first reaction I had to the snippet at the beginning of the video was that I didn’t know they had choral pieces like that. There were a few more seconds like it later in the video.

Baker’s fear is that because his program is so strong and winning competitions, no one is paying close attention to how much it is diminishing. He fears that when he retires and people notice the inevitable differences between the new person and the institution of 3 decades, they will attribute the weakness of the program to the unsuitability of his replacement. In fact, Baker seems to believe his position will become part time before he retires.

The last part of the video deals with the lack of funding and time allocated to arts experience in schools. This is a common theme nationwide. What was most interesting about John Baker’s segment was that he didn’t attribute his problems to either of these things. He didn’t talk about his funding being cut or say that the administration was necessarily undermining him.

His problem seems mostly to be due to a shift in values. Either his principal is right and kids don’t want to sing or he is right and required focus of students’ education is moving them away from his program. It is rare to hear of a school arts program in distress due to a philosophical rather than financial shift in priorities. Perhaps it happens more frequently than I realize and it is just the budget cuts getting all the press.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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