Teaching creativity, critical thinking through art

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Teaching creativity, critical thinking through art“Some of the most important things you learn in school will never show up on a test. We want kids to be innovative — one of the best ways to teach that is through the arts,” said Mark Archer, Visual and Performing Arts chair at Burroughs High School.

Archer and the teachers who work alongside him gave the News Review an inside look at the flourishing program at Burroughs, where local administrators and schoolboard members have embraced the sometimes overlooked importance of identifying and cultivating the creative potential in students.

“We are very lucky here. When other schools in California were cutting these programs, our district had the vision to ask, ‘Do we really want to adhere to this narrow line of thought, or do we want to take a more all-inclusive approach?’”

That philosophy has so far paid off for Burroughs, which has garnered state and national recognition for its performance in programs ranging from math to English to career technical education to the performing arts.

Archer and his fellow teachers see art not as a supplement to a well-rounded education, but rather as a critical part of that structure — and even the matrix where those disciplines intersect.

Instructor Holly Hodgson said that beyond the techniques specific to art, students are taught to observe, innovate, imagine and reflect. “These skills are usually not taught anywhere but through visual arts education.

“The sophisticated cognitive skills learned in the visual arts are far more difficult to quantify on a test than for example math or reading.” But even if difficult to measure, she said, it is essential to development.

Many of the art teachers agreed that one challenge they face is that exposure to visual arts often does not present itself —in either the school or the home environment — until high school. But Hodgson said even when that is the case, she has watched students go from zero to 60 in the space of a single year.

“I feel that most of my students surpass their own expectations in art — especially if they work hard and are willing to learn and try new things.”

“I think what we teach is important,” said instructor Anne-Marie Vargas. “There are all kinds of studies that show how the arts improve other areas of education, including problem-solving.” The focus on other subjects driven by mandated testing often leave no room for subjects that don’t impact those results, she said, but exposing students to the arts can prop up the very metrics by which schools are judged.

Archer pointed out that the unique mix of exploring technical skill and creative expression in the visual arts is a perfect vehicle for teaching creative response and critical thinking. But not only are those higher functionings more difficult to measure, they also take longer to develop.

“That’s where we have to be patient. Sometimes we draw too many conclusions at a given point in a student’s life. We have to remember that this is a lifelong process. My approach to teaching is to find what inspires each student, because once you light that spark they will work their fingers to the bone toward something they are passionate about.”

In a culture where “no child left behind” is the rallying point, it is important to ensure that the creative students don’t fall through the cracks of the system, he said.

“I think that’s what’s so great about the arts — they make abstract ideas highly relevant and personal. THAT is how you ensure no child is left behind,” said Archer.

“I think all of my kids enjoy what they do in our class. But there are some who have latched onto it in a particular way. In fact for some I would say it is what keeps them engaged and in school,” said Vargas.

“ You look throughout history, and there have always been those artists whose talent, and the value of what they brought to the world, were not recognized until long after they had gone. Poor Van Gogh — what a horrible life! But today we look back at him and see how some artists are so far on the leading edge it’s hard to appreciate them in their own time. Keeping the arts alive is one way we can nurture those gifts, even when we don’t fully understand them.”

Marcia Didtler said that art is not only vital to education, but also exhibits itself it all things. “Proportion, perspective, space, form and color are obvious to everyone if we take a moment to look around us,” she said.

“The arts simply improve our lives.” From sculpting Homecoming floats to designing costumes to hanging photos — art is a part of everyday life, said Didtler.

Hodgson also pointed out that students are given many opportunities to showcase the visual arts in their school and in the community. Some of that work has even made it overseas, with 60 students participating in a project last year to create portraits for children in Afghanistan, Guatemala, Honduras and Africa.

Archer is also working on a project this year “that I hope will engage our collective community imagination and support for the visual arts in public education.”

In a creative twist on the national push for STEM education, student-crafted espresso cup forms will promote “STEAM” in public schools. Archer, who incorporates poetry, storytelling and music into his lessons, composed the following to explain the project:

Science and technology,

Engeineering, art and math:

Oh my gosh and golly gee

What fine skills to craft.

Archer noted that the inclusion of “arts” in that technical acronym helps to ensure that innovation is a key ingredient to future-focused endeavors.

“It is my hope that the Maturango Museum, Starbucks and other coffee houses will want to carry these cups/forms to help benefit the arts.” All proceeds will benefit the B Mountain Foundation.

Archer said that he cannot overstate how supportive BHS Principal David Ostash and Superintendent Jody Rummer have been for the visual arts program.

“We want innovation in this country, but we have to make sure the system we establish promotes strategic thinking,” said Archer. STEM is important, but “we are not going to lead without that ‘A.’”

Story First Published: 2013-03-20