Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why we need the Arts in School

Recently I read an article that had me thinking:

http://gothamschools.org/2010/12/22/to-turn-her-middle-school-around-a-principal-invests-in-the-arts/

And thought about another article I had read:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hearing-the-music-honing

All the musicians and music educators I know accept this and other articles, as fact. Why is it that with this knowledge, school administrators continue to give the arts the axe, and insist on teaching to the test instead of educating our young Americans? To me, it seems like it’s the old “teach a man to fish” story. If the students garner the correct skills required, they should be able to excel at testing. They won’t garner the required skills by preparing for testing. You know that, I know that, why doesn’t the upper echelons know that?

There are a shocking number of students simply skipping school. They won’t learn, if they are not there. One of the best districts in my area, Palo Alto, reports a 70% truancy rate:

http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=11100

WHAT?? What is really shocking is that is just 44% higher than the state AVERAGE. State average is 26%. So our students are absent ¼ of the time, on average.

In my mind, the obvious question is NOT, “What can we do to get our test scores up?” but rather, “What can we do to get our kids to school?” I got news for you, it won’t happen by strong-armed tactics. It won’t happen by fining the parents. It won’t happen by sending a truant officer to scoop up the ditchers. We have to make the kids WANT to attend school. The 3 R’s alone ain’t gonna do it.

I know the answer since I am the POSTER CHILD of why we need the arts in school. I hated school. I hated getting up early; I hated trudging through the snow. I hated what is now called “terrorist activities” (we called it playground fights). I hated English. I hated social studies. I had a mild interest in science and math (only because there were really cute girls in my math classes). What MADE me want to go to school? Band, orchestra and chorus. THAT’S IT. I only got good grades in my solids, because the result was I would have gotten booted from band. The odd thing, to pass my classes, I had to study and keep my grades up. And oddly, I learned how to read, write and I am pretty good at math (can’t do trig or calculus, though). I can actually spell without a spell checker (this doc proves it!).

In high school, after I moved to California, I learned right away that I was getting a sub-standard education (NY is #2, Calif is #7 from the bottom). So I checked out. I hated, HATED high school. Where my mother dragged me to church, the masses were in Spanish, there were no Italians, I got bullied by some of the cowboys & Mexicans, and my Brooklyn accent all but made me an outcast. And I dressed weird. I liked getting dressed in “school clothes,” all the Oakies dressed in “dungarees” and t-shirts. But, boy, could I play the tuba! Thomas Downey HS in Modesto had an award-winning band, choirs that always got Command Performances and a really wonderful and eccentric orchestra conductor. When some of the stoner friends I made in French class, or math said, “Let’s ditch school.” My answer was always, “But I’ll miss BAND.” Stoner: “Tony, let’s go to the lake. We’ll take a few girls, get some beer….” Tony: “But I’ll miss band.” Different Stoner: “Dude, lets go get high.” Tony: “But, I’ll miss rehearsal.” OTHER stoner: “Man, I scored some great weed. We’re going to Modesto Reservoir Saturday.” Tony: “I have Marching band.” See a trend here?

Here’s another true-life story: Once there was this Jr Hi kid. In all kindness, he was just a big, fat, dumb kid. No one paid him much attention. He went to school, stayed out of trouble, got average grades. He was totally unremarkable. He played ‘the drum’ in band. Well, his band director pulls out a tune, “Surfin’ Safari.” It was a Jr Hi band arrangement of some 1960’s surfer tunes. In this tune, was the inevitable “Wipe Out” drum solo. Dutifully, the kid goes over to the drum set and plays the solo, THEE solo for all of us drummer wannabes. The Holy Grail, of drum solos (this was before “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “Toad”). The kid does ok, and goes to back to class, another unremarkable day. The band schedules a school assembly, on which “Surfin’ Safari” will be performed. The band plays the assembly, and now suddenly, this kid is a hero. EVERYONE on campus knows who this kid is. People hang out with him, girls notice him, his teachers acknowledge his accomplishment. Grades go up, weight goes down, self-esteem up, and this kid is a new man. In HS, he goes on to marching band where he ultimately becomes a drum major and ends his HS career on the Honor Roll. Where would this kid have ended up without 16 measures of drum solo?

Where would I have ended up? I thank GOD every night for High School band.

The other thing: the lifelong friends with whom I have the most affection, and with whom I have kept in touch, were my band friends. As young adults, we need a place to fit in; a group of scared, inquisitive friends with whom we could huddle together and feel safe. Band was that for me. Not math, Not English, not social studies. My lifelong friends are band, orchestra and drama people.

We need the arts. Now get out there and tell EVERYBODY! Hold our elected officials accountable. Go to Sacramento (like the bikers!) and raise a fuss. Vote out the incumbents and vote in those administrators that promise to fund the arts. Get your parents to write letters to these fat butt superintendents that slash the programs that WILL keep kids in school. It’s all in our hands.