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Using the Arts to Leverage Academic Achievement

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: ““All Students Are Artists” by Linda Nathan in Educational Leadership, February 2012 (69 5, pp. 48-51); Ms. Nathan can be reached at
In this thoughtful Educational Leadership article, Boston Arts Academy principal Linda Nathan describes a science teacher venting about a student: “I have had it with Darren. I have moved his seat right next to my desk. I have spent extra time with him after school. I have called home. I have put him on a contract. I have talked to the counselor. In my 30 years of teaching, he is one of the most frustrating students I have ever taught!”
Ms. Nathan suggested that they watch the boy in his ballet class, and what they saw was astonishing: “This uncontrollable, impulsive, and often mean-spirited young man was beautiful here,” says Ms. Nathan. “He moved fluidly, with grace and poise. He was at the front of the class, and other students followed his movements. Darren picked up nuances so adeptly and quickly that the teacher often used him to show corrections to the rest of the class. He seemed completely secure in his body—happy and free.”
The teacher talked with Darren about how to transfer these qualities to science class, and together they came up with a solution: Darren would be allowed to get up and move around the classroom. From then on, Darren rarely sat down during 90-minute science blocks. As long as his body was in motion, his mind could focus—and he did much better academically.
Ms. Nathan presents another case study: Alejandro, a gifted singer who could master complex scores, was sullen and uncommunicative in English and fatalistic about academic achievement. “I do not ever do better,” he said to a counselor. “Just worse.”
In a summer remediation program, a teacher suggested that Alejandro look at reading texts like musical scores, breaking down paragraphs and chapters as a singer breaks down stanzas and notes. By the end of the summer, Alejandro’s reading had improved, he had written a five-page essay, and he had read a book on his own.
Teachers created a buddy system that got Alejandro checking in with other students about assignments and projects, and he passed all his subjects. Ms. Nathan observes, “He is beginning to recognize that the practice skills that come naturally to him in music can be transferred to other areas. Moreover, he has learned that success begets more success.”
“Art makes my head hurt because there isn’t one right answer,” Ms. Nathan’s students sometimes complain. She sums up: “Persistence, patience, practice, working in an ensemble, empathy, and learning to take criticism are all habits learned in the study of the arts. In music, a continuum of growth is expected. One does not fail—one gets better. A musician can always improve. In dance, the willingness to fall and recover is a common movement motif that also applies in the academic classroom.”
“As educators, we constantly work to help our students take risks and stretch and then come back to the center and be in control when necessary.”
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 424, 20 February 2012.

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