Including the arts in your curriculum is a tough sell these days. In many districts, budgets have been cut, enrollment has increased, and there are tests to pass-forget about teaching Johnny to paint. But the discipline that many refer to as "the fourth R" may never have been more relevant to students' futures than today.
That's because an increasing number of industries rely on the skills that an education in the arts helps develop: originality, collaboration, expression, risk taking, and imagination, to name a few. And there are entire industries (e.g., graphic design, sound engineering, and animation) that depend on workers fluent in digital arts creation.
You don't need a state-of-the-art multimedia lab to bring your school's art or music program into the 21st century, though. All it takes is a handful of computers and one educator who is committed to infusing creative expression into a lesson plan that crosses disciplines. We had the opportunity to speak with two such educators and discover what made their programs succeed.
It's a warm and sunny Friday, the last day of summer school in Santa Clara County, Calif., and the principal has arranged for students to have ice cream during the break between classes. At 11:00, students stream out of classrooms, rushing to the ice cream cart in the courtyard. But the fourth- and fifth-graders in Michael Diltz's class emerge in ones and twos-most of the students linger in the computer lab, headphones on, immersed in their work. Eventually, the teacher has to ask everyone to leave so he can prepare for the next class.
Diltz's summer school technology course was slated to be a basic program where students would learn to use Microsoft Office. But Diltz, who had recently returned to teaching after an interlude studying sound engineering and managing a recording studio, decided teaching technology use through music would be more fun. So he obtained a grant from the Santa Clara Schools Foundation to purchase Propellerhead's Reason music editing software and Creative Labs Prodikeys DM keyboards for the school's computer lab.
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment for a school computer music lab: headphones.
With the new technology in place, Diltz set about the challenging task of teaching music to students with varying levels of musical knowledge. He began by introducing the fundamentals of rhythm, using fractions to divide whole notes into quarter notes, eighth notes, and so forth. Students wrote their own 8-bar melody on paper before entering it into the computer. Then, with Reason, students assigned instrumental sounds to the notes. "Once they got that far, they went crazy experimenting with sounds," Diltz says. He focused their attention on creating accompanying rhythm tracks, with an end goal of composing a complete 32-bar tune.
Throughout the course, students listened to each other's works in progress and practiced offering constructive criticism. They were also encouraged to bring in their favorite songs; they would listen and analyze the music as a class.
In addition to music composition, Diltz taught students about sound design. "They encounter sound design everywhere: when they play video games, go to the movies, or watch TV. I want them to consider whether the sounds they hear might have been created in a studio," Diltz says. Students drew a storyboard of a simple event, such as a car skidding across a slick street during a rainstorm, and then used the sound effects in Reason to create the narrative in sound.
Listening to the students' compositions, it's difficult to believe that this class was only two weeks long. But with subject matter this engaging, kids are excited to expand their skills and learn new things. "Most of these kids don't equate this class with school," Diltz says. Several of his students have wished aloud that all school were like this.
After piloting the concept in the summer, Diltz is already integrating sound design and music composition into his fifth-grade class. He envisions a handful of cross-curricular projects, such as examining sound waves, turning poems into song lyrics, or designing a soundtrack to accompany kids' stories about historical events. Ultimately, he says, he'd like his students to build simple Web sites to share their compositions with peers and family.
Digital Music Tools
Below is just a sampling of software and hardware for music composition.
Innovative Music Systems
Though he had been experimenting with photo editing on his home computer, Larry Hewett, an art instructor at West Columbus High School in rural Columbus County, N.C., had not integrated technology into his traditional art curriculum. But then his principal, who saw that the school's PC lab was free during one period a day, approached Hewett about teaching a computer art course. Hewett wrote a rough description of the course, obtained a site license for PhotoImpact software from Ulead, and the Art in Technology class began.
A relative beginner at digital photo editing himself, Hewett looked online for tutorials or lesson plans that would help him teach digital art concepts. What he found was the PhotoImpact Resource Center, a nonprofit collective that offers free tutorials and workshops on the program. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if I gave my students assignments and then had someone who really knows the program critique their work?'" Hewett says.
With PIRC director MaryLou White, he set up a telementoring program in which students would work under the guidance of professional graphic designers. Learners would access online tutorials that were created by mentors and which covered everything from program basics to graphic design and animation. Using the online communication tool ezboard, students could upload their finished projects for mentors and peers to view and critique. Once students had completed all the lessons in a unit, they were free to work on a cross-curricular project of their own design, or they could help classmates who were behind. Hewett, who worked through the tutorials on his own in the evenings, appreciated the collaborative aspect of the course. "I was just a facilitator," he says. "It was the hardest-working class I've ever taught. There were no discipline problems; they went in and worked until it was time to leave."
By the end of the course's 70 lessons, the students knew PhotoImpact, and the fundamentals of graphic design, inside and out. One of them won first place in the county art show. Others used their skills to put together the school's yearbook. The class was so popular, students asked Hewett to create an Art in Technology II course—they even scheduled a meeting with the principal to share some of their artwork and build a case for having an advanced class.
They convinced her, and this year members of the ATII class are building complex cross-curricular projects. A recent assignment had them manipulating a photograph of themselves so that it looked like a completely different person, then writing a poem about that new person. Between projects, the ATII students are writing tutorials for their peers in the Art in Technology I course. In fact, this year's beginning-level class isn't working with mentors from the PIRC; instead, Hewett and the ATII students act as mentors.
Hewett's only limit now is that classes are restricted to 25 students—the number of computers in the school's lab. But he's thrilled with the quality of work so far, and he's committed to keeping the course available as long as there is interest. "Computer-generated art is a legitimate form of art," he says, "and the kids are really into technology. So if I can open up another avenue for students to express themselves visually, I'm all for it."
Digital Photo Editing Tools
The following companies offer photo-editing software for beginners to professionals.
Strategies for Success
- Get your principal on board. Both Diltz and Hewett mentioned that a supportive principal was key to implementing their courses.
- Seek creative funding sources. Educational foundations can provide funds for technology purchases; most vendors provide a significant discount for education purchasers.
- Look for resources beyond your school building. Hewett's Internet search for software tutorials led him to a handful of graphic design professionals who were willing to mentor his students.
- Start small. Diltz and Hewett both began with pilot programs focused primarily on teaching kids to use the software tools. Now they're more aggressively integrating artistic expression into the standard curriculum, and vice versa.
- Encourage students to act as mentors. Diltz's students formed "bands" of mixed skill levels. In Hewett's class, those who finished lessons ahead of time mentored their peers; students in the advanced course now mentor beginners.
Michelle Thatcher is reviews editor for Technology & Learning.