Lately, I have had the privilege of being a fly on the wall in many classrooms as I visit brave teachers who have taken on the challenge of integrating the arts into their core curriculum. For most of these teachers the arts are not something with which they are comfortable and they will tell me that in no uncertain terms! And yet, there they are, faithfully trying to implement lessons written by someone else about things with which they have little comfort. That is a tall order.
What is amazing is just how great these teachers are – and they don’t even know it! I learn so much by watching them. When they can stay rooted in a confidence that they know how to teach, they have amazing instincts that make the lessons even better than how they were written. However, when nerves get the better of them, I do notice fairly regularly that when it comes to processing the activity, many of these teachers seem at a loss and miss a golden opportunity to learn more about their students and have their students reflect more deeply on the art experience.
Just recently I was working with a group of first graders who were exploring qualities of movement and moving with different kinds of energy. I was asking them to tell me how they felt when they were exploring shaking. Some responses I received were, “I felt cold” and “I felt scared” or “I felt nervous, a little anxious.” One student said, “I felt like I was in the stomach of someone who was really hungry and when their stomach would growl I would shake.” What great imagery! When we talked about how they felt exploring wiggling, one student remarked he felt like an astronaut and started to imitate a wiggly weightlessness that was truly remarkable. Another student said she felt like she does when someone is tickling her and she “gets all wiggly” as she giggles.
I know I have mentioned before what an amazing opportunity movement provides to improve description in student writing and the above examples are indicative of this. But the reason I heard these things from those students is because I asked. I didn’t close up the activity as quickly as I could to get to the next thing or to get out of an uncomfortable place I had found myself in, I felt comfortable enough to be in the moment with these movers and delve into the how and why. “Why did you like moving like that? How did that make you feel? What images did you imagine while you were moving?” Sometimes, I think teachers are either on to the next thing in their minds or are so uncomfortable exploring the arts that they forget the good things they naturally do when they teach content with which they are familiar. Good questioning is at the heart of good teaching.
So, while I believe that having an arts experience is worthwhile for any child, I know that any experience is richer with guided reflection. Remember as you delve into unchartered waters that you already know how to teach, how to ask probing questions, how to encourage students to go deeper and articulate their thinking. Trust your great teacher instincts and don’t forget to ask!