HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Engaging Our Most Challenging Students in Fine Arts

All students need to know that there is room for them in arts programs.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Classroom ManagementInstructional Strategies
Engaging Our Most Challenging Students in Fine Arts thumbnail
Credit: ampak
The parent of one of my 4th graders said something profound to me at my last performing arts showcase. It happened several minutes after the curtain call for our clunky but lovable iteration of The Rockin' Tale of Snow White, in which her 9-year-old son played a part one might call "particularly free-spirited dwarf."
She said, "Thank you for not making my kid cry."
I must have stared at her for a second, blinking in puzzlement. I was on my own that night in a packed gymnasium-turned-auditorium, powering through the turnaround between back-to-back shows and fresh off a different parent's comments about my wacky stylistic choices, the "relentlessly poor" quality of my sound equipment, and my having committed the ultimate theatrical offense of allowing the children to have their scripts with them on stage.
So this parent—whose son was now darting around backstage, weaving nimbly between the stands of discount DJ lighting with a four-foot inflatable pickax in his hand—had caught me off guard. I nodded and, above the din of speaker feedback and yelling children, replied, "So, he enjoyed it?"
"Yes," she responded. "He did. This is the first time a drama teacher didn't just sit him at the back of the stage and tell him to be quiet."
Sit him at the back of the stage and tell him to be quiet? As much as I appreciated this mother's approval, I couldn't bear the thought that her son had, at some point before arriving at my school theater, been introduced to performing arts in such a devastating way. What had compelled a drama teacher of years past to sideline this child?

A Chance to Shine

In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report titled "The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies," highlighting the devastating effects of budget cuts pushing the arts out of our schools (Catterall, Dumais, & Hampden-Thompson, 2012). "What's lost?" the report asked. The answer landed with a thud: "The chance for a child to express himself. The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine."
As teacher to more than a few "idiosyncratic" students, I agree—and I've never known another educator in any discipline to disagree. Educators lament budget cuts that target the arts because we know art plays an essential role in rounding out a child's emotional development. Equally important, we know that the arts can provide valuable points of access to other academic areas, such as reading and critical thinking, as a 2016 study of arts education by Hanover Research noted.
But what about those times when a child's teacher alienates him or her from the arts? How can we make sure that doesn't happen? Perhaps the first step to answering this question is to reconsider how we, as teachers, approach, evaluate, and—as a consequence—codify the students in our programs who struggle to meet the standards and expectations we set for them.

Should We Exclude "Free Spirits"?

In my professional circles, it's become common to bemoan the lack of enforceable consequences for disruptive student behavior in elementary and middle school theater classes—classes that usually fall into the category of "specials" and are sometimes regarded as not-quite legitimate academic subjects. One attitude often surfaces among my peers: If "disruptive" students can't meet the academic and behavioral expectations set for them, then they shouldn't expect to play an active role in stage productions. This may be what that free-spirited dwarf's former teachers felt.
I'm sympathetic to this argument. Like every teacher, I want to present to parents, administrators, and the world the shiniest, most successful production my class can pull off. In the realm of fine arts, where high-stakes testing and scoring doesn't always apply, student showcases are our chances to validate our work.
But there's more to consider here—and more at stake than the quality of a school stage production.
This truth was brought home to me recently during a play rehearsal. While waiting for his cue, my aforementioned dwarf (let's call him Lou) caused a multi-student pileup by shooting a wind-up toy into the center of the stage just as Snow White was attempting to curtsy in her 2-inch princess heels. The girl leapt straight backwards into a chorus of befuddled woodland animals but rose swiftly to collect her shoes and straighten out her dress. She had made it halfway to where Lou was standing, with a fiery gleam in her eye, before I could intervene.
After determining that there had been no injuries, I wrote Lou up. He was made to promptly apologize to Snow White and company for the results of his ill-advised stunt. We had the requisite talk about actions and consequences, and I ultimately asked Lou to take a "time-out" for the rest of that particular rehearsal. I told myself, at the time, that this was the best solution. The student was temporarily excluded from an activity—a penalty for his misbehavior—while the rest of us got on with the pressing business of our rehearsal.
So it goes, sometimes, in a busy classroom—the show literally must go on. But I ended class that day knowing I could've done better. I went to bed that night with one salient thought in my head: for my students, being kids—and making kid-mistakes—is not something that can be circumnavigated. The growth process cannot be rushed, rescheduled, or ignored. A child's stage of development doesn't care that your stage production is rapidly approaching or that your class's standardized test scores are imperiled. Yet, we can't just wait around for our students to mature and meet set standards. So what's the solution?

First, Welcome Them

I believe it's educators who must meet students where they are on the path to excellence, allowing them full access to the learning environment in which they'll be expected to succeed. Yes, students need to know that there are academic and behavioral standards for their participation. But they also need to know that there is room for them in this learning environment—that we're glad they're here and want them to stay—before they can be expected to care about something like a standard.
Teachers (of art or anything else) wrestle daily with an assortment of ridiculous challenges, challenging children, and the highest of expectations—those we set for our students and those we set for ourselves. We are expected to be the best instructors, content experts, counselors, role models, and disciplinarians the world has ever seen.
Yet, sometimes, there is no "very best" choice when a student turns disruptive in the middle of a class. The most immediately effective solution may be to minimize that child's role in the class through a "time-out." That said, we should never be satisfied when we exclude a student just because we don't yet have an appropriate behavioral solution for whatever's going on in his or her kid-brain. We should know in our hearts that we can't always remediate disruptive participation by exclusion.
The Hanover study points out, "Arts education is an active and participatory process that requires students to use their bodies and engage with materials and their environment" (p. 6, emphasis mine). The study notes that the arts are often the way to engage typically hard-to-reach kids, like students with disabilities, reluctant learners, and so on. The students who stand to benefit the most from arts education are often the ones who aren't currently meeting our expectations.
Student potential can also masquerade in classrooms and halls in many disguises; it sometimes manifests as chaos before a teacher can help the student refine that energy into critical engagement and, later, to academic achievement. To get a boisterous 4th grader—like my Lou—to channel that energy into a structured activity is a major accomplishment, regardless of the quality of the finished product. After all, in accomplishing this, we've provided that student with an outlet for behaviors widely regarded as unproductive or disruptive.
And the concept of reshaping or redirecting, rather than simply cordoning off, problematic behaviors isn't limited to this kind of student—or to rowdiness during a performance. I speak chiefly from the perspective of a performing arts teacher who has seen the positive impact of helping a shy student amble through a group script-reading or of introducing a disorganized student to the responsibilities and rewards of stage management (in both cases planting a seed for future leadership opportunities). But I'm sure applicable scenarios exist across the spectrum of subjects and disciplines.
But since I've started with the arts, I'll end with arts, with the point that "fine art" doesn't discriminate on the basis of comportment. It doesn't search out the well-adjusted and elevate them above the rest.

Opening Doors

As teachers, we have the power to open doors. As fine arts teachers, we are in an especially good position to help students access latent potential—to help them achieve a sense of self during a period of their lives characterized by growing pains. But we also have the power to close doors, sometimes without even realizing it.
I don't have all the answers. Actually, I don't have any answers—just observations and ideas gained over my years as a teacher. But I know for certain that everything I say and do in my classroom has a lasting and consequential impact on my students, and that if I care about my subject—and care about my students caring about my subject—I have a responsibility not to alienate them from it.
Perhaps the first major step toward equity and inclusiveness in fine arts education is to let go of perfection—just let it go. Veteran teacher Jay Davidson (2001) posits that "the role of parents and teachers is to expose children to a variety of materials so that they can create art … children will then have a choice as to whether they want to use the materials or not." This succinctly summarizes our role as arts educators. Our students are still sorting themselves out, and I, for one, am ready to admit that my job has nothing to do with achieving perfection. It especially has little to do with state-of-the-art sound systems or forcing nine-year-olds to memorize all of their lines. It has everything, however, to do with providing students with tools, choices, guidance and—where possible and appropriate—inspiration.
Because sitting a student at the back of the stage isn't an option.
References

Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S. A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Davidson, J. (2001). Teach your children well: A teacher's advice for parents (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Tojabrel Press.

Hanover Research. (2016). The impact of arts and athletics participation on student success. Arlington, VA: Author.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Classroom Management
Following Through on Restorative Practice
Sarah McKibben
7 months ago

undefined
Is the Challenge Our Behavior?
Kimberly N. Parker
7 months ago

undefined
Keeping Your Head Above Water
Bryan Goodwin
7 months ago

undefined
Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
7 months ago

undefined
Connection Before Correction
Lee Ann Jung
7 months ago
Related Articles
Following Through on Restorative Practice
Sarah McKibben
7 months ago

Is the Challenge Our Behavior?
Kimberly N. Parker
7 months ago

Keeping Your Head Above Water
Bryan Goodwin
7 months ago

Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
7 months ago

Connection Before Correction
Lee Ann Jung
7 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 119038b.jpg
The Arts and Creativity in Schools
Go To Publication