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Experts Say Arts Education Should Be Emphasized As Students Return To Classrooms

Joe Hong
A student at Joseph Casillas Elementary School in Chula Vista works on his art assignment. May 10, 2021

For Barbara LeRoy, one silver lining to teaching at home through the pandemic was having the chance to play her ukulele to keep students engaged during distance learning.

Last month when she went back to part-time in-person teaching at Joseph Casillas Elementary in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, the ukelele came with her. Now it’s helping her students re-adapt to the classroom.

“If a child has had a tough morning, the music can just help get them out of their head and out of that situation,” LeRoy said.

Experts Say Arts Education Should Be Emphasized As Students Return To Classrooms
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

The year of distance learning has been tough on all students. And though academic loss might be front-of-mind for parents and teachers, experts say an over-emphasis on test scores at this point is a mistake. Learning loss matters and must be dealt with eventually, but now is not the time to create more anxiety for students, the experts say.

LeRoy says it’s not just the students who benefit from the sing-alongs.

“There’s just been a lot of anxiety with being on the camera and then now in-person,” she said. “When I play music, I just kind of get out of my own head and out of my own anxious feelings, and it just centers me.”

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Experts Say Arts Education Should Be Emphasized As Students Return To Classrooms

Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at the Stanford-based think tank Policy Analysis for California Education, said emphasizing arts in the classroom can serve as an antidote to anxiety as students return to campuses.

“We have to understand that when kids come back to school, they’re not only bringing academic challenges, but they’ve also had a wide range of emotional experiences,” Gallagher said. “Their socio-emotional wellness definitely needs to be addressed.”

For both Gallagher and LeRoy, it’s about helping students re-discover a love of being at school.

“Things like the arts, band, dance, sports, those activities that are more often off to the side, are actually places where students can bring their whole selves and find meaning and develop the relationships and connectivity to school that help them get through school and ultimately thrive as well-rounded human beings,” Gallagher said.

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Bonnie Hunt, a first-grade teacher at Casillas Elementary, said the social aspect of the arts also helps students as they emerge from a year in isolation.

“I had a few students who were very isolated and had a lot of anxiety coming back to the classroom,” Hunt said. “Being able to draw and do art brought them out of their shells.”

But academics and the arts aren’t completely separate. Hunt’s students spent the last week learning about the bugs and insects that pollinate flowers or aerate the soil. They used paint markers to decorate the school garden. Hunt says this helps students gain confidence while learning what can be difficult material.

“They take ownership of it, and it takes what they’re learning from a book and it makes it real,” she said. “When they can transfer what they’ve seen in the book and create their own, then you can say they’ve learned it.”

Hunt is retiring this year, but she hopes education’s new normal does not include the same hyper-focus on standardized tests. She’s rooting for beauty and self-expression to make a comeback.

“Whether it’s something they’ve created that they’re proud of or something they’ve created that takes their sadness away, that’s the most important thing about the classroom,” Hunt said. “Not whether or not they can bubble in a test. Bubbling in isn’t art.”