Bringing art into school, Byte by Byte


Monika Aldarondo is sitting in an office at the Boston Arts Academy (BAA) untangling scraps of brilliantly colored fabric that her students dyed to make banners for the school’s annual Africa Lives! exhibition. “I love old media,’’ the visual arts teacher says, snipping stray threads as she unravels the cloth.

But even as she revels in age-old techniques like fabric dying, Aldarondo and her colleagues at Boston’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts are contemplating how new media is changing the field as well as their profession. What does it mean to be an arts specialist in the digital age? How and when should new media be used? Are the old disciplines blurring?

This kind of soul-searching is commonplace at BAA, an innovative urban high school founded in 1998 that integrates the arts throughout the entire academic curriculum. Indeed, BAA seems like an anomaly at a time when arts education is rapidly diminishing in the nation’s public schools. A study published by the National Endowment for the Arts in February reported a steady decline in arts education in public schools since 1982, with the decline more substantial among African American and Hispanic populations. In 1982, nearly two-thirds of 18-year-olds reported taking art classes in their childhood; in 2008, that number dropped to 49.5 percent, a decline of 23 percent.

This decline comes at a time when arts instruction is often relegated to the margins as schools focus on improving math and reading scores on standardized tests and as districts continue to trim their arts programs in response to budget shortfalls. And yet some educators are finding that the same technology that allows for learning core subjects can also be used for artistic exploration. Some arts educators and researchers are even advocating that an A be added to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, to include arts as part of a well-rounded education (see sidebar “Arts and Sciences”).

Here are some examples of how new technologies are being used in schools to bring art into—or back into—school, whether by expanding access to new forms of digital arts, combining new media with traditional arts, or integrating the arts with other disciplines.

ACCESS Distance Learning in Alabama

All high school students in Alabama are required to take an arts survey course before they graduate. The course must cover dance, music, visual arts, and theater. The problem is that many rural schools don’t have enough students to justify specialists in all four disciplines—or, in some cases, even one.

But Alabama is a leader in distance learning. Through its ACCESS program, launched in 2004, every school in the state is equipped with interactive videoconferencing equipment to support instruction in foreign languages and advanced subjects. Now the same equipment is being used to expand arts education. In 2009, the state developed an online arts survey course, an innovative program of study that not only enables students to complete the graduation requirement but also introduces the arts in interactive, creative ways. The course launched in September 2010, and some 725 students in 85 of Alabama’s public high schools have already enrolled in it.

The interactive course incorporates Jeopardy-style games to teach basic concepts. “It’s not rote, where there is a lecture and students memorize facts and take tests,’’ says Diana F. Green, arts in education program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts. “It gets the kids engaged and involved in what they are doing.” Technology is also used to create and document original art using new and old media.

The course includes work by such Alabama artists as metalworker Charlie Lucas, also known as “the Tin Man.” At the end of the course, students are required to create their own works of art and upload their projects. Some students make digital collages in the style of visual artist Romare Bearden. Others create dance videos or use voice and recording tools to make their own music compositions.

The popularity of the survey course has generated ideas about how to further arts education via technology. Rachel Walker, manager of curriculum development and teacher management at the University of Alabama, who helped design the survey course, ticks off a list of ideas to expand arts education using technology. “You can have virtual field trips to museums,’’ Walker suggests. “You can bring in artists to talk to all the students through interactive videoconferencing. You can have a virtual statewide arts fair. There are so many possibilities.”

Opening Minds through the Arts, Tucson

Recently, Joan Ashcraft, the director of fine arts for the Tucson Unified School District, paid a visit to a first-grade classroom in Tucson where students were learning language concepts with a team of opera artists. The children were composing an original opera. The artists typed the lyrics into a computer as the children said them aloud and then used rhyme, rhythm, and meter to compose a simple melody on the computer to match the lyrics.

Thanks to a groundbreaking program called Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA), 13 schools in this large Arizona district—known as “gold” schools—have full arts integration throughout the curriculum. Some eight additional schools are affiliated with the program, meaning they incorporate the arts in some areas. In the gold schools, teachers and visiting artists work together to use the arts to teach math, science, reading, writing, and social studies. The artists are in the classroom twice a week, and the teachers incorporate both digital and traditional art projects into their lessons. Each student studies the violin, as do the teachers, for example, and at the middle school level students routinely use tools like Photo Story, iMovie, and GarageBand to create multimedia presentations in their language arts classes.

“It’s a complete paradigm shift,’’ says Ashcraft of the 11-year-old program. “These schools are completely transforming through arts integration. Even in these budget[-conscious] times, our district values the program, and they will not let it go.”

The program requires a full commitment from the principal on down. In choosing gold schools, Ashcraft says she searches for principals who embrace the concept of arts integration and who are willing to rework the curriculum, train the teachers, and welcome artists as co-teachers in every grade. Over the years, parents have also embraced the program. “If the kids are happy, the parents become curious,” Ashcraft notes. OMA has an early-morning program that allows parents, many of whom are from low-income families, to come to school and learn to play instruments along with their children.

The OMA program infuses both traditional and digital techniques into the curriculum. Eighth-grade students, for example, use dance to learn concepts like force, gravity, and motion in science class. “The students embody these concepts, so they don’t just have a conceptual knowledge but also a corporeal knowledge of physics,’’ says Darden Bradshaw, arts integration specialist at the Alice Vail Middle School in Tucson. Meanwhile, students in a middle school math class use computers to graph quadratic equations as notes on a musical scale.

Teachers and administrators in the OMA program think carefully about when to use digital tools and why. In middle school, students use computers to make posters depicting the events of World War II. But they are also taught traditional drawing techniques using paper and pencil. They use software programs to create digital music, but they all get their hands on old-fashioned instruments. “We encourage the students to become critical users and critical thinkers about the ways in which digital technology is being used,” says Bradshaw, noting that children are exposed to over 3,000 marketing messages a day. “We encourage them to find their artistic voice through the digital media rather than be at the service of digital media.’’

Boston Arts Academy

Duke Atkinson is a perfect example of a student who teaches the teachers. The senior is the go-to guy for technology at BAA. You want a new phone? Ask Duke. You need to log onto a website that is blocked by the school’s network? Ask Duke.

So when it came time for Atkinson to develop his Senior Grant Project—a required arts project that will benefit the community—it’s not surprising that he came up with a technology-related topic that was completely new to administrators and teachers alike. Atkinson was disappointed that his 10-year-old sister did not have much of an arts program at her urban school. So he joined forces with the Computer Clubhouse at Boston’s Museum of Science and friends at the MIT Media Lab to develop a course to teach young people how to use digital 3-D printers, sophisticated machines that allow the user to draft a 3-D sculpture and then actually produce or “print” the object.

“Some people think, ‘I’m going to make music, and I’m going to get paid for it,’’’ Atkinson says. “But when I think about my art, I think about what it means to be involved in the community.”

That is, in fact, the modus operandi at BAA, where students and teachers alike contemplate age-old questions about the role of the artist in society as well as 21st-century questions about the use of technology in art. While the school readily incorporates digital tools like Google SketchUp (a 3-D design program) in its design classes, teachers and administrators are also cautious about the meaning of all this change. How does technology, for instance, alter the relationship between student and teacher?

Just recently Aldarondo, the visual arts teacher, had a student who was interested in learning how to make mosaics. They went online and looked up the technique, ordered the supplies, and, within a few days, they were creating montages. “I’m a co-learner, because I’m literally learning along with my student,’’ she says.

Aldarondo and her colleagues encourage their students to think carefully about how and why they use digital tools. For instance, is a color wheel on the computer any better than an old-fashioned handheld color wheel? Does a computer-generated drawing have more—or less—value than a picture drawn from plain old pencil or pen?

And they are not so wowed by technology that they forget about the digital divide. Aldarondo’s students are required to blog, to form a record of their process during their years in school. But she is well aware that many of them may not have computer access at home, so she devotes class time to teaching students everything from how to send links in an e-mail or how to create a password to more complicated things, like how to build a website to market their artistic work. She urges educators to be aware of varying levels of digital literacy among students: “When we assign things digitally without teaching the skills, that’s like assigning an essay without teaching a student how to write a sentence.”

She herself is immersed in the old and the new, alternating between projects like dyeing cloth and figuring out how to use the latest blogging tool. But even as she explores the world of digital arts education, she is also wary of it. “We have to be careful not to be seduced by the sexiness of the technology,’’ she says. There is a happy medium between old and new, and her job is to find the right balance at a time when technology changes from day to day.