Monday, May 21, 2012

An Artistic Approach to Education

My third grade students made this banner as a gift for our school. It’s the culmination of a year’s work. We started at the end of 2nd grade when we planted a dye garden of indigo, zinnias, and marigolds.  Last fall we harvested the flowers and indigo leaves, created dye baths, and then dyed white wool roving: the blues are indigo, the yellows and browns are marigolds, and the pinks are zinnias. Finally, each child, using “treasures from nature” wove his or her own unique, circular peace flag.  Many flags created one whole gift.

I share this project with you because it is symbolic of a healthy and diverse class. Every student liked and disliked aspects of this project: some dug in the dirt with zest, others “oohed and ahhed” as the yellow colored indigo bath turned the wool blue once it hit the air, others enjoyed planning their designs and weaving, and still others loved writing and drawing about the experience. Noticing who connected with which aspect of the project is my research about how students learn.

The key to successful participation for all students in this year -long project, and indeed to every lesson I teach, is engaging my students’ heads, hearts, and hands. Well rounded students must be able to think critically, deeply, abstractly, and imaginatively; they must forge emotionally rich and heartfelt connections to the material; and finally, they must be expected to do excellent work, whether it’s preparing a garden, knitting a pair of socks, playing an instrument, or equally vital, writing an essay, learning math concepts, or observing and recording a scientific phenomenon.

This pedagogy, that addresses students’ head, heart, hands, requires an artistic approach to education. By this I mean that lessons must be planned to meet the specific needs of individual students, as well as the whole class. Indeed, for success, teachers must know their students well. Lesson plans must be enlivened and cannot be dictated by the state. Teachers must have autonomy in the classroom.

So the big idea is incorporating the thinking head, the feeling heart, and the creating hands into every lesson. Here are the small details from 2 math lessons.

Let’s look at number patterns and geometry. All students must memorize their multiplication and division tables. Children memorize math facts quickly and joyfully when they get to move, feel, and finally, solve them. Engaging the whole body, or “getting the math facts into their bones” is an effective tool for memorization.  Teach students to march, clap, sing, and skip the tables. Tell math stories with rich visual imagery to help students calculate problems in their heads. Lastly, have them sit down and solve problems with pencil and paper.

Every day, my students experience math through movement, they solve problems in their heads, and they write out the math problems with pencil and paper. Even in 2nd and 3rd grade we connect math patterns to geometry. Once they’ve memorized, for example, the 4s table, I gather 10 students into a circle and have everyone hold onto a long piece of string.  If every fourth child holds the string, a pentagram is formed. When every second child holds the string, a pentagon is formed. Notice the geometry in number patterns! Later in the week, I ask students to draw what they experienced with their whole bodies.  They inscribe a pentagram, in a pentagon, in a circle, first freehand, without tools. We revisit this exercise in 6th grade geometry, and striving for precision, students construct the forms using a compass and ruler.

How can fractions be taught more concretely and artistically? When introducing fractions in 4th grade, it’s imperative to start with the whole number and see what happens when we divide. I might ask my students to stand as one whole class of 25 and then tell them to divide into 5 equal parts, reminding them that fractions are division problems. A tasty way to demonstrate a whole divided into parts is by baking and eating pizzas and pies. 16 slices in the whole, 8 eaten, ½ left.

Once students have grasped the idea of parts of the whole, it’s exciting to connect fractions to musical notation. All Waldorf students learn to play flute in first grade by watching and playing along with their teacher. But for 4th grade fractions, I’ll do something different. Rather than teaching them a new song in the old way, I’ll have written musical notation on the chalkboard in 4/4 time. I relate the value of the musical notes to fractions: the quarter note gets 1 of 4 beats, the half note gets 2 of 4 beats, the dotted half note gets three of 4 beats, and the whole note gets 4 of 4 beats!  Students are learning about fractions and relating them to music; they are connecting abstract dots on a page to the fingering they already know so well. They are emotionally engaged with the new song. A concrete, yet heartfelt understanding of fractions, satisfied bellies and a new song learned are the results of this lesson.

So I’ve given two small, detailed examples, to highlight one big idea. Engaging the thinking head, the feeling heart, and the working hands into all aspects of the curriculum allows the full human being to learn. Students who have spent the first 8 years of their education actively engaged in heartfelt thinking move on to high school, college, and the world ready to work compassionately and thoughtfully for the greater good.


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