Kids just want to have fun

Teaching arts in Ontario schools.

by Joyce Mason

The idea that art contains messages, reveals meaning and elicits understanding is perhaps the first reason that teachers consider it integral to education. Art teaches us things.

But the highest recommendation for art in schools - that it can be a source of delight - is the very thing that makes it seem a frivolous extra to some, and in today's cash-strapped education environment, arts programs are often the first cut.

There are problems with the delivery of arts in Ontario schools. But one of the largest stumbling blocks in assessing and addressing the situation is a lack of hard statistical data.

"This is one of the real tragedies of the situation: we just don't have the statistics we need," says George Bishop, president of the Coalition for Music Education in Canada. To gather reliable current data on what is happening across the province would require a lot of money and co-operation and Bishop suggests some seem wary of giving information.

"The Ministry of Education should have some statistics, but if it does, it isn't giving them to us," complains Bishop. "At the school level, when principals are cutting a school music program in order to maintain a library, they aren't eager to fill in voluntary surveys that might measure the delivery of arts in the schools.

"One thing I do know is that, when we looked at 32 major school boards in southern Ontario in 1992, every board had a music co-ordinator. Today there is one left in Toronto," says Bishop, then adds, "The problem is that now - with amalgamation - that person is re-sponsible for six former boards!"

Demand remains, resources dwindle

Various structural changes add to the difficulty in assessing change. "Even if you had current data and some from 10 years ago, things are not directly comparable," says Alan King, who has just completed year two of a study for the Ministry of Education on the impact of the double cohort (due for release in September).

"With the compression of five years into four and the increase in required credits from 16 to 18, it was feared that there would be a negative impact on the arts." But the data so far shows that there has not been a reduction in the proportion of arts courses taken by students at the high school level. The numbers for students in Grade 11 who are taking music (16 per cent), Visual Arts (20 per cent) and Dramatic Arts (12 per cent) remain about the same as in the previous system. Nonetheless, there has been an effect.

"There is a reduction in the number of students due to the loss of that extra year," King notes. "And since music and visual art tend to be smaller departments to begin with, this loss of overall enrolment makes it harder to sustain programs in particular schools." The programs may still run, but they must be combined. Some schools combine their Grade 11 and 12 classes, smaller schools may partner with another school.

Susan Davies, an arts co-ordinator with the Hastings and Prince Edward board, agrees. "One of the bigger problems for us has been the reduction of one year from the secondary program. It's making it difficult to maintain programs like music and band that rely on students who take music every year."

Since resources are allocated on the basis of course selections by students, the consequences for continued arts programs are clear. In Simcoe County, some secondary schools facing these challenges have partnered with their feeder schools to introduce instrumental music to students and build a foundation for more sustained high school participation.

In elementary schools the problems are different. Secondary school arts advocates may complain that the increase in the number of required courses and reduction in years leaves art options in the shadows. But in elementary schools, curriculum changes have created another dilemma.

The 1998 arts curriculum provides a strong validation for the arts. But it has been hard for teachers to hold to its promises. "The biggest problem is that the resources are reduced," says King. "Especially in elementary schools."

Despite the rigour and demands of arts curriculum and the implicit respect these give to the arts, some veteran teachers continue to wonder whether the sequential learning outlined is realistic in elementary school and most worry about how they can deliver it.

"While the curriculum seems to offer a certain seriousness and respect to the arts, it sometimes feels a little like bean-counting," says Wendy Hughes, a veteran elementary teacher currently teaching Grade 5 in Toronto. "Not everything has to happen in a certain order.

"In math, it's true, you must know how to multiply before you can divide,' Hughes says. "But for kids to make a painting, the sequence in which you learn about horizon lines and the colour wheel just isn't that important. And it isn't always developmentally appropriate. You need to keep giving kids opportunities - every year. The first thing is really to get comfortable with the materials!"
Visual art in an elementary classroom can be messy, expensive and time-consuming.

"I have $10 per kid for supplies - that's arts, science, notebooks, the works,!" says Kevin Hunt, who teaches Grade 7 during the school year and acts as teacher director for the arts during the summer in Richmond Hill.

Combined budget restrictions and competing demands mean that teachers must be creative. And Hunt also worries that, with only one period out of 40 allocated to visual art, some teachers double up, having a cover illustration in coloured pencil on the next research project fulfill the art requirement.

Hughes points out that "for teachers who are less interested in art or less confident, the curriculum can allow them to turn art into another academic subject. I see less and less real art activity going on - less picture-making."

Help at hand

For experienced and novice teachers alike programs that connect community arts organizations with the schools have provided in-class professional development for many. In Barrie an official partnership with the McLaren Art Centre puts visual artists in classrooms. "The teachers learn along with the students," explains Jennifer Copeland of the Simcoe County board.

Recent increases in funding to the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) should make such opportunities more accessible. The OAC's Artists in the Schools program, which covers fees and travel expenses for artists who work with teachers in the classroom, will have an additional $621,000 this year - an increase of more than 50 per cent.

Program co-ordinator Jay Pitter says they want to broaden the reach of the program and permit longer residencies. In general, artists approach schools to offer their services, but schools can also approach OAC for help in hooking up with an artist (

"We get great feedback on the tremendously positive impact that these visits have on students."
Steven Campbell, Director of Community Partnerships at OAC, says that arts education is a key issue in their strategic plan. So additional funds will also go to art education programs, which funds groups that perform in schools, and the core funding of organizations that offer educational programs.

Community resources and partnerships are recurring themes when educators talk about attempts to maintain their visual arts, drama, dance and music programs.

"Our arts programs have continued despite the lack of personnel and financial resources," says Lorne Keon, director of the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board. "Thanks to the expert skill of our staff and with the help of our retired teachers, the vocal music programs have continued to be a success."

"As a small school, we have to be innovative," says Cheryl St-Elier, the principal at Our Lady of Grace Elementary School in Renfrew. With 35 students in two classrooms, the school's two teachers merged drama and language arts for their junior grade students.

In preparation for a presentation of Carnival of the Animals, a play by Saint-Saens, they explored scriptwriting, peer editing and brainstorming. The children each wrote a story, using the elements and themes in the play. Both students and teachers benefited as teachers taught themselves new methods.

"Wherever we go we'll bring this with us," observed St-Elier. "It becomes another pedagogical model of program delivery and planning."

For Our Lady of Grace, the play paid off literally as well as educationally. Sister schools in the region bused in students to watch and the play even went on a small tour. So, while the start up costs for producing the play approached $500, the revenue generated was approximately $2,000.

On the other hand

But arts programming does not always turn a profit and overall funding cuts do leave teachers scrambling to make up shortfalls.

People for Education reports that 58 per cent of elementary schools had a full-time music teacher in 1997/98. In 2002/03 the number dropped to 41 per cent. For the visual arts, already less prominent, the numbers dropped from 20 per cent in 1998/99 to 19 per cent in 2002/03.

Different schools and boards make different choices. But, Annie Kidder of People for Education notes that the figures reflect the elimination of instrumental music in most elementary schools. Meanwhile, thanks to the combination of curriculum requirements and the low cost of the instrument, vocal music has nonetheless survived.

And of course, in art instruction, the audience experience must not be forgotten. In teaching children to read, it is recognized that seeing those around them as readers is essential. It is no great stretch to extrapolate that the experience of art as something done by people in your world is similarly significant. Those who see others making art, who see lives organized in ways that leave time and space for art-making will be more likely to want to make art - or to value those who do make art - as adults.

"The inspirational impact of top-level performers in the schools is incalculable," says Hughes. "When you see the rapt look on the face of a kid who may never have had the opportunity to see a live performance before, it is wonderful." In fact, the inspiration factor is important for teacher and student alike.

Questions abound when it comes to why and how to teach art. There are no simple answers. The world of teaching, like art itself, has unending layers of intention, meaning and possibilities. So in upcoming editions of Professionally Speaking, we will offer readers some insights and experiences of teachers delivering the arts in their classrooms.

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