Learning through the Arts

Posted by bhulsey - 30 April, 2012

Educators nation-wide make an enormous mistake when they sacrifice the arts in schools so that children can spend more time mastering content for standardized tests.  The longer I work in schools and watch what happens in our programs at Randolph, the more I’m convinced that the arts (and athletics, by the way) aren’t “extras.”  Instead, they’re essential learning laboratories that feed the development of skills like creativity, collaboration, communication, and courage that will prepare students for success in life.

More and more this belief runs against the tide of schools that structure their programs around the preparation that’s necessary for success on standardized tests.  Now I’m all for a rich and rigorous academic program, but what matters most is what students have really learned as opposed to what they’ve memorized on any given day and what experiences they’ve had that will shape the way they embrace the opportunities that will open for them in life in college and beyond.

Twice in the past week we’ve seen this idea lived out on center stage at Randolph.  Last week Theatre Randolph staged The Robber Bridegroom, a raucous and flurried musical that challenged our students to reach beyond themselves.  It was great to see so many younger Upper School students participate, and fun to watch the seniors give the play all they had as they wrap up their drama careers here at school.

One of the best stories of the play from my perspective was the emergence of Grant Billings as a drama star.  Cast astutely by Director Connie Voight as "Goat," Grant took on one of the lead roles and performed beautifully and hilariously on stage.  This is remarkable in part because Grant’s a senior, and this was his first play.  He had the bravery and the courage to step up and step out and embrace an extraordinary learning opportunity before his graduation.  Grant’s major extracurricular activity to date had been football, and the fact that he tore his ACL twice, endured the rehabilitation regimes, and kept playing through his senior season says a great deal about his perseverance.  And that he’d take on a major part in the spring musical in the weeks leading up to his graduation says a great deal about his appetite for learning and his sense of himself as more than a student and more than an athlete.

And then last night there was the Spring Choral Concert, a celebration of the 6th Grade Choir, the Raider Voices, and the Upper School Concert Choir.  Under the direction of Katie Hoppe-McQueen and Chris Walters, these groups have flourished this year and won distinctions that have eluded us for the past several years.  It was a beautiful concert, and the rendition of “Until We Meet Again” by the combined choirs was a great and poignant reminder of the grace and nobility of music as form of art to bring our community together.

For me the highlight last night was the performance of the Music Fundamentals Ensemble, a newly-created group of Upper School students that performed three numbers, including “Penny Lane.”  Just a little context here might help: Music Fundamentals has traditionally been one of the least well-subscribed courses in the arts curriculum at Randolph.  Students settle in for content transmission on topics like music appreciation and the history of music.  They take traditional quizzes and tests to demonstrate their mastery.  It’s a requirement, and for many students, it’s one of those unappealing hoops to jump through on the march toward graduation.  I took a similar class in high school, and I remember nothing, except for the off-color nickname we gave our teacher.

This spring Mr. Walters challenged his students: “You can take the class as it’s historically been taught, or I can cut the content down to what’s really necessary and I can teach you to sing.  What’s your choice?”  None of the eighteen students (primarily freshman) came into the class expecting a choice, and no one was prepared to learn how to sing.  Not a single one of these students is in the choir or in the band.  But they unanimously told Chris they wanted to learn how to sing in exchange for being spared the traditional content.

Week after week they worked on their singing: carrying pitch, singing in unison, and in parts.  They got better and better, and then a couple of weeks ago he challenged them again: “We can either have a traditional exam for the course, or you can perform at the Spring Choral Concert.”  They voted to sing, and their performance highlights what it means to learn through experiences and relationships designed to develop skills and generate memories to last a lifetime.

These kinds of opportunities make me very proud to be a Raider, and to see first-hand how students and teachers and parents come together to act on our belief that here we’re a community of learners invested in what it takes to make the most of who we are and who we can be.

Topics: Arts, challenge, character, learning, mission, play, Theatre Randolph, Head of School, curiosity, Effort, Community of Learners, initiative


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