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Unleashing Creativity in the Classroom via Common Core Standards

When I think of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I think of Martha Graham. I think of John Keats.

My imagination runs wild with images of fun, inspired, powerful learning experiences for kids. There is no doubt in my mind that this transition opens the door for new energy and greater opportunity to elevate the joyful practice and rigorous study of the arts in our classrooms across the nation.

It says something powerful to me that the authors of the Math and English Language Arts (ELA) standards often begin their explanations of the CCSS through art. Last month, for example, I savored several lovely minutes gazing at a sketch of a Grecian vase in a hotel ballroom packed with K–12 district academic administrators. This wasn’t a time-filler. It was the keynote speaker himself, Phil Daro, describing the major transitions in the Math Standards by invoking Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

Keats’ image and accompanying poem, the pinnacle of art meeting craft, he explained, conveys the major instructional shifts of the new Math Standards. As as he spoke, I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which Keats’ ekphrastic approach, the poetic representation of a painting or sculpture in words, mirrors the function of math in human endeavors, as the beautifully-crafted ten-line stanzas, quatrain and sestet, the lines explore the relationship between art and humanity.

Keats’ topic and craft also invoke CCSS-Math’s call for increased focus, coherence, and rigor in conceptual understanding, procedural skill, and application, academic skills. Indeed, many of these academic math skills, as arts educators well know, can also be taught and reinforced well through music, visual arts, and dance. Rhythm as fractions. Choreography as geometry. Math as art.

Similarly, I’ve enjoyed experiencing David Coleman launch into his wonderfully compelling elucidations of the new English Language Arts standards by asking educators in the room read aloud a short first-person narrative, often from some of the world’s greatest artists. I’ve heard him guide a room full of the wonkiest of wonks through Martha Graham’s “This I Believe” testimony from NPR.

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that is has been the symbol of the performance of living,” we read together, listening to different interpretations of the phase “performance of living,” making inferences through Martha’s turns of phrase about her biography and work and approach.

This experience illustrates the shifts in focus of the CCSS ELA Standards: building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and educational texts, reading and writing grounded in evidence, and regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary.

As I read them, the CCSS ELA and Math Standards are all about deep, thoughtful study, rigorous analysis, and continuity of focus.

Take the Student Portrait on Page 7 of the CCSS Standards, for example. Now, that student is someone I want to know!

Even more, she is someone I would love to teach, and from whom I would love to learn. That student is also someone who, without a doubt, has spent meaningful time every day with the arts. She has learned to read and write and think and speak through a close study of the world’s greatest artists and time spent sustained amounts of time engaging deeply with great works of art. She has sung, painted, sculpted, written, and danced throughout his education, in order to develop these college and career ready skills.

Every educator can draw inspiration from a very close read of the standards, and arts educators can feel edified and energized by the ways in which these shifts in practice can and should unleash creativity and the arts in our classrooms.

It will be time very well spent for arts teachers to take time to really look at and understand both the ELA Anchor Standards and Math Practices themselves, drawing explicit connections to the practices of their respective disciplines.

Sustained inquiry is the prerequisite to close observation: as we study the new standards, we can start to conceptualize exciting new curricula that allow students to spend meaningful time studying a masterwork of art, that engages students in the historical context of the time, that reinforces the key elements of the practices and anchors as appropriate, and continually helps open student’s eyes to the world beyond the classroom.

We are lucky to be working with districts in California to turn this energy into new tools, resources, and approaches for teachers as we transition to the CCSS. We’ll be working with teachers to develop a matrix of the CCSS Anchor Standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice with the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards, so that educators can see similarities, differences, and opportunities.

We’ll also be working with teachers to develop performance tasks that use the arts as the vehicles for making progress on select ELA and Math standards and developing some arts-related performance assessments aligned to the CCSS, to help provide tools and resources to districts as they make the transition to CCSS in the coming years.

If only I had had CCSS to guide my instruction 15 years ago! Maybe then my principal would not have questioned my judgment when I taught my students how to swing dance as the extension of my seventh grade unit on the 1940s!

An arts-based practice makes learning compelling and fun: it’s the exciting work of learning in action, the collective “aha” of close reading, not knowing the answers immediately, that not only develops important skills in reading, writing, thinking, speaking and listening, it also brings us together as humans. It’s the real stuff of learning. The real stuff of creativity. And in the end, it’s the way we will really close the achievement gap and reinstate the United States as a global leader in education.

It’s an exciting time. Time for arts educators nationwide to step forward to showcase our disciplines. To call for a renewed embracing of the arts as fundamental to every aspect of our system of public education.

Phil Daro would no doubt agree:

“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

~ John Keats, “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

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