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Friday, February 8, 2013

The Benefits of the Arts and Abstract Thinking in Education: An Artist Visits My School

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As a teenager who is rounding up his last year in the U.S. public education system, I have been exposed to many of our schools’ flaws and weaknesses.  For the most part, school consists of spending around 6 hours a day listening to lecture after lecture with very little hands-on activities.  Perhaps, that is why the U.S. is currently ranked a terrible 17th globally in education according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.  Music, the arts, and other programs that allow students to think in an abstract manner have been cut year-after-year in the state of Pennsylvania in which I reside, and this is the opposite path that we should be taking.

Despite the fact that they continue to be thrown out the gate of public education, music and the arts have shown great benefits to students in several studies.  Both music and the arts allow students to think in an abstract, innovative way. They allow people to be different and think outside the box.

I bring this fact up because of an experience I had this week in my high school.  One teacher received grants to bring a professional artist, Ms. Martha Murphy, to our school.  She is working with students throughout grades 9 to 12 in my school, all of which are currently studying Shakespeare plays.  This week, she worked with my grade, helping us to create a depiction of the play, Othello.  She states on her blog, “My personal goals in this 20 day residency are in working with these students to encourage personal growth as well as a reiteration of the material they have been studying.”

The last few days for my class have been just that.  On Tuesday, Ms. Murphy arrived and discussed the idea of creating a 6 ft by 6 ft mural with our class, depicting the events and emotions of Othello.  Suddenly, the idea of analyzing a Shakespearian play went from dreadful to exciting for many of the students in my class.  This excitement occurred because they would finally have the chance to bring their ideas to the floor and to think in an abstract and creative manner.  We finally had the opportunity to look at what we read from a different angle.  Before, we were simply looking at someone else’s work; now, we had the chance to make our own work.

On this day, we broke into groups, where we sketched rough drafts of all our ideas.  In a short amount of time, we had seen just how creative both we and the other students were.  Ms. Murphy had convinced us all that no matter how bad we thought we were, we all had the ability to bring forth art.  While I am not a serious artist myself, I am a serious musician.  Because of this and my love for writing, I could clearly understand what she was saying.  Everyone has the ability to create and think in an abstract manner; every person thinks differently and uniquely.

The Production of Our Painting via Martha Murphy
In the following days, we went forth turning our words and ideas into a physical painting.  The thing that was interesting about this was that we combined the ideas of three separate English classes, about 60 students, into one awesome painting.  This was not simply paint thrown on a canvas.  It consisted of the symbolic “willow tree,” mentioned several times throughout Othello.  Coming forth from this willow tree were roots, symbolically attaching to the heads of the characters to illustrate their relationship to it and the other characters (the “Willow Song” represented death, as three women in the story had died singing it).

Our Completed Masterpiece via Martha Murphy
Ms. Murphy has painted since she was 7 and understands the ability of art to allow deep thought and thinking on an abstract level.  She works with students across the United States, painting, sculpting, metal fabricating, and working with clay. She states on her blog, “It has long been my desire to share the world as I see it.”  As a student setting foot in the world of engineering, I love this idea.  I hope to someday share the world as I see it through future technologies and products.

I admire abstract thinking and the ability to differentiate yourself from others.  The arts and music programs need to be embraced more in our education and become more mainstream.  By doing so, it would allow students to think differently, become more creative, and even remember content better.  A University of Texas study showed that we only remember 20 percent of what we hear but 90 percent of what we say and do.  Therefore, I will almost certainly remember the significance of the “Willow Song” after creating a painting portraying it, but just by hearing it in class, it would probably be gone within a few weeks.

I respect the work that Ms. Murphy, art teachers, and music teachers around the country take part in with our students. Music and the arts allow us to think differently and while our public education system may continue to strike at them, we must embrace them and continue to practice them in our core curriculum.  Art and music are found in nearly every aspect of our lives.  Everything from the architecture of your house to the design of the phone in your pocket embrace the arts.  Nearly everything around us was designed and engineered by someone, as was the painting that we created with Ms. Murphy.
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  1. Thank you for a great post about arts advocacy! May I share this on my class website for my students to see?
    Thank you,
    A fellow member of Ms. Murphy's artisan group and teacher at Frazier SD
    Amy Roadman

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed my article! You are welcome to share it!



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