Arts as Antidote for Academic Ills

A New York Times article about the importance of arts in schools.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The artist Chuck Close giving a private tour of his show to students from Bridgeport, Conn.

Stationed in front of one of his large self-portraits, the artist Chuck Close raised his customized wheelchair to balance on two wheels, seeming to defy the laws of gravity.  The chair’s unlikely gymnastics underlined the points that Mr. Close was making to his audience, 40 seventh and eighth graders from Bridgeport, Conn.: Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.

The message had particular resonance for these students, and a few educators and parents, who had come by bus on Monday from Roosevelt School to the Pace Gallery in Chelsea for a private tour of Mr. Close’s show. Roosevelt, located in a community with high unemployment and crushing poverty, recently had one of the worst records of any school in the state, with 80 percent of its seventh graders testing below grade level in reading and math.

Saved from closure by a committed band of parents, the school was one of eight around the country chosen last year to participate in Turnaround Arts, a new federally sponsored public-and-private experiment that puts the arts at the center of the curriculum. Arranging for extra funds for supplies and instruments, teacher training, partnerships with cultural organizations and high-profile mentors like Mr. Close, Turnaround is trying to use the arts to raise academic performance across the board. “Art saved my life,” Mr. Close told the children. And he believes it can save the lives of others, too.

So now he was giving a pizza party and answering a question about why he started to paint.

“I wanted people to notice me, not that I couldn’t remember their faces or add or subtract,” he said, referring to the learning and neurological disabilities that set him apart from his classmates when he was growing up in Monroe, Wash.

A terrible writer and test-taker, Mr. Close used art to make it through school. Instead of handing in a paper, he told the children, “I made a 20-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail.”

Starting in Pace’s large central gallery, where his giant portraits of other artists like Philip Glass, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson looked on, Mr. Close told the group that “everything about my work is driven by my learning disabilities.”

Born with prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces, Mr. Close explained that the only way he can remember a face is by breaking it down into small “bite-sized” pieces, like the tiny squares or circles of color that make up his paintings and prints.

“I figured out what I had left and I tried to make it work for me,” he said. “Limitations are important.”

With Mr. Close were a few other members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which helped develop the Turnaround program. One of them, Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who is a mentor to two other Turnaround schools, picked up on his theme.

“In dance we limit ourselves, as well,” he said. “There are five positions and everything comes from that,” he added, quickly demonstrating the basic ballet poses.

Filling out the cultural spectrum were the Broadway producer Margo Lion, a chairwoman of the committee, and the musicians Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan and Kojiro Umezaki, all members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international collaboration founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also a committee member and a mentor. One by one, they entered from different doors, startling the students with an impromptu concert featuring a tambourine, a gaita (a Spanish bagpipe) and a Chinese flute.

Clapping and stamping in time to the music, Mr. Woetzel soon turned the gallery’s open space into a dance floor. A couple of students whipped out phones to record the proceedings, while others raced across the room to avoid getting pulled in as participants. One reluctant dancer, captured by Rachel Goslins, a filmmaker and the executive director of the president’s committee, rolled his eyes and mouthed “Oh my God” as she circled him around the floor. Other students joined hands and began dancing as Ms. Lion and the school principal, Tania Kelley, her head flung back, swung each other around.

Mr. Close swerved through the crowd in his wheelchair.

“I never danced before,” Carolyn Smith, 13, said excitedly when the music stopped. “Usually I sing.” Carolyn was the lead in the school’s production of “The Wiz” last year. A brain tumor had caused her to miss so much school that her literacy teacher initially wanted her to turn down the part and focus on catching up, Ms. Goslins said. But being in the play — and reading and memorizing the script — helped her reading skills so much, Ms. Goslins said, that the literacy coach later told her, “I’m a believer.”

The afternoon offered a series of firsts for many of the students. Most had never seen such instruments, heard of Mr. Simon or Mr. Glass, or even visited Manhattan.

“It’s pretty cool to be in New York,” said David Morales, 14, who later asked Mr. Close about his technique, explaining, “I like how he makes it, how it comes all together.”

David, like the other Roosevelt students, had studied Mr. Close’s work in class and met him when he visited the school last month. So Mr. Close patiently answered questions.

“Is it easy to make these pictures?” (Well, it can take a while, Mr. Close replied.)

“How do you know what colors to use?” (Trial and error.)

“Can you draw? (Yes.)

“There is no artist who enjoys what he does every day more than I do,” Mr. Close told the group, setting off applause from the students. Repeating advice he often gives to young artists, he said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work.”

When the bus arrived for the return trip, Ms. Pato and Mr. Shanahan again took up their instruments, this time to lead a parade of clapping students and teachers out the door.

Carolyn Smith, a pink rose in her hair, paused at the doorway and turned to Mr. Close. “I had a blast,” she called out. “Bye, Chuck. See you later.”

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Yoga Class Draws a Religious Protest

From The New York Times

T. Lynne Pixley for The New York Times

Miriam Ruiz during a yoga class last week at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. A few dozen parents are protesting that the program amounts to religious indoctrination.

By WILL CARLESS

ENCINITAS, Calif. — By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.  “Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

Ms. Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises like meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that.

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program’s financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its Web site, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest. Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group’s broader evangelistic purpose.

“There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program,” he said.

“The analog would be if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program,” he said.

The battle over yoga in schools has been raging for years across the country but has typically focused on charter schools, which receive public financing but set their own curriculums.

The move by the Encinitas Union School District to mandate yoga classes for all students who do not opt out has elevated the discussion. And it has split an already divided community.

The district serves the liberal beach neighborhoods of Encinitas, including Leucadia, where Paul Ecke Central Elementary is, as well as more conservative inland communities. On the coast, bumper stickers reading “Keep Leucadia Funky” are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role in shaping local philosophy.

Opponents of the yoga classes have started an online petition to remove the course from the district’s curriculum. They have shown up at school board meetings to denounce the program, and Mr. Broyles has threatened to sue if the board does not address their concerns.

The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, has defended the yoga classes as merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children’s physical and mental well-being. The notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect, he said.

“That’s why we have an opt-out clause,” Mr. Baird said. “If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you’re invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else.”

Ms. Eady is not convinced.

“Yoga poses are representative of Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans,” she said. “There’s content even in the movement, just as with baptism there’s content in the movement.”

Russell Case, a representative of the Jois Foundation, said the parents’ fears were misguided.

“They’re concerned that we’re putting our God before their God,” Mr. Case said. “They’re worried about competition. But we’re much closer to them than they think. We’re good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people.”

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting

From the American Psychological Association:

As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your children about a shooting rampage. It is important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age your children are, be they toddlers, adolescents, or even young adults.

Consider the following tips for helping your children manage their distress.

Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.

  • Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime.
  • Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
  • Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
  • Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
  • Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.

Keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity.

Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art.

Take “news breaks”. Your children may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.

These tips and strategies can help you guide your children through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.

Thanks to psychologists Ronald S. Palomares, PhD, and Lynn F. Bufka, PhD. who assisted us with this article.

Updated April 2011

Explaining The News to our Kids

From Common Sense Media:

Explaining the News to Our Kids

Kids get their news from many sources — and they’re not always correct. How to talk about the news — and listen, too.
by Common Sense Media | Jul. 20, 2012

Talking to Your Kids About the News

Help put the news in perspective

Shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, end-of-the-world predictions — even local news reports of missing kids and area shootings — all of this can be upsetting news even for adults, much less kids. In our 24/7 news world, it’s become nearly impossible to shield kids from distressing current events.

Today, kids get news from everywhere. This constant stream of information shows up in sharable videos, posts, blogs, feeds, and alerts. And since much of this content comes from sites that are designed for adult audiences, what your kids see, hear, or read might not always be age appropriate. Making things even more challenging is the fact that many kids are getting this information directly on their phones and laptops. Often parents aren’t around to immediately help their children make sense of horrendous situations.

The bottom line is that young kids simply don’t have the ability to understand news events in context, much less know whether or not a source of information is credible. And while older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.

No matter how old your kid is, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry — even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all of this information?

Tips for all kids

Reassure your children that they’re safe. Tell your kids that even though a story is getting a lot of attention, it was just one event and was most likely a very rare occurrence. And remember that your kids will look to the way you handle your reactions to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and considered, they will, too.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures. Preschool children don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. They’ll also respond strongly to pictures of other young children in jeopardy. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If you’re flying somewhere with them, explain that extra security is a good thing.

Tips for kids 8-12

Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your children tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check in. Since, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be impacted by terrorist tactics. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so that your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

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How Not to Talk With Children About the Sandy Hook Shooting

From the New York Times “Motherlode” blog:

By KJ DELL’ANTONIA

“First, find out what they have heard.” That’s the first line of Benedict Carey’s article on how to talk to your children about the mass shooting that took place Friday at an elementary school in Connecticut. I received a similar e-mail from my own children’s school, encouraging parents consider our individual children and their needs as we try to find words. How to talk to our kids is paramount, but I found myself focused on a different side of the question: how not to.

Part of me wants to talk to my children. I want to tell them what happened, and then drill them wildly on how to protect themselves. I want to promise them that it could never happen here, and at the same time reassure myself.

“First, find out what they have heard” is advice that puts the focus where it needs to be: on the child, not on the parent. Many of us think our children will be thinking and worrying about what happened in Newtown because we can’t avoid thinking about it ourselves. But what if the answer is that they know very little? What if the child in front of you doesn’t appear worried at all? Do we have to “talk to our children” about every tragedy? As awash in information as adults are, many children, especially younger ones, simply aren’t in that position. It may be difficult, but also unnecessary, to protect them from hearing about a news event at all. And a child whose television comes from Disney and whose primary use of a mobile device involves throwing birds at pigs may not be inundated with information in the ways we fear.

“Most kids are pretty self-centered,” Nancy Rappaport, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of school-based programs for the Cambridge Health Alliance, said. “Some may be more vulnerable to these kinds of fears, but many may just say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and move on.” This is a reaction that’s hard to understand for an adult, but fine, Dr. Rappaport said, for children whose focus is still naturally on themselves.

So as a parent, you’re left with the question not just of how to talk to your child about tragedy, but of whether you’re talking to your child for your child — or for yourself. There’s the question of what to say, but also when, and if, you should say it. “If you’re feeling panicked, and like there’s no place safe in the world, then that’s a good time to step back and get those thoughts in order,” Dr. Rappaport suggested. “But if we try to wait until we’ve fully come to terms with something like this, then we’ll never be able to talk. In fact, we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning.”

She brought up a strategy that’s commonly used for anxiety in children: “worried thought, brave thought.” “We teach kids to counter a worried thought with a brave thought,” she said, and to “know that although the worried thought may come back, the brave thoughts are always there as well.” A worried thought might be “A shooter will come to my children’s school and there is nothing I can do about it,” with the brave counter “School shootings are still rare, and countless people are working to make them rarer still.”

If you’re going to talk to your children, start with a brave thought, she said. If the worried thoughts return while you’re talking, acknowledge them — out loud, with your child. It’s all right to show that you, too, worry. But then bring a brave thought back again. If you sense anxiety in your child, you could even share the same strategy. And remember that you don’t have to get it right in one single talk. In fact, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that “talking to” your children isn’t the goal. It’s talking with your children that will matter in the long run.

More immediately, though, I keep coming back to the question of whether this a conversation that you have to have at all. Do you have to tell a small child what’s happened, on the theory that her equally small classmates may be chattering about it on Monday, or might you just be creating an anxiety that never existed to begin with — making yours the child who begins the chattering? I don’t know. My own children had a half day on Friday, and came home just as this news began to appear. Judicious management of the car radio and any newspapers means it really was up to me to decide whether and what to tell them before Monday. (They’re 11, 8, 7 and 6, only watch children’s networks on television and are completely uninterested in social media.)

Ultimately, I told them, fairly simply. We did talk about what you’d do, a little bit, if you wanted to get away from “someone bad.” And then we left it. (I had a slightly more nuanced discussion with my oldest later, but because he seemed truly unconcerned, I let it go for now.) I suspect they won’t be thinking about it at all when they go to school on Monday morning, and I hope that if their classmates bring it up, my kids will know enough to manage any fears.

But I’ll be thinking about it, and so, if you’re a parent, will you. I don’t know how sending all of our children back to school this week can be done without those “worried thoughts” rushing in hard and fast. If one of my children asks, I’ll admit it. I’ll try to find a “brave thought” to back it up. And if (when) words fail me, I’ll remember that a hug sometimes says the only reassuring thing there is to say.

School Absences Translate to Lower Test Scores, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks, Edweek.org

Washington

Missing even a few days of school seems to make a difference in whether 8th graders perform at the top of their game, according to a new analysis of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The report, the first of a planned series of analyses of NAEP’s background-survey data, looks at how 4th and 8th graders use existing school time, including their attendance, instructional time, and homework. It was previewed here at a Nov. 29 meeting of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. The study found that instructional time in reading, math, music, and the visual arts is on the rise nationwide, and that teachers are expecting more homework from their middle school students. As schools ramp up their academic focus, however, the analysis shows the cost of missing school may be greater.

Fifty-six percent of 8th graders who performed at the advanced level in NAEP reading in 2011 had perfect attendance in the month before the test, compared with only 39 percent of students who performed below the basic level.

In comparison, nearly one in five 8th graders at the basic level and more than one in four below basic in reading had missed three or more days in the past month, according to Alan L. Ginsburg, a research consultant for the governing board and a co-author of the report with Naomi Chudowsky of Caldera Research in Bend, Ore.

“Three days, if you multiply that out by nine months, is five weeks a year,” Mr. Ginsburg said. “You’ve got more than a quarter of the below-basic kids who are going to miss five weeks of school a year or more,” he said, noting that only 8 percent of students at the advanced level had missed that much school. “That, to me, would be something that if you are a chief state school officer or a superintendent, you might worry about.”

The analysis contributes to mounting evidence that absenteeism puts students at greater risk of poor academic achievement and eventually dropping out of high school.

“For those of us in schools, this reflects what we’ve been saying all along: In order to advance, in order to learn, you have to be there,” said Doris Hicks, a governing board member and the principal and chief executive officer of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, in New Orleans.

Low Performers

Academic expectations seem to be increasing for middle school students both in school and at home, the researchers found. But the bulk of the additional instructional time happened before the 2001 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its new demands for academic progress, and the students who most needed extra time weren’t always the ones to get it.

Teachers reported that from 1996 to 2000, 18 percent of 8th graders moved from having less than four hours of mathematics instruction each week to four or more hours a week, and from 2005 to 2011, another 6 percent of students started receiving five or more hours of math each week.

While 8th graders performing at or below basic in math on the 2011 NAEP were more likely than advanced students to receive seven hours of math instruction a week or more, the researchers found that more than half of 8th graders performing below basic in math received less than an hour of math each day on average.

“To me, this is [about] opportunity to learn,” Mr. Ginsburg said. “Are the kids getting the amount of instruction they need to succeed?

“At grade 8, prealgebra, where we have most kids getting less than an hour a day on average,” he said, “does that make sense? … You have a group of kids who are below basic, who are in need of help, and they are getting less than an hour a day of instruction.”

Some educators have voiced concern that extending math and reading instructional time could crowd out other subjects, but the researchers actually found a slight increase in arts instruction in middle school. Fifty-seven percent of 8th graders had music instruction three or more times a week in 2008, up from 49 percent in 1994. During the same time, 47 percent of 8th graders had visual arts at least three times a week, 5 percentage points higher than in 1994.

Moreover, the analysis found that teachers are expecting students to do more work outside of class to bolster their class time. From 1996 to 2011, the percentage of 8th graders assigned an hour or more of math homework each night rose more than fourfold, from 4 percent to 17 percent.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week called for more expanded school days and years. But the NAEP background questionnaire does not include questions on school length, so researchers were not able to include such data in the report.

The assessment governing board has also released an analysis of charter school attendance and achievement, and it is planning as many as a dozen reports intended to “develop a portrait of American education.”

“You’re raising questions with this data for the field that I think will be very useful,” Mr. Ginsburg said.