My Turn: Smart needs art

The hallways in our local schools brighten the mood on these rainy fall Juneau days. The art is varied and impressive, and each piece speaks to the individual who created it. Children’s art reminds me of how important the arts and our local culture are to our community. We, in Juneau, have the unique opportunity of celebrating, teaching, and learning in a place-based manner. My Tlingit/Athabascan family appreciates having the arts and local culture as integral parts of our schools, and it is one of the reasons Juneau is such a special place to live and raise a family. I’ve recently heard Juneau be referred to as Alaska’s Creative Capital — how true this is, especially if we continue to provide an emphasis on the arts and Alaskan culture in our schools.

Although arts and culture funding in the Juneau School District has been reduced in this time of abundant budget cuts across the District, there is convincing evidence of the impact arts and place-based culture have on our children and our community. The arts help children recognize, appreciate, and celebrate multiple perspectives, which is especially important here in our diverse community. During a discussion and activity on Tlingit culture, a Native kindergartener shared, “I am Eagle Wolf.” Several of his non-Native classmates didn’t hesitate to ask the Tlingit Elder helping in the classroom, “How do I become Native too?!”

Traditional science and mathematics learning is logic driven, generally using the left half of the brain. When the arts are integrated into lessons, the right half of the brain is put to use, fostering creativity and a new way of approaching situations. Research shows that creativity, problem solving skills, collaboration and communication are crucial developmental skills. My son’s first grade teacher agrees, sharing that when her students create art they, “learn how to focus, learn self-control, how to take another’s perspective, learn another way to communicate, develop critical thinking, have taken on challenges, have made connections — what’s the same and what’s different — and when they are involved in the art process they are truly engaged.”

Art provides all students, regardless of their academic level, an opportunity to feel proud and successful in something they completed in school, and to express themselves. It has been said that art “levels the playing field.” When subjects are woven into art lessons — or vice versa — the connections between concepts and learning happen, and perhaps more easily. Some examples of concepts my children have learned through the arts are: geometry and fractions (paper quilt making), astronomy and constellations in the northern sky (painting), flower and plant anatomy (drawing and collage), and the Tlingit cultural value of knowing who we are and where we come from (paper self-portraits).

I appreciate the opportunities my young children have had in their classrooms to enjoy art experiences developed to enhance the curriculum for their grade level, and I delight in seeing all of the students happy, proud of, and eager to share their finished artwork and what it means to them.

The art and place-based culture programs in Juneau schools are essential, and should continue to be celebrated for the creativity, innovation and motivation they add to the minds of Juneau’s future citizens. Take a break from the rain, and enjoy a “hallway gallery walk” by visiting a local school, to see for yourself, how SMART requires ART.

• Mallott, was born and raised in Juneau, along with husband Anthony. She is happy to be home raising their three young children. She is a Juneau Community Foundation board member, serves on the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council and spends as much time as possible in her children’s classrooms.

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