How the arts help students stay in school, perform better, and prepare for life in the real world.

Written by Kay Foley

If you want to know how important art and music are to students’ success, ask a teacher. We did. The three teachers we interviewed consider artistic classes just as essential as English or math in developing well-rounded students. Art and music in the classroom not only help students in other academic areas, but also teach valuable life lessons.

Brain Training
Research studies have shown that music and art engage both sides of the brain – the left (analytical) side as well as the right (creative) side. Ronnie Smith, an educator in Clark County for 34 years and a former principal of Clark High School, noted, “Art helps a student get into contact with the creative side of the brain. Balance between the two sides of the brain enhances the quality of life for students and for adults as well.”

Phil Gingerich

Phil Gingerich

Phil Gingerich, who recently retired after teaching G.A.T.E. (Gifted And Talented Education) for 25 years, agrees. “Art helps kids develop a higher level of thought processing, and not just the advanced students. It works the same for everyone,” he explained. One of his classroom exercises was to show students a photo and ask them to “read” what it was saying. Putting their visual impressions into words taught the visual and verbal areas of the brain to work together. He also found that playing Mozart or other classical music in the classroom seemed to put students in the right frame of mind to learn other subjects like math.

Chuck Cushinery

Chuck Cushinery

Life Lessons
Chuck Cushinery, a music teacher at Clark High School for 18 years, was twice named one of 10 national finalists for the annual Music Educator Award from the Grammy Foundation. He was instrumental in encouraging the school’s administration to include the arts in all students’ coursework. “Music is about problem-solving, creativity, exploration, and dealing with success and failure,” he explained. “It really is a metaphor for everything we experience in our daily lives. Music teaches students to deal with disappointment if sound doesn’t come out of their instrument the way they wanted it to, but it also gives them a sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed.”

Ronnie Smith

Ronnie Smith

All three educators pointed out that art and music enhance the experience of school and give students something to look forward to every day, especially if they participate in a group activity like band, drama or choir. Smith noted, “When a child feels that they have an important part to do, like playing an instrument, they may attend school more often because they feel a responsibility to the group. The child learns to be a contributing member of society.” Cushinery sees this in his music classes. “A music classroom is a microcosm of society,” he said. “In order to function successfully, you must learn to get along with people. The effort is individual, but also collective.”

Gingerich said art can encourage students to try new things without fear of being judged. “There’s not a right or wrong answer in art,” he explained. “What you create is an expression of yourself, so you’re not judged by somebody else’s standards.” This frees children to think creatively, and can give encouragement and validation to students who may be struggling in other academic subjects.

Training for the 21st Century
No one can deny that we need math, science and language classes to prepare students for the workforce of the future. However, many jobs humans used to do are being automated and computerized. What the world will need more than ever in this changing society are problem solvers, innovative thinkers, and people who can build bridges between individuals and cultures. Classes in the arts can help today’s children develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in this brave new world.