Excellence in the Arts Classrooms

By Richard Scher, Curriculum & Instruction Specialist

Arts educators conduct empirical research and analytical discussion focused on program excellence and student learning outcomes (see the ground-breaking study, The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education by Harvard University’s Project Zero). This work is vital to enhance program quality, to be sure, but when it comes down to it, it is the magic moments – the special interaction between students and teaching artists – that make these objectives become reality. As P.S. ARTS Curriculum & Instruction Specialist and Master Teaching Artist, I have the privilege of spending a considerable amount time in our arts classrooms, observing our Teaching Artists working their wonders. So… what makes excellence happen in the arts classroom?

The first step is an inspiring, enriched, and well-planned curriculum. P.S. ARTS Teaching Artists go through a meticulous process designing their curricula, merging the passion for their art and teaching with the expectations set out by our Scope and Sequence documents for each discipline and grade level, the California Visual and Performing Arts standards, and our own customized student assessment rubrics. That’s an important step on the path to excellence, but the magic really happens when the Teaching Artists use their special gifts and expertise to lead the students to creativity, deep understanding, and valuing the arts as a life-changing force.


The best way to describe excellence in action is to share some moments from my recent classroom observations:

Check-in Check-out: Our middle school theater teaching team of Joanne Lubeck Esser and Leo Vargas engage their middle school class at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy with a daily “check in”: my name; how I am feeling today (scale of 1-10); what I will bring to the class ensemble today, and the person I admire most. At the end of each class, students “checked out” with how they are feeling after the class and what objectives they have accomplished. Joanne and Leo led this ritual with a gentle and empowering tone.

Everything’s Gonna be Alright: Music Teaching Artist Matt Segal introduced his unit on the world-wide impact of the music of Bob Marley by revealing an evocative photo-montage he created of images of the singer, with oohs-and-ahhs from his 5th graders at Lawndale’s William Green Elementary School.

Faux Bark: Visual Arts Teaching Artist Ann Barron led her enthralled students at Santa Monica’s Will Rogers Learning Community through her “Amate” nature designs project, which emulates Mexican bark paintings. This project featured elegance of design, challenging mixed media, and a special technique of immersing the paper in a colored wash to create a bark-like surface.

Comfort Zone and Beyond:  Pedro Rivas, our Theater Teaching Artist in the Central Valley town of Kettleman City, motivated his middle schoolers by allowing them to self-identify their role in their theatrical production—actor, scene designer, playwrights, poets, makeup.

What, How, Why?: A Music Teaching Artist engaged students with joyful and exuberant singing games, and enhanced learning by asking the students leading questions designed to develop consciousness about what they are doing, and how and why, challenging them to find alternative creative interpretations of the material that was presented.

I could go on for pages.  These are just some examples of excellence happening every day in P.S. ARTS classrooms.

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