Dal Drummer, WATG Advisory Board Member
The other day, I was perusing an article in Edutopia, by Sara Gonzer, entitled The Spatially Gifted - Our Future Architects and Engineers are Being Overlooked, which triggered a number of thoughts about the arts and education of our students. The premise of Gonzer’s article was that gifted programs usually miss students who are gifted in the spatial arts. As a result, gifted programs that focus on using the main assessments of verbal reasoning and math concepts to screen students for gifted programs, tend to leave out students who are spatially gifted and often weak in verbal areas and math. Often, these missed students are also ones from minority populations or ones with disabilities. As a result, gifted program populations tend to perpetuate the very disparities that schools keep working to fix: gifted programs that are lacking in students of color, or lacking in those with disabilities, or 2e (twice exceptional) kids. They remain focused on students who do well academically.
Students who are spatially gifted tend to be the future artists, architects, designers, and sculptors who are so important in our world. These spatially gifted students often struggle with their academics because: 1) academics aren’t as interesting as creating something; 2) the students often have weak academic areas within their abilities; 3) for spatially creative students who cannot create, or create often enough, school just isn’t important to them and as a result they have higher absenteeism and/or suspension from school; 4) spatially gifted students often ONLY attend school because they are allowed to be in creative programs that meet their needs. They tolerate academics in order to create. Most likely, if students’ academics are suffering, or they are absent too often from school, these students probably wouldn’t even be considered for gifted programming, resulting in greater socioeconomic/racial disparity within specialty programs.
So how can this be solved? Gonzer recommends change in 3 areas: 1) develop curriculum for the spatially gifted in the classroom; 2) provide teacher staff development on how to work with and look for the spatially gifted child; 3) develop new assessments for spatial gifts. I would also include a fourth: allow students with spatial/artistic gifts into gifted programming and provide needed help for their weaker academic areas. In other words, just because students have weak academic performance, that shouldn’t automatically screen them out of gifted programming where they can develop their spatial/artistic gifts.
As examples of what I am talking about, I want to relate several personal examples of what supporting the spatially gifted can do for students. First some background. I taught in and was the Artistic Director of Lincoln Center for the Arts (a 6-8 middle school) in Milwaukee Public Schools. A large group of us founded the Lincoln Center, and grounded it by offering a wide selection of the arts as well as the normal academics, knowing that many students whose focus/interest lies in the arts get missed for specialized programming. The arts offered were: visual arts, musical arts, both instrumental and vocal, TV and radio broadcasting, computer arts, wood working, theater. The school featured ten different professional artists and studios, all housed within the school. To get into Lincoln, students completed a simple entry form. They had to write/show us by example what their art interest was, and why they should be accepted into the school. This was the only screening offered. We knew that this would bring us wide variety of students, many of them poor and diverse cultures, especially those who could not get into a school elsewhere. But we also knew it would attract those students who had a keen interest in the arts, even those with disabilities.
Here are two of their stories (names have been changed):
Scott was a 6th grader when I met him and his mother. He didn’t speak, only nodded his head and only when prodded. Scott only got in the door of the school because his mother literally dragged him in crying. We accepted him, after his mom (not he), showed us some of his work. It was well beyond the work of a student his age. For the first week, Scott refused to come into the school and his mother often had to take him back home. The second week I was able to coax him into my art room to sit for slowly extended periods of time. Then he would bolt out the door of the school, only to repeat this the next day. Finally, I was able to get him to start doing some artwork, not what we were doing in my class of course, but his own ideas. And he began to slowly talk to me.
Of course, during this time I was besieged by requests from his academic teachers as to why I wasn’t getting him to attend their classes. He was failing them due to no attendance! My argument with them and the principal was this: “He is finally attending school. He said he would not attend academic classes, and while I have tried to get him to do so, we should be grateful he is feeling safer in school, and we will get him there eventually. But not now.”
It took me fifteen weeks of school to get Scott to attend one academic class, with an escape plan. If he needed to, he could still come to the art room at any time. By semester, Scott was attending all of his academic classes, but still coming to the art room in all of his free time. It was his safe haven. By year’s end, Scott was getting B’s and A’s in his academics and spent all his free time working on art in the art room.
Scott successfully went on through 7th and 8th grade and was accepted into High School of the Arts, an arts college, and became an artist in his own right, and an art teacher.
Granted, Scott was an extreme example, but his feelings are mirrored by many spatially gifted students.
Theo was a skinny, stuttering, rapping student from a very poor black family, living in the inner city of Milwaukee, when he came to Lincoln. He couldn’t sit still for more than five seconds or he would begin rapping some rhythm out on his desk, his table, his leg, or whatever. I’m sure he drove his teacher nuts!
We managed to get Theo enrolled in instrumental music (drums, what else?) and since he also liked to act out a lot, in theater. Theo muddled through 6th grade. In 7th, he began to take a more active role in different art programs besides theater and drums, and his academics picked up also. In 8th, he began making his own music on the side, while keeping up with his academics. He, too, was accepted into High School of the Arts and went on to a career in music (rap of course!). He returned several years after graduation, when we had him perform on stage at Lincoln. Afterward, he took me aside and told me that if it hadn’t been for the arts in school, he wouldn’t have graduated, much less gotten into a successful career in music, because academics just didn’t interest him! He said he hoped more kids like him, from the inner city, would come to Lincoln.
The Arts matter! We do our students and our society a disservice by missing highly creative students, and not offering them the same opportunities to develop their gifts as we do those who are academically gifted. We need to make some changes. Kids like Scott and Theo are counting on us.