Inspiring students to explore the arts
By Victoria R. LaFave
St. Joan of Arc Catholic School (SJOA) in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Indiana, has such an impressive arts program that it is often referred to as “St. Joan of Arts.” Students across all grades learn through instruction centered around the arts, including comprehensive art and music programs.
Art and music are offered for all SJOA students, from transitional (4-year-old) kindergarten through grade eight.
According to SJOA Principal Janet Andriole, no matter their grade level, all students benefit from the arts, both sparking their creativity and encouraging critical thinking skills.
SJOA is being noticed for its excellence; the school is on track to achieving Lighthouse Status as an official Leader in Me School. According to The Leader in Me website (TheLeaderInMe.org), it is a whole-school transformation process, teaching leadership and life skills to students and creating a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader. “Every staff member has undergone training in The Leader in Me, and The Seven Habits of Happy Kids are interwoven throughout our entire school culture,” Andriole said.
The Seven Habits of Happy Kids are: Be Proactive; Begin with the End in Mind; Put First Things First; Think Win-Win; Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood; Synergize; and Sharpen the Saw (which refers to taking care of oneself by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, spending time with family and friends, and helping others).
Ms. Katherine Funk, who teaches art to every student in the school during the week, has her students utilize the Seven Habits when planning art projects.
Students start by drawing in their sketchbooks before beginning a project, thus putting First Things First and Beginning with the End in Mind.
“They may think they have an awesome idea, but when they put it on paper, it might not turn out the way they thought it would,” Ms. Funk explained.
Students also utilize critical thinking skills when using their sketchbooks. Ms. Funk introduces a project to the students, then asks thoughtful questions such as “What is your solution to this?” or “How do you want to design this?” One project required students to make a self-portrait as a superhero. As they planned their projects, they asked themselves questions such as:
“What type of hero do I want to be?”
“What colors do I want to incorporate?”
“What type of logo do I want?”
This practice of incorporating the Seven Habits into their art lessons can be applied to other areas of life, such as personal relationships and writing. Students are able to develop flexibility and adaptation.
Students are also encouraged to critique one another’s artwork. However, there is a specific way they talk about others’ artwork, according to Ms. Funk. “We are critical but not harmful,” she explained. “We use kind, thoughtful language. We talk about how the artwork makes us feel and things we notice about the artwork. We pick out details in the artwork and describe it in specific terms.”
Ms. Funk stressed that creating art is a process, and she enjoys giving students the opportunity to experience and create all sorts of art. “A few years ago, we raised enough funds through our Grow the Arts fundraising program to purchase a kiln, so students can make pottery — tiles, necklaces, ornaments, mugs, coil pots, and pinch pots.
“They learn about the process of creating these beautiful clay pieces — forming the clay, letting it dry, firing it in the kiln, glazing it. The step-by-step process creates vision and patience in the students. Their wonder and excitement is palpable.”
These handmade creations have been sold to raise additional funds at the school’s Grow the Arts event in the fall. This has allowed the school to purchase a whiteboard and computer for the art room. “It has opened up possibilities that weren’t available before,” Ms. Funk noted.
Staff members are determined to keep the arts strong and vibrant at SJOA; this tenet led to the creation of Grow the Arts.
According to Mary Pat Sharpe, former SJOA principal, “We realized that having such a diverse group of students meant we needed to provide a diverse range of opportunities if all students were to be successful and grow. Many public schools, especially urban schools, were dropping their arts programs. We were determined not to do that. We did not have a budget for arts, so we held a fundraiser, Grow the Arts (GTA), to provide some money to keep the arts programs alive for our students.”
Grow the Arts is an adults-only fundraiser that consists of dinner, drinks, a live band, student artwork on display and for sale, a silent auction of themed gift baskets, and a dessert auction. Student-created items that have sold well include clay magnets, necklaces, coil pots, and coasters. The school typically raises approximately $5,000 from this event.
“We were able to add a band, a full-time art teacher, a school musical, and a true appreciation for arts among our students and staff,” Sharpe noted.
Former SJOA art teacher Suzi Abell was the true motivator of GTA. Funds from GTA have supplied students with musical instruments, rights to musicals, lighting, sound systems, costumes, and printing of student artwork sold at the event.
The students also incorporate their Catholic identity in their artwork by making crosses, rosaries, stained glass, and mosaics. The school’s namesake church, St. Joan of Arc Parish, is full of beautiful art which the students experience weekly at Mass. There are statues, mosaics, stained glass windows, ornate columns, paintings (even on the ceiling!), and the church’s beautiful architecture.
Music component at SJOA
Students experience the beauty of music at SJOA, as well. According to SJOA music teacher Debra Hatfield, the principles of music can be applied across all subject areas. For instance, when learning music theory, students use math skills (same/different, fractions, and the like). Learning different languages, dances, and songs helps students in social studies, bringing to life the cultures they’re studying.
When Mrs. Hatfield introduces a piece of music to her students, it also involves critical thinking, as students analyze the meter, key signature, notes, chords, and text. Music students also enjoy being creative, composing their own music, and even playing in a “garage band.” A group of students is currently working on creating their own musical — writing the music, script, and stage directions.
“Music should be an experience on all levels,” says Hatfield. “It should cover a multitude of activities. The students will then find their own thing and discover their voice.”
Students can also participate in the Cantor Choir during Mass. Student directors help Mrs. Hatfield direct the choir, with student cantors as well. Pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Fr. Guy Roberts, expects all students to sing at Mass, whether in the choir or not. When teaching the hymns for Mass, Mrs. Hatfield guides students to analyze the words, talking about their Catholic faith as described in the hymn.
These music and art programs can be costly, however. A memorial donation received from the family of Betty Williams, a graduate of SJOA, helped the school’s art program immensely. With those funds, the school was able to provide additional space for its music, art, and language programs. The school also began a Cultural Arts program in 2006 in which students spend the year learning about the culture and arts of a specific area of the world. At the Cultural Arts event in the spring, the students showcase what they’ve learned through dance, song, and artwork. Last year’s focus was on Scandinavia. This year’s focus will be on Latin American culture and will introduce families to Latin American food, music, art, and games.
Other arts programs at SJOA include the annual Christmas program in December and the school musical in February. In coming years, SJOA intends to grow its arts program even more.
“Looking ahead to the future, our goal is to continue to improve our existing arts program by purchasing much-needed art supplies, computer software and programs, musical instruments, and a new sound system in the gym,” Hatfield noted.
The school is also gauging interest in a new after-school program, Fine Arts Academy, which would offer private or group lessons in music. This would take students to the next level in music and prepare them for high school and beyond.
According to Andriole, the arts are especially needed in Catholic schools now in our often-troubled world: “Music and art have the ability to express truth and beauty, and as artists and musicians, our young people will be able to share that truth and beauty with a world much in need.”
Victoria R. LaFave writes for Today’s Catholic Teacher and for Holy Name Catholic School in Escanaba, Michigan. She has had several of her stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
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