'Visual literacy' shift sparks fine arts conversation

by Kelli Weldon

March 6, 2013

Technology's prevalence presents opportunities for educators to bring fine arts into the classroom, panelists said at a SXSWedu discussion at the Austin Convention Center on March 6.

“Screens are really replacing text as tools of primary communication,” saidAmy Guadagnoli, director of creative services at the Austin-based organization Resources for Learning. “The new literacy is visual literacy. It's screen literacy, but it's also media literacy. What we've learned is that even though you pass out new devices to students, it doesn't necessarily make them better communicators.”

Students are expected to be able grasp concepts quickly and present their ideas in a visual form, and in an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs in 2010, leaders reported that creativity is the top leadership competency of the future, Guadagnoli said.

Still, some schools have small fine arts programs or no fine arts courses at all, according to Doug Dempster, dean of the University of Texas College of Fine Arts.

“There's a grotesque inequity of access [to fine arts education],” he said. Music and arts programs are some of the first ones administrators look to eliminate when performance is measured by standardized testing, even though fine arts are increasingly relevant when it comes to applying for college, he said.

Transitioning to arts-rich

In Austin ISD, schools are transitioning to become arts-rich following the AISD board of trustees' unanimous vote to implement the Any Given Child fine arts program districtwide.

The program will incorporate arts-based teaching strategies in courses like social studies and science, and the district said it will coordinate with local artists and musicians to launch the program. At community meetings held to gauge the public's opinion of expanding fine arts programming, Any Given Child received wide support among members of the Austin community including parents, teachers and local artists.

In 2011, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts chose Austin for Any Given Child, which establishes long-term arts education plans for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Kennedy Center conducted a nine-month-long audit of AISD, surveying hundreds of principals, teachers, fine arts specialists and community arts partners. The program is expected to cost about $1 million to implement, and the goal is for it to eventually be districtwide, according to AISD.

Fine arts help make connections

Andrew Kim, Comal ISD superintendent, said it's challenging for educators to “take back” instruction and make the switch from worksheets to active engagement.

He said that if children are engaged, then worksheets and assessments are secondary, but to be successful, fine arts programs must be standards-based, and they should be interconnected with the rest of the curriculum.

“How many of you guys learned the quadratic equation in Algebra 1 class?” he asked attendees. “We all are supposed to have [learned it]. But if I were to go ahead and ask you to take out a piece of paper and write it down without using your smartphone or whatever you have, it'd be kind of tough, wouldn't it?”

He said establishing a tie between the arts and other courses such as math, language arts and science could help students retain such information, rather than regurgitate it for the sake of advancing to the next assignment.

Resources for Learning has developed a series of course materials for high school students that integrate fine arts and technology, using technology as a tool for creative expression, Guadagnoli said. For example, one course sends students on a digital scavenger hunt for art elements in photography, and another teaches them key animation and editing concepts while they create a self-portrait of themselves using layers of information and images, she said.

Educators can access the course materials for free at www.txartandmedia.org, and Guadagnoli said the initiative is designed to help students discover what they want to say and then find the best ways to say it.

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