“A broad education in the arts helps give children a better understanding of their world…We need students who are culturally literate as well as math and science literate.” –Paul Ostergard, Vice President, Citicorp
I can’t listen to the great composer Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture without being transported to the middle school years.
My father loved classical music and insisted that all five of his children would intimately know great works and composers. During my tween years, every morning meant a thirty-minute car ride to school listening to classical music. Drowsy from the morning and lulled by the hum of the car, my days would start by being bathed in lovely sounds. My dad would point out the artist and things to listen for, and he would typically sing along to the piece, despite the fact that there were no words.
At the time, I found it a soothing way to wake up. I didn’t have to do anything; I didn’t even have to pay attention. I could sit, listen, and be transported into the story of the life of the composer. With my father’s humble beginnings in Puerto Rico, he insisted a well- educated person was not only book smart, but someone who could identify excellent masterpieces. Classical music mostly became an ecosystem for my growing up years. In this simple way, my father put me in touch with the greatest works and let them be the teacher.
As we walk through Leigh Bortins’ book, The Conversation, we have been looking at how the subjects are connected and using rich discussions as our platform. We have been using the five canons of rhetoric as our starting point and working through each subject for high school studies. If you need a refresher on the five canons, read the previous article called “Drawing Out the Wonder” here.
In Mrs. Bortins’ discussions of fine arts in Chapter Eleven of The Conversation, she reviews how to appreciate both music and visual arts. Should you need convincing of the importance of studying fine arts, there are a multitude of studies on how fine arts students test scores are significantly higher than non-fine arts students. According to data on SAT scores from College Board, fine arts students scored on average ninety-five points better than their non-artistic class peers (See SAT scores study here).
There has been much reporting in the media of the recent push for moving education from STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering, and math emphasis) to STEAM focused, by adding in the arts. Not surprisingly, experts have found the boost of creativity, innovation, and design adds a tremendous benefit to science, math and technology. This seems sort of obvious to me. But as a homeschooling mom, I too have the tendency to gloss over the arts due to their lack of practicality in the high school years. If we want our kids to be deep thinkers, they have to be able to identify truth, beauty, and goodness in the arts too.
“Art education is a rediscovery of the language of shape, color, light, composition, unity and harmony,” Mrs. Bortins said. She continues, “As educators, we need to give our students experiences in both creating and beholding so that they can delight in the communication that is possible” (page 190-1).
Putting the Five Canons of Rhetoric to Work with Fine Arts
Like my father did, the simplest approach to the fine arts is to present your student a feast of works and let them be the teacher. But to dive a bit deeper, let’s look at how you might approach a fine arts study with the five canons. For the purposes of an example at home, we will look at how a parent/student might work through appreciation of a piece of music or artwork.
Invention – What do you see and hear?
Invention looks at the big ideas around the music or piece of art. What was happening in history during the time the piece was created? Why did the artist create this piece? What did they have in mind for it? This part can be as simple or as complex as you would like depending on how deeply you want to examine the piece.
Arrangement – How does the artist organize the piece?
Arrangement in music might look at what manner of organization the artist used in the composition. In a piece of art, you might identify the painting form, how the painting was created, and elements that are included. How were the pieces of music or art put together? How was this approach designed to influence, persuade, or affect the audience? Look beyond the obvious to see if you can identify the richer aim of the artist for the piece.
Elocution – What techniques did the artist use to express their ideas?
Most forms of art and music fall into specific styles or genres that represent a particular period in time. Look at what was popular during the era that may have influenced the artist to create the piece in a specific manner. What is beautiful about the painting? What do you love about the piece of music? What specific tools or techniques did the artist use to speak to their audience?
Memory – What does this remind you of?
Recently, my son and I were visiting a local museum to see a M. C. Escher exhibit. My son immediately recognized a piece of artwork that was on the cover of a math book we had used in years past. From that reference, we enjoyed discussing the connections of art and math in Escher’s work. When viewing an art exhibit or listening to classical music, ask your student if the artist’s works remind them of anything they have seen or heard before. You can also look for connections across the subjects; many artists were deeply influenced by nature, politics, faith, math, and science. It can be meaningful to make connections from personal experiences with the artist’s works for a deeper reference.
Delivery – How will you explain or share what you have experienced?
One of my favorite games to play at a museum is what I call “Security Guard Bingo.” Knowing that security guards stare at artwork for long periods of time and almost daily, it’s really fun to ask them which is their favorite painting. Quite often they will pick a painting that may not be obvious, but they will explain the detail to you in ways that are often surprising. Try it the next time you are at the museum and you will find some new gems you may not have noticed.
For delivery, ask your student to put together and explain all that they have experienced. This could be as simple as sharing around the dinner table what piece they loved and specifically why they loved it. Or it could be as elaborate as teaching a summary of a great composition of music with their Challenge class. Delivery represents putting all the ideas together to share what this experience taught you and how you are different as a result.
Putting It All Together
When I first started homeschooling, my dream was to create an environment for my son that allowed him to pursue the very best in classroom learning. But more than that, my hope was that he would get outside of the classroom and spend time in the big classroom of life learning things that couldn’t be taught from books. Like my father created a classical music morning for me in my tween years, I wanted the fine arts to be an extension of life for our family. Fine arts can be a lovely backdrop to your days to create an ecosystem designed with beauty.
Read Along in The Conversation
Read Chapter Eleven
- What have been your experiences with the study of fine arts?
- As a parent, how can you offer chances to experience music or the arts in a deeper way?
- What benefits have you come to appreciate through the study of fine arts?
- How can you add more joy in your homeschooling experience with the study of fine arts?
- What is one small change you could implement today with your fine arts study that would have a positive impact on your homeschool experience?