Art for Education’s Sake at Walden Pond

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Dance specialist and Wolf Trap Master Teaching Artist Amanda Whiteman teaches spatial relations and counting. Photo by Scott Suchman.

In a recent article published on the Rivard Report I asked this question: “What is a dollar well-spent in education?”

For the most part, we answer that question by combing through piles of data and reports, only to have them discredited, or to have another study emerge proving the previous data to be inaccurate.

So, for the sake of further inquiry, I followed Diane Ravitch’s advice:

“Let us consider two other ways of evaluating schools. One is to ask what the most demanding families seek in a school,” stated Ravitch in her 2013 book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”

I started asking where these “demanding” families spend their money when it comes to educating their children. Typically, they demand attention and enrichment from their schools. However, in early education, or in cases where schools are not able to meet their demands, these families look elsewhere to private programming, tutors, and lessons. 

Unsurprisingly, some of those interventions and enrichments have corresponding results out in the education data-sphere.

One such case is arts education. In addition to early childhood arts studies like the ones conducted by Americans for the Arts, “creativity programs” landed fairly high on John Hattie’s Visible Learning intervention rankings.

Roxana Newsom didn’t need to read these reports to know that Walden Pond Interarts Learning Center was a vital resource for midtown families. She had the living proof living in her own home. Two of her three children were alumni of Walden Pond and deeply connected to the program, even after they aged out of the program for ages 3-12.

Roxana Newsom of Walden Pond shows off student art work and explains the multidisciplinary context behind the projects. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Roxana Newsom of Walden Pond shows off student art work and explains the multidisciplinary context behind the projects. Photo by Bekah McNeel

When her son Hamlet, now 20, came home from a day of volunteering and informed her that founder Dottie McKinley was retiring and selling Walden Pond, Newsom felt compelled to buy it. She wanted to continue the good work that had so shaped her own children.

She purchased Walden Pond in December of 2012, closed for a quick remodel, and reopened in March 2013. With no formal training in the arts or education, Newsom quickly surrounded herself with staff to provide the theory and technique required to run an arts program. She provided boundless enthusiasm, and a strong affinity for the nature component, which has long made Walden Pond’s program so unique.

“It’s about more than just the art classes,” Newsom said.

While the children do learn technique and art literacy, for many, the more powerful moments happen when the art opens up their connection to nature, which will translate into natural sciences in the classroom. Their summer theme was “National Parks” with a different National Park highlighted for each two-week day camp. The camps brought together history, biology, civics, and running through it all, art.

For many students, art is not a subject, it is a language. It’s now what they learn, it’s how they learn.

Far away, in northern Virginia, the leaders of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through Arts Education approach art education from a different angle. They believe that all children benefit from having the arts in their classroom throughout the ordinary school day. 

“Rather than making the case for investing in the arts, which we can, we’re talking about investing in high quality early childhood education,” said Michelle Pendoley, director of public relations for Wolf Trap.

Wolf Trap believes that the most sustainable way to get arts into classrooms as an integrated teaching tool is by training teachers. They offer intense training programs like the one they brought to Pre-K 4 SA’s Summer Academies as well as programs that place artists in the classroom with teachers for eight weeks. The artists observe and help the teacher see how arts could be incorporated into the curriculum and environment of the classroom.

Wolf Trap works with students across the Washington DC metro area, from affluent areas to county schools like Fairfax County where the population includes not only wide economic diversity but a variety of English language learners (ELL) due to the immigrant communities in the area. They’ve worked with private pre-schools and Head Start programs alike, and have seen success across the board.

“This works with all children,” said Jennifer Cooper, director of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts.

Musician and Wolf Trap Master Teaching Artist Kofi Dennis teaches counting through the arts concept of steady beat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Musician and Wolf Trap Master Teaching Artist Kofi Dennis teaches counting through the arts concept of steady beat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The multi-sensory approach engages multiple learning styles. For instance, incorporating music and dance connects to kinetic learners as well.

Back at Walden Pond, parents see the effects of art-based exploration and the various hands on, multi-media avenues used by Newsom to bring a subject to life.

“One parent recently told me, ‘I think my student is learning more at Walden Pond than at regular school,” Newsom said.

She’s not surprised. She picks her subjects deliberately to interest and engage kids. She lets them zone in on elements and subjects that interest them. She chooses subjects like dung beetles to introduce desert ecosystems because she knows it will grab kids’ attention.

“Who doesn’t love a poop ball?” said Newson, laughing.

What starts as fascination with poop, or a love of messy finger painting, quickly sparks into avid interest and love of learning. Parents love to listen to their child go on and on about not only the colors of the sunset, but the food chain of the desert as well.

During the year, students can sign up for six-week sessions, with weekly classes serving a steady dose of artistic and natural inspiration. Each six-week session is $180-$225 per student, and classes are small.

However, if parents are paying to get their kids into art, perhaps it’s worth asking what it would take to get art to more kids.

Cooper and Pendoley have high hopes for the training conducted through Pre-K 4 SA, which is increasingly serving as a conduit for best practices and innovation in education to make its way into San Antonio school districts.

“There’s so much excitement around early childhood education in San Antonio,” Cooper said.

Through Pre-K 4 SA, it is likely that some of the benefits enjoyed by alumni of Walden Pond could be seen in students across the city.

*Featured/top image: Dance specialist and Wolf Trap Master Teaching Artist Amanda Whiteman teaches spatial relations and counting. Photo by Scott Suchman.

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