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Why One School Embraces Art For Curriculum's Sake

Lee Hale
Fourth graders at Escalante Elementary School in Salt Lake City's Rose Park neighborhood stretch their bodies out like cirrus clouds during a theater workshop.

In the age of common core standards it's getting harder for educators to justify teaching art for art’s sake. Especially at Title 1 schools that enroll a high number of children from low-income households. But at Escalante Elementary in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, one teacher is trying to make it work.

In a fourth grade classroom, students are learning about the water cycle. Specifically, the different kinds of clouds that form. But this isn’t science class. This isn’t even a science teacher. The teacher's name is Meighan Smith and she teaches theater.


“I want you to make a shape that is a cirrus cloud shape." Smith says. The students stretch themselves out. Arms reaching, some standing on one leg.


As an observer it doesn't look like theater exactly.


“It’s a different way of teaching," says Smith. "It’s going to reach kids in a way that sitting in a desk is not going to reach them.”


Smith teaches the fourth graders at Escalante Elementary twice a week.


In these hour-long drama workshops the students have learned some acting skills, like projecting their voices for the stage and using their bodies to express emotion. But also, the students have been learning a lot about weather.


“So there’s theater in education," Smith says. "Which is what I’m doing. And it’s different than theater for performance. Our end goal is not to be wonderful and have this great and beautiful performance. Our end goal is to learn.”


Smith didn’t get into theater to teach science. She studied theater education because she loves to act. She also loves the emotional growth that comes when students learn to act.


Smith stresses that art for art’s sake is very important.


“But in the educational climate right now it’s not a reality," Smith says. "There are very few places that can afford to do art for art’s sake so we have to find another way to put it into what they’re doing.”


The arts can easily become overlooked at a Title 1 school like Escalante. About half of the school’s 450 students are English language learners. And 80% qualify for free or reduced lunch.


In a lot of ways the odds are against these kids. Improving their academic scores is the priority


Stephanie Hanks is one of the school's fourth grade teachers. She says there’s pushback to anything that goes beyond traditional instruction.


"From a lot of teachers you would hear, ‘There’s no time for that. There’s so much academics to get in.’ And it’s very true. There’s no time to do anything there’s no time to do all the academics they want us to do," Hanks says.


Although, Hanks knows her students need a break. They need to do something they enjoy.


Fortunately, Smith’s drama workshops do that and provide instruction that matches Utah’s core curriculum standards.


It’s using theater as a means to an end rather than the end itself. It’s a teaching tool.


“There is definitely no dilution in that," says Kelsey Ellis, assistant director for Salt Lake City's Art Council.


Ellis put together a $2,000 grant that makes these drama workshops possible. The Art Council works to get arts into local schools any way possible.


“Maybe they can’t set aside 30 minutes a day or a week to do just visual arts but if you can integrate that into another subject then you can use some of those other times," says Ellis.


To some art purists, a word like “integrate” might sound like defeat. But it’s also the reason that on a Wednesday afternoon a classroom full of fourth graders are up on their feet.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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