If some might be slightly bemused as to how the arts and literacy are closely interwoven in the education landscape–just don’t expect Kara Helms to be one of them.
As the educational consultant for PreK-12 arts education and gifted education with Saskatoon Public Schools, she said the two very much complement each other and utilize many of the same skills.
“With visual arts, I think it aligns closely across the curriculum due to the skills you acquire. You work both independently and collaboratively and it teaches you to express yourself and to communicate. It’s all about the big picture and you learn to think through things. It’s a way to access literacy through the fun experiences that the arts can bring.
“In my mind, literacy is embedded in the arts. Just think about when you’re reading music; that’s an example of literacy and it’s part of the creative process. There’s so much you learn in the arts that you bring to the regular classroom, and it’s an example of the importance of not working in silos. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and good judgment prevails.”
Helms maintains that even though the arts can be a very individualized form of expression, from her own experience as a band teacher, for example, there is a premium placed on interacting with your peers and that leads to working together to problem solve. In her words, it’s the best of both worlds and the team approach is not taken lightly.
Her own experience has confirmed the importance of the process involved.
“It’s about how you deliver the program that’s the real lesson. It means being part of the creative process and being willing to take risks and there’s always the opportunity to revise and edit and tweak. That’s very much the same process that is inherent to the arts but also in literacy. Your first draft is not the finished product. Flexibility is really important and the realization that there’s not just one way to do something. The creative aspect is very much there in both areas.”
When she first started her teaching career 14 years ago, Helms acknowledges she wasn’t as acutely aware of this, but was rather focused on the end goal and was striving for perfection.
“Over time you learn to see the connections that the arts can make for students. I know they won’t all be playing in a symphony one day, but hopefully they will all see a place for themselves in the process and to have a feeling of appreciation of that by the time they leave school. That is the end goal.”
There can be a parallel drawn to the fact that honing your literacy skills doesn’t mean you are destined to be a published writer, but rather that you garner the valuable lessons along the way.
Helms referenced the critical and creative thinking skills that students develop in the arts, noting that thinking like an artist means consistent use of the analysis, revision and revamp cycle to create a product that best represents their learning.
Helms cites the importance of establishing a partnership between teacher and student, which includes providing students with a voice.
“It has to be lived–it’s a human curriculum and when you give students choice they are more likely to make the connection and ultimately you want to set them up for success.
“Whether it’s literacy or the arts, everyone is different, and it’s important to acknowledge that in order to achieve a sense of belonging for all students and make them feel comfortable and that they are recognized as individuals. They are not pencils in a pencil case.
“I had to learn to teach like a visual artist and see it through their [students’] eyes. That means it’s not a static way of learning and you hope that they will develop the discipline and focus they need that applies to all subject areas.”
Helms said she has always been lucky to have had very supportive teaching colleagues when it came to integrating the arts into other areas of the curriculum.
As one who taught band, music, dance, drama and visual arts, Helms concedes that her new position–she is in the first of a four-year term–does leave a void in not being in the classroom on a daily basis.
However, typical of one who is used to improvising, she said the joy for her now comes from the relationships she is able to build in her new environment while never losing sight of her love of teaching the arts. That tells its own story.