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10 reasons to include performing arts in (home)schooling

There are all kinds of articles and studies out there right now in support of keeping fine arts in the schools. This comes at a time when the greater push is to improve and intensify academic learning in an increasingly homogenized and student saturated environment, all with fewer funds, so the battle to defend (or, on the flipside, defund) the arts is real, and it's a brutal one. 

A few months ago we were at the GP's for Calvin's anual checkup. His doctor, a young man whom I for speaking to me like an equal and Calvin like a capable human being, went over Calvin's list of "out of school" activities with us. I think he was just curious, or he may have been checking in because he knows that Calvin is homeschooled, and although we seemed to pass any test that might have been administered, we also seemed to flummox him with regards to Calvin's arts involvement. That's a lot of music, he said. It wasn't said with any kind of tone, so I don't know if it was meant as a judgement or merely as an expression of surprise, but it got me thinking. 

Calvin has choir rehearsal twice a week, band rehearsal twice a week, dance class twice a week, and a weekly piano lesson. He participates in anywhere from 2 to 4 theatrical performances a year. We study fine arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, and art viewing) at least twice a week. This is a lot, especially when I see it typed up here in front of me, and by no means do I think this level of involvement is right for everyone. But Calvin does the performing arts the way other kids do sports. He is trying several of them, and the amount of time he dedicates to them over the year is not really more than a child involved in team sports dedicates to those. Yet his involvement in the fine arts elicits a very different response than a child receives who is heavily involved in sports. 

Why this unequal respect for the two main paths of "extracurricular" involvement? Sports are heavily lauded for the benefits they bestow upon their participants, and rightly so. A sense of teamwork, self-respect, and physical fitness are just three of the many important things they are charged with teaching kids, and I don't at all doubt the veracity of those claims. I do, however, think the same things are taught through participation in the performing arts. I read an article recently that urged people to stop defending arts in the schools, the argument being that they need no defense, their value speaks for itself. If that were true, though, the battle for funding and support wouldn't be raging as we speak.

So in defense of performing arts in schooling (home or not), here are some of the things kids will learn or gain from that study:

Self discipline
It won't come right away. It might take years to achieve, in fact, but practice is self-discipline, and all arts require it. I've always told Calvin at the piano that music practice in particular is self-policing. Practice is sitting down to play a small part of a song over and over again until the whole family is going crazy, but you can finally play it right. You can't fake it, it's either right or it isn't. If it isn't, keep practicing. 

The point of practice, or self-discipline, is to perfect a skill. In the days between classes or lessons, kids are responsible for putt their best effort into this achievement. It's a little like homework in that a parent can make a kid sit down and play their scales they way they can make them finish their math, but arts practice is less mechanical in nature, and the resulting achievements are assessed more fluidly. Ultimately, students practicing the fine arts are more responsible for the value of their practice time, and, thus, more fully accountable for their achievements or lack thereof.

The skill of public speaking
This is an obvious benefit from stage performance, but the ability to get up in front of others is taught in any and all performing arts. It's in the performing part. In preparing works to share with others, be they piano songs practiced for recital, or vocal music to be performed in a choir concert, children are learning the skills of selection and preparation with an eye toward communicating with an audience. Then they actually get up in front of that audience. Not everyone who practices performing arts will be a talented public speaker, but I'm willing to bet that they will all at least improve in this area.

Confidence and Self-respect
Similar to the skill of public speaking, kids who go through years of performing arts education gain a level of self respect from lessons learned about preparation and performance. Youth performance environments are designed to be supportive and encouraging. The main goal of youth recitals is to help young performers gain confidence in their skills and in themselves. A secondary lesson is: put your best into it, get your best out of it. Everyone applauds at a child's recital, which is supportive and encouraging, but kid will know when they've truly done their best, and many will learn to respect themselves and the process enough to the work in between.

Nothing is more frustrating than a section of song you can't quite get, or a line you can't remember correctly, or a step you keep tripping on. And nothing is more rewarding than finally getting it right. Practice may not always make perfect, but done correctly it does always improve capability, and that reward teaches perseverance.

Duets, ensembles, stage performances, dance troupes...though many people think of performing arts as producing divas, the truth is that, as in sports, there are more team players in the discipline than individual rising stars. Get your instruments in tune, set up group practices, follow the director as one, don't miss your entrances. Collaboration is key.

Self expression
All kids long for self-expression. We see this in the child singing at the top of their lungs in the shower, or in the three year old screaming at the top of their lungs on the grocery store floor. Performance arts, any fine arts, really, provide a healthy means of self-expression.

Social exploration
Any collaborative approach in any performing art gives kids a common goal and asks them to set differences aside to achieve it. As part of team work, kids will learn ways to overcome social obstacles together. More literally, kids participating in theatrical arts are given the opportunity to play-act a wide variety of social situations. Kids do this on their own in imaginative play, but here they'll do it with the benefit of coaching.

Cultural and global exploration
All of the arts are celebrations of culture and heritage, and many performing arts programs seek out pieces from world cultures for students to try out and learn from. 

Health and fitness
Especially true in theater and dance, but to some extent in all disciplines, the arts require a healthy life style and encourage physical fitness. While this necessity is obvious in dancers, think also of the need for great breath control and capacity in singers and wind instrumentalists, and also posture and fine motor control for all musicians. Piano players have some really strong arms and amazing abs.

Expansion and connection of all other subject areas
We've probably all heard about the studies linking music in particular to improved mental acuity and performance in other subject areas, like math. Reading music can help students improve their language skills as well. But we also try to include music, literature, and visual arts in our history and culture studies as we go. Since the arts are a celebration of culture and heritage, arts through time can be considered primary sources—snapshots in time—and there is a lot to be gained from studying them.


Easter 2017

The sun is shining, the sky is a light, clear blue, the kind that is almost colorless instead of a brilliant azure, like it's already tired of clarity and bringing joy and is all washed out. It's the color I need today. The deeper the hue of the sky, the more I feel called outside, and since we are still inside schooling, and since I am still weak and coughing, staying in and ignoring the beautiful weather seems a likely outcome to the day. 

After a week of bronchial distress and theater commitments, the holiday weekend was a well deserved reprieve. We cleaned house (I put the sewing away), we ate great food, we enjoyed some celebratory time with family. Oh, and we colored eggs. 


10 great youth titles for reading in spring

I like, as a general rule, to read books that fit with the season. You won't find me reading A Christmas Carol in April, for instance. It has more to do with time setting. A book set in the summer is comfortably readable in December if the focus of hte story isn't on beach combing, and a lot of stories aren't heavily reliant on season. Still, there are some books best read in their coinciding season, and others that are noticeably enjoyable when they do happen to fit.

These books are a smattering of titles we've enjoy over the years that I think go well in the spring. I try to avoid making age recommendations on books, since reading is such an individual thing. Reading aloud is always a great option for slightly more advanced books. This list includes books that Calvin, who is currently in fifth grade, has already read. The difficultly level between them varies widely, but they are all books we have (or he has) enjoyed at one time or another.

In no particular order:

All Creatures Great and Small, by Herriot
These are the beloved stories of country veterinarian James Herriot, who captured his experiences with such emotion and honesty that they have survived nearly fifty years of readers. By turns jubilent and heartbreaking, harrowing and homey, but always touching. 

Rascal, by Sterling North
One man's memoir of raising a raccoon during his childhood in a small town in rural Wisconsin at the time of WWI. Delightful writing captures the essence of a rural childhood in the early twentieth century. Both the boy's and the raccoon's antics have captured hearts for decades.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
A boy raises an orphaned deer amongst many hardships, then is faced with a heartbreaking and very adult decision. This is not going to be for everyone. Spoiler alert: the boy has to kill the deer in the end because his family is starving. This is a heartbreaking read, but we found great value in the reading and discussion.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Stories  of the countryside excursions of those beloved characters Rat, Mole, and Badger. From summertime picnics to crisp winter nights, from good behavior to bad, Grahame's writing entices the imagination and warms the heart.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Three children find a secret garden in disrepair and make it bloom again, while in return the garden changes the children. A literary classic for its writing style, vocabulary, and themes.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
A young boy spends the winter by himself on his family's wild mountain land in the Catskills of New York. George skillfully captures the beauty of the natural world while describing in great detail the boy's methods of survival through the long winter before emerging triumphantly in the spring wiser and more confident.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
Anne's is another story that has survived generations. A young orphan adopted by an aging brother and sister on Prince Edward Island in Canada, Anne has much to learn about their proper and loving way of life, making friends and winning hearts along the way.

Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
Spring on the farm brings baby pigs, but when Fern's father wants to kill the runt of the litter, Fern saves him and raises him on her uncles farm. When the end of summer comes around, though, his life is in danger again, and only his friend, the spider, can save him. Poignant and sweet, a classic of the ages.

The Enchanted Castle, by Edith Nesbit
Three children find an enchanted garden and awake a princess from a hundred-year slumber, only to have her immediately made invisible by a magic ring, making her rescue difficult, funny, and sometimes a little bit scary.

Dr. Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
The story of an eccentric doctor who becomes a veterinarian and embarks on a number of remarkable adventures with interesting characters of all kinds. Lofting sense of hilarity will keep kids guessing and giggling throughout.

Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry
Paul and Maureen work to bring in The Phantom, a wild horse from Chincoteague Island, but can they earn enough money to buy her and her colt on Pony Penning Day? Written with old world charm, Henry's great love for horses shines through.


Spring bucket list 2017

Everybody talks about their summer bucket lists, but how many people have must-do lists for other seasons? It's definitely a busy time, especially if your kids are in school, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the many wonderful things about this season of rebirth and growth. Spring is the time to see migrating birds, to start your garden from seeds, to get in lots of outdoor activity before it gets summer hot and sticky. There are lots of great reasons to embrace this time, and here are a few of our favorites:

Start seedlings inside

Plant spring veggies outside

Avian migrators: collect them all!

Listen to the frogs

Go in search of fungi (especially morels!)

Practice wildflower identification

Hike Magee Marsh

Festifools Parade

Play in the rain

And, just before it's over...strawberry shortcake


March 2017 Recap