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The value of dialogue: teachers who encourage art dialogue in the classroom enhance the educational experience for students by creating an environment for reflection. These schools in California show how students are talking up the arts.

Manhattan Beach, California

A tour of Grand View Elementary's recently renovated art-deco-style school, showcases curvilinear corners, tiled bathroom walls, an aesthetically pleasing student garden, an outdoor theater rivaling those of the Greeks, and perfectly placed contemplation benches. The mastermind behind this project, principal Anita Robertson, understands the benefit of providing students a comprehensive arts education program and a school constructed to reflect this philosophy.

Everywhere you look in this school, you are sure to catch a glimpse of students' and master artists' works neatly decorating the walls. But another thing that sets this school apart from most others is the powerful dialogue that follows the production of each piece of art.

Seven years ago, Grand View Elementary obtained a grant from the J. Paul Getty Museum. The concept behind this grant was to provide discipline-based art education. Discussing art became central to this philosophy. Now, teachers are trained on instructional strategies and methods for ensuring continuous dialogue about student-created artwork. Teachers here are skilled at facilitating discussion and evoking levels of critical thinking unseen in other disciplines.

Hermosa Beach, California

The Artist Scholars Project at Hermosa Valley Middle School also teaches students to reflect upon what has been created. Students not only engage in art production, but exchange dialogue about things such as composition, balance, harmony, and artists' intentions.

In one photography classroom, students are gathered around a group of photographs. "What did the artist intend to communicate here?" asks the instructor. The artist, Hermosa Valley student Bryan Breen, drops back quietly as his peers take a shot at it.

"I think Bryan was trying to be funny; it is his sense of humor he wants people to recognize" says friend and classmate Matt Alvarado. Bryan's grin widens.

Dialogue challenges students to answer the basic questions of art production often not thought about by elementary and middle school students: Why did you choose to do that? What are you trying to communicate to the viewer? How does this piece make you feel? Educational theorist Howard Gardner defines the artistic process as one involving the work of art and up to four modes of participation: the creator, the audience member, the critic, and the performer.

Dr. Stu Gothold, art advocate from the University of Southern California, comments, "Critique and dialogue are essential elements of a good art instructional program. The Discipline-Based Art Education program is based upon a teachable set of criteria which are used to more insightfully understand works of art." Clearly, students at Grand View Elementary School are learning this.

Evidence of student reflection and dialogue about art is well documented. Beautifully crafted scrapbooks rival that of a dissertation and reveal several telling comments. "Art can be anything," one student says, "it can be everything, and it's individual. Art helps me become a better person. I can describe myself by painting a picture."

Dr. Gothold explains that "the arts are a part of the core curriculum, but usually, in excellent schools, and schools which have defined well the meaning of a complete education, an education which includes quality of life." Schools that only teach the process of art production, may, in fact, be doing more harm than good. Clearly, teachers need time to teach students the value of art dialogue. The impact of this type of instruction may have enormous effect on the quality of education a child receives.


Students describe and compare a variety of individual responses to their own artworks and to artworks from various eras and cultures.


Shawn Smith is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. His research endeavors focus on educational policy in arts education,
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Title Annotation:Middle School
Author:Smith, Shawn, K.
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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