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Encouraging the Fine and Performing Arts in Lutheran Schools

A Remarkable Change

Include many intentional activities that stimulate the right hemisphere so that children’s brains develop to their fullest.Before children enter school, there seems no limit to their imagination. They can do anything—just ask them. They sing with abandon, color or paint abstract art that would give Jackson Pollock a run for his money, invent stories that are Child paintingfantastical, and dance as if possessed by the spirit of Bob Fosse. After a few years in school, something happens to some of them that is inexplicable. They start to mumble quietly when they sing, exchange their modeling compound for electronic devices, can’t seem to come up with a good story (even when caught doing something naughty), and dance as if everyone who is watching is a critic.

Some researchers posit that this occurs because as children advance through the grades more emphasis is placed on left-brain activities (sequential processing, symbol manipulation, reasoning, calculating, factual information processing, science, math, logic, etc.), while less emphasis is placed on right-brain activities (holistic information processing, creativity, music and art awareness, imagination, intuition, emotional processing, etc.). Classroom effectiveness research suggests that the majority of what students do in school is oriented toward the left-brain—as high as 95 percent—in some studies.

Because of this left-brain emphasis, researchers argue that a child’s imaginative/creative impulses are inhibited. Therefore, include many intentional activities that stimulate the right hemisphere so that children’s brains develop to their fullest. Fine and performing arts activities do this and are essential for stimulating communication between both hemispheres of the brain.

Stimulating the Imagination

Here is a short list of right-brain activities that encourage creativity and stimulate the imagination of every student.

Music: Band, choir, musical theater, private music lessons, concert attendance, daily singing of hymns and spiritual songs in class, hymn study, and singing with gusto in chapel, encourage students of all ages to play the piano, flute, violin, etc., for classroom devotions (I played piano for devotions in school because our teacher knew he couldn’t play a melody if his life depended on it.)

Art: Drawing, painting, jewelry making, clay or wood sculpture, photography, digital art, visiting art galleries, religious art study done in conjunction with Bible study, software presentations of religious art by children based on illustrations of Bible stories for chapel services, stained glass making...

child actingDrama: In-class and public performances of plays and poems, Bible-based chancel dramas and dramatic readings of Scripture passages in weekly chapel services and Sunday worship, writing and performing plays based on folk tales, class trips to plays at a local theater (especially children’s theater productions), writing and performance of echo pantomime plays based on folk tales or Bible stories, storytelling of personal stories, folktales, Bible stories…

Dance: Creative movement, dance or pantomime performances done to hymns, dance instruction by local volunteer(s) who teach dance, attending a ballet performance, watch dance performances on YouTube, swing dance and square dance instruction in physical education class, chancel dance…

Writing: Article or opinion writing for the school newspaper, frequent poetry writing using multiple poetic forms (diamante, clerihew, haiku, concrete poems, i.e., picture poems, limericks, hink pinks, etc., hymn and drama writing, poems based on photos that children take with digital devices, essays based on student reactions to a piece of music, painting, dance, drama, photograph…

Architecture: Use computer assisted design to create structures, visit local buildings of historical and architectural importance, take a field trip to a large city in your state to understand the importance of architectural design in the life of a city, study church architecture from its early beginnings in Hebrew worship (tabernacle and temple through the development of the basilica and the Gothic cathedral), model making, blueprint design, visit an architectural firm or have an architect come to class…

Fine Arts for Everyone in Lutheran Schools

The study of religion provides numerous opportunities for students to express their Christian faith through the fine arts. Many of the activities listed above relate directly to the study of religion. The study of religion provides numerous opportunities for students to express their Christian faith through the fine arts. Sometimes the study of religion, the catechism, and Bible history can have a correct answer orientation and neglect the imaginative side of the instructional equation. The salvation story appeals as much to our imaginative side as it does to our logical side. Luther knew this when he wrote that we cannot by our own “reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him,” but have been called to faith by the Holy Spirit though the Gospel. This is imaginative language, not that of logic.

Luther knew the power of the imagination and was especially interested in music and poetry as ways to convey the truths of the scriptures so that his parishioners could sing the faith in church, at home, and in their communities. To Luther, music was the servant of the Word of God and, as was often his wont, he pulled no punches about its importance:

However, when man's natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift…. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs. (Forward to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae)

This quote leaves no doubt about Luther’s feelings regarding the importance of music in the life of the church. If we extend his enthusiasm for music to the other fine and performing arts we might say, “A person who does not regard poetry, drama, writing, painting, dance, etc., must be a clodhopper…”

Not wanting to be a clodhopper is desirable; so here are seven specific ways to encourage and incorporate the fine and performing arts for every child in our Lutheran schools.

The Artist of the Week

One way to ensure that children in every grade can learn about the arts is to have an “artist of the week” program. For every week of the school year, students will learn about a significant musician, painter, architect, dancer, dramatist, etc. The depth of study will vary from grade to grade. Kindergarteners might look at paintings by Claude Monet and then attempt a bit of impressionistic painting (impressionism is right up a kindergartener’s alley), while eighth graders might look at examples of stained glass, sculpture, and the architectural design of Chartres cathedral to interpret the theological and artistic meaning behind Gothic art and architecture.

Music Listening

teen playing trumpetMy second, fifth, and sixth grade teacher, Mr. Heinze, had us listen to music all the time. He was not a musician, but he loved classical music. Several times a week we would listen to a symphony (Beethoven’s Fifth), tone poem (The Planets by Gustav Holst), overture (William Tell by Rossini), etc. Sometimes the listening took some time (Les Preludes by Franz Liszt or Finlandia by Jean Sibelius) and sometimes we just heard a snippet (a Bach prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier). When we finished listening, he would tell us something about the music and the composer, or we would write down how the music made us feel. Mr. Henize had no musical training, but he was one of the best music teachers I ever had. Today we have unlimited access to great music via the internet. We can watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts or learn about jazz by watching Erroll Garner improvising on one of his own compositions. Ask musicians in your congregation to visit classrooms to demonstrate their instruments and talk about music.

Student Research on Artists – THE MNFA Schedule

Set up a simple schedule of five-minute oral reports that emphasize the fine or performing arts called “My New Favorite Artist” (MNFA — min-fa, for short) that students will prepare on a regular basis during the school year. Have students print out a picture of their MNFA for display and leave the picture up on the bulletin board until the next MNFA presentation. This show-and-tell activity can be simple or complex depending on the child’s interests and developmental level.

The Artist in Residence

[Artists] love to talk about their work and children love to learn about what makes an artist tick.Set up a series of visits from local fine and performing artists. They love to talk about their work, and children love to learn about what makes an artist tick. If you can, have an artist come for an extended stay of several days to a week to work with all the students of your school on a project that centers on the artist’s expertise. Often the artist will lead a public performance or exhibit of student work at the end of an extended stay. Look for grant monies and donors to help facilitate an artist in residence visit.

The Well-Prepared Field Trip

Visiting museums, concert halls, and theater performances are essential learning activities. Given rising transportation costs and our continuing penchant for standardized test preparation, many schools have cut back on field trip experiences. Nevertheless, field trips should be an integral part of our schools’ curricula.

[Field trips:] Extend learning by expanding a child's world and provide a framework for learning…[help children] to think outside the box, as well as learning outside of the classroom…strengthen observation skills by immersing children into sensory activities... expand children's awareness of their own community… provide living laboratories where children acquire knowledge outside the realm of the regular classroom.

(From pg. 162 of Making the Case for Field Trips: What Research Tells Us and What Site Coordinators Have to Say by M. L. Nabors, L. C. Edwards, and K. Murray - Education Vol. 129 No. 4, pg. 661-667 – see: http://teamhoward.pbworks.com/f/Case_for_field_trips.pdf).

Make Every Room and Hallway a Gallery

Lutheran schools should be galleries for artwork of every kind. Lutheran schools should be galleries for artwork of every kind. Of course, we will display children’s art projects, but we also need to encourage art that children create on their own, such as fabric art, drawings, papier-mâché, pottery, etc. In addition, every classroom and hallway should routinely exhibit fine art works from local artists and facsimiles of great art from great masters from all over the world. Consider an annual Christian Art Exhibit in the church or school that invites students and local artists to submit Christian painting, sculpture, stained glass, banners, etc.

The Hymn of the Month

Select one hymn from the Lutheran Service Book or other Lutheran hymnal to be learned and sung by the entire school for an entire month. Sing it every week as an entrance hymn at chapel and make sure everyone understands the vocabulary in the hymn and the reason the hymn was written (you can find that information in several Lutheran hymnal companion books or online at sites such as: https://hymnary.org/ ; http://www.thehymnsociety.org/ ; http://www.hymntime.com/tch/index.htm; and Concordia University-Chicago’s Hymn of the Day Devotion Resource at https://www.cuchicago.edu/about-concordia/center-for-church-music/devotions-on-the-hymn-of-the-day/). Nine hymns per month for 9 years of school equals 81 significant hymns learned and, perhaps memorized, by everyone in our Lutheran school. Huzzah!

The Arts Are Gifts from God

We don’t often think of ourselves as God’s poem or work of art, but we are. God created us to be creative people who use our talent and intellect in praise of God and in service to our neighbors.God is an artist – the Creator of all things; and we are God’s workmanship.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8–10 ESV). Emphasis mine.

The Greek word for workmanship (poiema) in the passage above is the root word for “poem” or “poetry” and means something made or created. We don’t often think of ourselves as God’s poem or work of art, but we are. God created us to be creative people who use our talent and intellect in praise of God and in service to our neighbors. Encourage students to be creators of all forms of artistic beauty and to give glory to God, who gave us new life though the death and resurrection of His only Son so we would be freed from sin to do the good and beautiful works for which we were created.

Dr. Jeffrey E. Burkart is Emeritus Professor of Education & Artist in Residence, Concordia University, St. Paul, Minn.

Encouraging the Fine and Performing Arts in Lutheran Schools, copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey E. Burkart. Used by permission.

Photos © iStock/Thomas Perkins, iStock/Duncan Walker, Chris Ocken for Valley Lutheran High School, Saginaw, Michigan.