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Art and Arithmetic

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Second-graders in a public school write and perform their own songs. Preschoolers at a day nursery wriggle happily to live jazz music. A dancer uses her moves to teach math skills at a middle school. Patients at a children's hospital take a well-earned break from often painful treatment sessions to create art. All of these experiences and many more are bringing art back into the classroom in Indiana and are thanks to the dedication of Arts for Learning.

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"Our goal is to keep the arts in schools," explains Megan Watson, communications coordinator for Arts for Learning. The program aims to contribute to children's academic and psychological development and helping kids to feel comfortable in their own skin.

The organization is an affiliate of Young Audiences, a nationwide program with more than 50 years' experience bringing the arts into classrooms, community centers, parks, preschools and pretty much any other venue where kids can develop their creativity. With a full-time staff of nine and a roster of more than 60 professional teaching artists, the organization reaches more than 64,000 children yearly.

Artists must pass an audition to join the program, to prove they can work with kids at least as well as they work with paints or clay. "They must display a comfort with children and ability to control a classroom," Watson says. "Also, they have to cultivate a program that makes sense in the classroom."

Their lessons must also meet state and national curriculum standards. But they don't have to be as staid and dull as an ISTEP test, using dance, ceramics and music to teach basic reading or math skills. A key objective, Watson says, is to encourage kids to learn actively, "instead of just regurgitating facts they've memorized."

Arts for Learning offers professional development programs so that teachers can learn how to use the program in their classrooms. There is a charge for services, but fees are heavily subsidized through grants and gifts. "One of the coolest things about our program is that if schools can't pay, we will help them find a way to make it work," Watson says.

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One artist/teacher who's making it work is Greencastle singer/songwriter Bobbie Lancaster. She's developed several songwriting workshops that can be adapted to whatever theme the classroom's teacher wants to emphasize. "Letting the teachers have control over the theme makes the workshops very adaptable," Lancaster explains. "We've covered everything from anti-bullying to American history."

This past summer she led a weeklong workshop at Holy Cross Catholic Academy that was themed around mystery. She asked the kids to write down things they considered mysterious, netting responses that ranged from funny to touching.

"They filled notebooks with everything from cotton candy to two sharks falling in love," Lancaster says. "But also, why do people get cancer? Why do parents get divorced? Why do dads have to go to war sometimes? These were the questions on their hearts."

The children wrote songs about their questions, then at the end of the week performed them for their families. "There were a lot of tears," Lancaster recalls. She records the students' performances, and then produces MP3 recordings at her home studio that the kids can listen to whenever they want. Someday she hopes to try the workshop in juvenile detention centers. "Writing can be such a healing process," she says.

Watson has her own favorite memory from this year's summer program. Arts for Indiana brought in a jazz band to play for the kids at a day nursery in a low-income area. The group brought down the house when, halfway through their set, they played "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the Toy Story movies.

"This little kid turned to look at me when he figured out what they were playing," Watson recalls. "He was so happy and it was so great just seeing the cares melting from his face."

The group debuted a new program this year called Arts for Healing, which brings artists to children's hospitals to work with young patients. Funded by Power to Give through the Indiana Arts Council, it helps children facing terrible situations to express themselves through art.

Though Arts for Learning is mostly geared to kindergarteners through twelfth graders, it also offers programs for adults. For instance, Collaboration of Generations brings together older adults and children through storytelling. The grownups share their tales, then listen as the kids recount those stories in their own words. "It's wonderful to see how the adults can place themselves back in that moment, hearing their stories through a child's voice," Watson says. Not surprisingly, the project is especially helpful for those facing Alzheimer's and other memory-deficit conditions.

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