Why Johnny Can’t Sing, Dance, Saw, or Bake

For decades we’ve heard why Johnny can’t read, write, or do simple math. Whenever there is a crisis in American education, we tend to rally the troops to make drastic changes so Johnny can finally learn how to be successful in a subject, class, or school. This system of panic and policies seems to have dictated many of our educational goals for the past several decades.

The revolution for Johnny started in 1955 when Rudolf Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read and was revived in 1981 with his sequel, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read. After Flesch’s exposés, professional development programs, departments of education, and college professors moved to shine the spotlight on (and throw massive amounts of energy toward) literacy.

The book and its sequel sent the education world into a tailspin and caused a major overhaul of how reading was taught in this country. It inspired a frenzy of competition with other countries for higher rates of success in reading achievement. Has it worked? Many are still wondering why Johnny can’t read, because there are plenty of Johnnies and Jodies who can’t.

Beyond Reading

As serious as this issue is, I see another area of concern that could have a huge effect on our country, students, and middle level education. It may not garner major concern, but it should, and it’s intricately connected to Johnny’s reading troubles:

Why can’t Johnny have the opportunity to study art, music, technology, drama, band, or any of the other electives or exploratory classes?

For many middle level students, the chance to try new subjects and classes is the main reason they love school. Electives allow students to dance, create, move, and think. Electives provide a chance to sing with a group or act out in an appropriate way (on a stage, and not in the classroom). Electives allow kids to paint, get messy, and build something with their own hands. Students have a chance to experiment and apply knowledge with hands-on projects.

As technology starts to dominate our culture and our schools—including our teaching strategies—we forget the overall importance of humanities in our society and classrooms. Just because our students are fantastic at using Google, Twitter, and iPads, that does not mean they are able to interact with each other face to face or use their heads and their hands to create and build.

There is some logic to the loss of electives. Mandates and pressures for students to score well on state, national, and international assessments prompt school leaders to pull students out of certain classes for remediation. Pulling students out of elective classes seems logical at the time. After all, the goal is to raise academic achievement—right? But, will this have an overall positive impact on that student?

Here’s what happens: We pull a student out of the elective class that is the delight of her day (probably the class wherein she has the greatest success). We send her to another class that has a stigma of being a place for struggling kids. (Yes, everybody knows why someone is sent to “those” classes!) This is disheartening and likely makes her feel further disengaged from school or the subject with which she struggles. Often this move increases behavior and attitude problems as well.

Please note: I am sure that in some schools, pulling students out of electives for remediation brings positive results. I wonder, however, how attuned most of us are to the student’s losses—loss of success, loss of interest, loss of passion, loss of self-expression, loss of relief from the struggles of other subjects—when we take away their electives.

Budget cuts and changing priorities within districts are other factors behind cuts in elective programs. Schools are forced to choose to offer classes on subjects that are tested by the all-holy mega-assessments over those that are not. When this happens, more resources are focused on such subjects as math and reading to help improve test scores. Meanwhile, other subjects are dropped or given little professional development or support.

Even if there are national and international standards for most subjects, including those subjects such as the arts and physical education, the subjects that are first in line for all kinds of support are the ones that show up on the assessments.

Fighting for Essentials

Hurray! Some middle schools are still fighting to keep electives and humanities classes alive. They are revamping the elective classes and re-writing the curriculum. These schools are looking at how individual teachers, students, parents, and school administrators view elective classes within the school and district. They are working to expand the overall elective programs. They are spending valuable resources to teach educators how to make curriculum connections between the electives and core subjects.

The good news is this: There are solutions and ideas worth discussing in order to make sure Johnny and Jodie can read—and also play an instrument, kick a ball, solve an analogy, and paint a mural.

One easy solution to reverse the decline and maintain electives within the middle school setting is to change the name “electives” to “essentials.” Let’s be honest, you can’t tell me or any other rational educator that art, music, band, physical education, choir, and consumer family studies are not essential to the lives of young adolescents.

Here’s another idea: Start by looking at and re-vamping the essential choices offered to middle level students. Maybe there are some essentials classes that are no longer relevant. Great schools are putting bright heads together and changing the essentials curriculum to meet the needs of their students now and in the future.

There are many examples of how essentials are giving students relevant, real-life learning experiences. For example, in a school outside of Philadelphia, students are working with an essentials teacher who also coordinates the area daycare center. Middle school students work with younger children while learning about childhood development, the art of play, and responsibility.

Won’t middle schools be great when classes such as robotics, aviation, modern dance, Lego building, graphic design, website design, car repair, and fashion design are available to students as part of the curriculum?

In some schools, creative staffs design three-week classes instead of getting stuck in the rut of the nine-week class! Other schools address the potential loss of essentials classes by offering mini-courses every month or every quarter. This allows students to delve into a topic or follow a passion for a short period of time while giving teachers a chance to share something with students that they know and love. Mini-courses cannot and should not replace essentials classes, but they do offer one creative way to let Johnny explore new experiences.

Mutual Support

I don’t know anyone who would disagree that essentials classes have academic value or that they can support school, state, national, and international standards. Great essentials teachers have always known that the value of these courses is the amazing educational journey and process. The end product is not what’s sacred; what matters are the learning, thinking, and growing processes that explode while students throw a pot, read music, stage a play, or design a garden.

Still, educators may have a hard time proving the validity of some essential classes. Here’s an idea to help with this dilemma: Instead of pulling a student needing remediation out of an essentials class, identify ways to use those essentials experiences to boost achievement in core areas. We can start to share data and academic trends and find strategies that will help the essentials teachers do just that!

For example, if data show that middle level students struggle with fractions and measurement in math, let’s help the essentials teachers integrate fractions and measurement into that Lego-building class. The student can stay in the class he loves—and get motivated to improve in math! And who says you can’t improve your reading in a geo-caching class? All kinds of math and reading skills can be taught or strengthened outside of math and language arts classes—if we just get flexible!

Essentials are critical to the social, emotional, physical, and intellectual well-being of young adolescents. We know that music and art increase student achievement. It’s common sense that pulling students from classes they love strikes a blow to their motivation and affects them socially and emotionally. Yet, we keep trying the same process in hopes something will change.

It’s time! It’s time to take a fresh look at our essentials classes, re-vamp or replace some of them, and start to integrate into them the skills students need for their future success.

It’s time! Take action! Defend essentials classes in your school! Do it for Johnny, Jolene, Jack, Juanita, Jasmine, Janice, Jermaine, and all the other middle level students who expect us to rise up and speak for them! Remember—without art there is no life!

Jack Berckemeyer is an author, education consultant, and frequent AMLE Conference presenter.