Art and Good Grades

by Naomi Rose, staff member, rock band director.

right brain left brain

I was a one of those students that excelled in elementary school. I was in that ‘gifted and talented’ extra class that the ‘smart’ kids were in. 

In school, I did well on my tests and always understood my homework. My spelling was always terrible, but my vocabulary tests were always spot on. (I could understand the words - just not spell them. Ha!) 

In elementary school I created a masterpiece of a scene from the book “The Cay” where I crafted palm trees and a beach scene and the two main characters out of modeling clay my mom and I made from scratch. I made a little hut out of sticks I found outside and I made a little palm frond roof out of construction paper. It was a required project from my teacher to prove that we read the book. I still remember that book and have fond memories of it. 

Or “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”! After we read the book we created weather maps and got to videotape ourselves pretending to be meteorologists predicting what kind of weather would be coming in the next week. Pancakes and syrup rain?! Maybe! We’ll see what the blueberry breeze brings! We then studied how scientists can predict weather patterns. 

Learning math problems using gummy bears!! Heck yeah, I’m gonna do that homework. 

AND THEN. Junior high came. Everything shifted. “Wait, why am I not “smart” anymore? What happened to me? What’s wrong with me?” 

I barely got through the books we were required to read because they never came with any fun or creative activities. I’d try to find Cliff Notes or the movie adaptation of the books we were reading so I could try to comprehend what I was reading in the book in front of me. My reading comprehension was terrible. “These words are so black. These pages are so white. This feels so sterile. I’ve fallen asleep mid-paragraph. Again. I’ll have to re-read the paragraph for the fourth time, but probably still won’t understand it.”

school room

History was a NIGHTMARE. It was a ton of lecturing. Just my teacher up at the front, pacing from one end of the room to the other while he talked about who-knows-what. I was good at LOOKING like I was paying attention. I’d stare at his hair, look at his ears that I swear I could see growing from year to year…I’d wonder if he was a "real person" at home or if he was always this teachery and boring. Does he make his wife fall asleep at the dinner table? Do his kids have toys or hobbies? Or do they just sit on the couch and listen to their Dad-The-Teacher word vomit about World War 1?” I had no emotional connection to these men in history he spoke of. I didn’t relate to any of them. I bombed almost every test and only passed because I’d bring my homework home to my dad and he’d explain the stories to me in a way that made me FEEL something.

Science was hard too.  I’d bring that homework home to Mom and she’d help me study by making all the scientific terms into little songs or ‘raps’ that I could silently sing to myself while taking tests. 

I excelled at art, music, and creative writing. I just figured I was an "arty" type and wasn’t "smart" in those other subjects like math and science and history - you know - all the classes that I was told MATTERED to get into college. Great. I was screwed.

I remember there was one unit in geometry that I suddenly had an uptick in my grades, while the “smart kids” weren’t doing as well. I was so confused. “Why am I doing better at geometry than Straight-A-Kid?” It was the unit where we were learning about angles and making polyhedrons. They were those 3D origami-type shapes made out of paper that look like starbursts or pokey soccer balls. I was whipping those out like it was nothing. Glue and construction paper were my love language. “LET’S ADD RHINESTONES!” I had extra credit in the books because of all the extras I made.

Then it started to become clear to me. Once I hit junior high, the VAST majority of FUN and ART/MUSIC/CREATIVITY were taken out of learning. And when fun and art and creativity isn’t involved in learning, I don’t learn. When my emotions are not engaged, I don’t learn. If I don’t FEEL something, I don’t LEARN anything. I wasn’t dumb or stupid or slow. I KNEW I was smart. I KNEW I had the brainpower to be just as bright as Straight-A-Kid. I just needed to be taught a different way, and my teachers in most of junior high and high school wouldn’t, or couldn’t, teach me how I needed to learn. 

original newsies cast

(Credit: ©Buena Vista Pictures. Also, that's 17-year-old Christian Bale dancing in Newsies. Who would have thought he would grow up to be Batman?!)

Imitation Game, Titanic, Apollo 13, The King’s Speech, The Help, Newsies, The Sound of Music, - even though these types of movies aren’t necessarily works of non-fiction entirely, they outlined major events in our history with actors and drama and colors and emotion - ART! Watching movies like this made me understand what I was supposed to be learning in history class. They put faces to the names I had always read about, but never could remember. They put emotions behind historical events that I never comprehended.

Hamilton was my most recent history lesson. Ask me how much of that historical story I understood before watching Hamilton only a few months ago…NOT MUCH.  If you want to teach me anything, put it to music, add some color, heap on the emotions, and let me sing and dance along. I will ACE that test and I’ll probably draw some doodles to further explain myself even better in the margins of the test paper.

Art teaches strategy and problem solving in creative ways. It promotes discipline and self-worth. It provides safety and expression. It honestly makes us better people, and helps us behave better in class. It helps us actually REMEMBER the things we’re taught. Art changes pathways in your brain. This isn’t just "touchy, feely, woo woo" stuff. This is science. This is Neuroscience! Art stimulates BOTH sides of our brains. Studies show that people of all ages learn better and retain the information longer when art is involved. It decreases pain and depression. Art unlocks empathy and understanding (Lord knows we need more of that from everyone these days).

Why is art and music always the first thing to be cut from school budgets? Why do teachers have to buy their own art supplies? Why does art seem to expire in schools once kids reach a certain age? Art isn’t just for kids. It isn’t just for the "creative folks." It isn’t just for the depressed or the reclusive. It isn’t just for the troubled souls. It isn’t just for the kooky. It isn't just for the people who are GOOD at it... It’s for all of us. It’s part of our everyday life. It’s for every demographic and every skill level. 

digital art

It’s strange to me that school systems are ‘ok’ with only a handful of students being the Straight-A-Kids. And they settle for the rest of us ‘just passing.’ Why aren’t the vast majority of us Straight-A-Kids? I honestly know most of us COULD be those Straight-A-Kids if we had more art involved in learning. And I know most of us would be better human beings to each other if more art was involved in learning. Art is vital to our existence and growth as a society. Art is love. Art is learning.

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