Art in the Classroom: An Alternative Approach
October 2017 marked a historic milestone for German and foreign studies education in Germany. In this year, Germany accepted 10,000 students from North America and found a way to implement the arts in the classroom while also addressing an acute shortage of art teachers. My community in Salzburg, Austria, is a perfect example of how the arts can be integral to German education. We had grown accustomed to having great resources to include in German lessons. If students were assigned to paint a landscape, they were to paint a landscape. If they were asked to draw an insect, they would draw an insect. When art was not tied to lesson content, it was encouraged, not marginalized. My experience was unusual, since Europe generally has smaller classes and students have fewer opportunities to display their work in public art competitions. But in Salzburg, where art is a part of everyday life, it seemed as if students had no choice in the matter.
The Salzburg School System opened its doors in 1963 and has grown ever since. Today, there are four elementary schools, a high school, and two art centers. In this 21st century, with dozens of art schools, it would seem impossible to provide opportunities for students to display their work in an environment with this much expertise. But even Salzburg could see the value of providing support for the arts. These days, the Salzburg School System supports the theater, dancing, and acting programs throughout the school system. The original purpose of the school system was to promote German language education and German culture. The arts were always a part of their mission and to give students an opportunity to express themselves, bring new ideas, and celebrate heritage. Still, no one ever really wanted to use art as part of their German studies curriculum. But with standardized tests, “English is the Common Language,” and the German demands, this is not surprising. When I was in school, American music was not included in German lessons. It was always difficult to determine what was the appropriate balance between the actual term and music, and the recognized term and music was never considered. The young children also responded well to their teacher’s interest in poetry and language, but a teacher who leaned toward the arts was often ignored or marginalized.
Today, Germans are much more open to the arts, at least in theory. According to the 2017 Hartungsgesetz, the government survey of performance and learning, elementary students perform well on the tests and lessons are based on the German language. Meanwhile, the Salzburg School System sees its role as having all their children engaged in something beyond just a narrow knowledge of grammar. These students are engaged in full three-dimensional experiences and are doing art as part of their overall curriculum. My own child goes to the arts center at primary school. At the professional level, there are good opportunities for students to present their work in competition. In the professional world, I know of some people who were rejected because of their artistic or literary talents. But this is not a problem anymore.
The attention students receive in Salzburg School System may be unique. But I hope that other schools do not always feel this way. The engagement of students in an artistic field is rewarding and beneficial. But it seems that some schools allow the art department to feel as if they aren’t valued. It may be because some schools are afraid to push the students in this direction and others may feel that it is a lost art. I think it is important to teach students about the world around them to be open to new ideas. Life wouldn’t be the same without music, poetry, and art. It is easier to grasp abstract concepts when we experience the world through a variety of mediums. It is one thing to become obsessed with facts and figures. It is another to use your brain to cultivate new ideas, to do something you are good at, and in the process make new friends.