When 30 music teachers at the recent Iowa Fine Arts Education Summit were asked if they had ever played the ukulele, only a few hands went up. But just a few minutes later, the whole group was strumming along to Lady Gaga, Bob Marley and the hard-charging solo in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” — all thanks to Scott Burstein, a Los Angeles-based director with the national nonprofit Little Kids Rock.
“Are you guys ready to rock?” he asked. “Are you ready to uke?”
Oh, yes: They were. They were also ready to teach their own students in schools across Iowa many of the other lessons from the conference Thursday at the Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny. The inaugural summit drew nearly 400 arts educators, administrators and teaching artists to learn more about the new Iowa Fine Arts Standards, which were adopted statewide in 2017.
The day-long event was collaboratively organized by the nonprofit Iowa Alliance for Arts Education, the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, to help K-12 teachers implement the standards in dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts.
The Iowa standards reflect national guidelines that offer “a clear picture of how children benefit from consistent, sequential arts education that is carefully aligned with their developmental level,” said keynote speaker Olivia Gude, an arts-education expert from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Throughout the day, teachers swapped ideas and shared examples of how they are already using the standards to enrich and enliven their lesson plans.
Nate Sletten, a band director from Lake Mills, helped his students connect their music to the broader community by presenting a patriotic program, “To Honor the Fallen and Thank the Living.” He invited local vets to speak to the marching band about their military service and then watch a half-time performance from the track.
Afterward, one vet wrote a thank-you note: “On Friday night, your performance was incredible, and it was definitely a part of my own healing process.”
Robin Spahr, the education director at the Des Moines Community Playhouse, uses theater to teach students life skills they can use no matter what careers they pursue. “Because don’t we want a doctor who knows what active listening is?” she asked. “Don’t we want a teacher who knows how to engage an audience? Or a scientist who knows how to use creative problem-solving skills?”
Ames choreographer and dance instructor Valerie Williams suggested that creativity isn’t an innate gift, as many people assume, but a skill that can be taught and trained. “Creativity and innovation are essential life skills that can be developed,” she said. “We can’t develop genius, but we can all develop something we can share with somebody else.”
At the end of the day, Iowa Alliance for Arts Education Executive Director Leon Kuehner of Hampton rallied the conference with a call to action to make arts education more accessible, with every form of art, for every student, in every corner of Iowa. He was impressed with the ways art teachers are helping students to develop job skills, learn about themselves and connect with their communities — and he urged educators to do even more.
“The energy and passion for art and arts education that’s on display today is invigorating,” he said. “It’s such a testament to your dedication to the students of Iowa.”
The next Iowa Fine Arts Education Summit is tentatively scheduled for summer 2021.
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs