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Appendix II

Notes from Shutesbury, MA

Ron Berger's public elementary school in Shutesbury is an arts-integrated school. Curriculum is project-based. No textbooks are used. The townspeople strongly support the approach, because the results are so outstanding. High standards prevail throughout.

A summary of Ron's remarks made May 18th follow:

The school represents a different notion, or approach to education- namely, that the arts can provide the basic structure for the knowledge students are learning, and for showing what they know. The arts are an incredible tool for "ratcheting up" the quality of work, and standards in a school. It shows in the discipline kids develop, and in their learning.

There are five main points of emphasis in the school:


  1. Poor quality work is not acceptable. Kids are expected to work on draft after draft-perhaps 15 versions of a drawing, map, or illustration, with each draft an improvement. The kids have fewer final products than other schools, but what they have is high quality work, and something of value, of which they can be proud. The process of continuous work and improvement engenders pride in kids-it changes the notion of who they are. They realize they can do something of quality.

  2. The arts-based approach allows a "structure of critique," as critique is a tradition in the arts. There are no hurt feelings, as it is part of the normal process. Once kids learn models of critique through the arts, they begin to start thinking differently, and to apply it to other areas of their life-with parents, and the principal. In the classroom Ron asks students for critique of his own performance as teacher.

  3. The tradition of the master teacher not as expert, but as the leader of inquiry, is followed. The arts reflect the tradition of continuous learning. The teacher is not expected to be the expert. Experts are brought in to the class periodically, to illuminate certain areas of study. Ron is not the expert, but the master teacher.

  4. The arts tradition of exhibition is followed. If in the arts it was all practice, and no recital, no one would work hard, or care. But in most schools that is all children do-practice. If, on the other hand, everything they do will be exhibited, then they begin to care very much indeed.

  5. Finally, the arts' tradition of keeping work in a portfolio is followed. Once a portfolio "culture" has been established, kids develop a need for evidence. "Where is your evidence, your portfolio?" Is the question. Evidence fits scientific inquiry but fits well in the arts as well.

Ron's school is entirely arts infused and hasn't issued grades in 20 years. The townspeople (penny-pinching Yankees) are so taken aback by the quality of the work, there is complete support for the approach. The kids in town love to go to school.

Each child in the upper grades (4, 5, 6) has a younger partner that they watch over, and take care of. The school is filled with art supplies. No textbooks are used; the entire curriculum is project based Everything the kids do is documented. Multiple drafts of work are expected, with critique sessions from fellow students.

When exhibition time come, the kids dress up, and speak to the community about their projects.

The children are taught to trace, and to diagram, in two and three dimensions. (Tracing is a technique of the graphic arts. From it all children can learn to produce beautiful, individual work in a matter of weeks). Architectural models are built to scale. Real architect "experts" are consulted.

One project at the school is to invent a person that doesn't exist, and then invent, and describe his/her life-the family tree, and events like weddings and birthdays. An entire book is developed about this fictitious individual- including the wedding invitation, newspaper ads about the person's business, birth certificates, a model of the first tooth lost, an architectural model of where he/she lives, built to scale. (One student this year became so proficient in model building, he served as the school expert/ consultant.)

One fictitious character had a brother in jail, so the student studied jails to be able to draw a jail living environment.

Ron is an Outward Bound enthusiast, so he takes his class on actual cave trips before there is a class project to draw caves. (The same approach used by Stephen Edelglass in his experiential, "Goethean" science to integrate percept with concept). Novels like Tom Sawyer are read to go along with the cave project. Another project is to make jewelry from stones, that first have to be polished. This is how geology is learned. Then the jewelry is sold in a store the kids run. The cost of the project was $600-the kids made $1,000 from their jewelry the first day the store opened! heir jewelry the first day the store opened!


In Ron's school the older kids read books to the younger kids. In his class there are 31 kids, all the way from gifted, to serious special needs. Every child is expected to perform to high standards.

To graduate from elementary school, each child presents a portfolio of his work to a "jury" of junior high teachers. (Ron showed a videotape of one students astonishing, poised performance of "signing"-the language of the deaf.) His students from that point on never need additional coaching in drafting, learning, or writing. Why? Because they have embedded in their experience, the artistic structure which provides a continuing basic structure for the knowledge which they will continue to absorb, in high school and in life. They are interested, continuous learners.

Ron's school is a living, real world example of how to motivate a child to learn more about self and world, after formal school is over.

This is a brief description of the program. There's a longer article by Ron Berger at this website.


Copyright © 1997 CABC
Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum

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