Persistence, patience, practice,
working in an ensemble, empathy,
and learning to take criticism are all
habits learned in the study of the arts.
Recently, I observed one of our music
teachers as he conducted our chamber
music students. He listened intently
to the whole group before he began
working one-on-one with individual
players. After coaching each individual,
he would turn to the rest of the group
to ask, “Do you see what I’m trying to
get Danielle to do? Do you see how her
playing must interact with all of you?
You are an ensemble, and you must lis-
ten to one another.”
He knew that each student was in
a different place in her or his growth
as a musician but that everyone was
committed to working as an ensemble.
He played on the strength of the
whole group in its common pursuit of
At one point, the teacher picked
up his own trumpet and played a few
measures with the group. The students
were clearly delighted by the sound
and energy he brought to the music.
Everyone was pushed to a higher level
by the intensity of the coaching. Everyone understood the importance of hard
work and practice. These are not just
skills for arts classes.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM KATES
Students crave opportunities to figure
things out—things that matter.
and Wrong Answers
Too much of the curriculum in high
schools today is about doing well on
the test. What if arts education, with
its emphasis on process, could help us
think about not being finished instead of
In music, a continuum of growth is
expected. One doesn’t fail—one gets
better. A musician can always improve.
In dance, the willingness to fall and
recover is a common movement motif
that also applies in the academic classroom. As educators, we constantly work
to help our students take risks and
stretch and then come back to center
and be in control when necessary.
When I asked Alejandro, Darren, and
other students to define what an art-
ist is, their responses were immediate.
Alejandro said, “An artist is someone
who can move people to a different
place—in the way they feel, even if it
makes them sad or uncomfortable.”
Darren added, “An artist is someone
who can talk without using words—just
movement and sound, and sometimes
no sound. And an artist doesn’t tell you
what’s right or wrong. You have to fig-
ure it out yourself.”
All students are artists, whether they
go to an arts school or not. Students
crave opportunities to figure things
out—things that matter. In the arts,
you have to argue. You have to deter-
mine why. The arts are about judgment.
As my students say, “Art makes my
head hurt because there isn’t one right
Boston Arts Academy students are
learning in an environment where they
are taught to ask questions, required to
create solutions to multiple problems,
and urged to work collaboratively. Our
students’ and teachers’ immersion in the
arts creates what theorists call disruptive
innovation (Christensen, Horn, & John-
son, 2008). Artistic explorations are
loaded with What if we;.;.;.;? and How
could we;.;.;.;? Such questions make us
think beyond the walls that constrict us
and push us to think about solutions.
That orientation can be liberating and
even life-saving for students like Darren
and Alejandro. ;L
Christensen, C., Horn, M., & Johnson, C.
(2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive
innovation will change the way the world
learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving
from the information age to the conceptual
age. New York: Penguin.
Linda Nathan is co-headmaster of the
Boston Arts Academy and founder of
the Center for Arts in Education, Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author
of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the
Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban
School (Beacon Press, 2010); lnathan@