It’s lunchtime at Gess Elementary, and music drifts down the hallways from the music room, where students have chosen to give up a lunch recess to practice guitar and vocals under the direction of Music Specialist Chris Carpenter.
At Jenkins High School, zero-hour gifts the ear with jazz, produced by high school students so dedicated to music that they’re willing to get themselves to school long before the morning bell rings.
At a time when many districts have cut instruction in the arts to the bare minimum, Chewelah School District’s directors, staff, students and parents have chosen to demonstrate commitment rather than compliance. The District’s arts program complements instruction in core subjects and provides opportunities for students to experience a broad array of music, dance, theatre, and fine arts activities.
Students’ first big encounter with the arts occurs in kindergarten and first grade with the production of an annual class play in the spring that helps these very young students develop an understanding of how the many different forms of art can come together. Their plays are often musicals, directed in tandem by Elementary Music Specialist Chris Carpenter and classroom teachers, who utilize classroom time, “music” time and even a few recesses to help students memorize lines, sing together on tune, perform simple dance steps and movements, and create props.
The experience is magnified at the middle school and high school levels, as students pull together the lines, props, music, sets, costumes, blocking, lighting, choreography and publicity needed for the opening of another show. By the time each opening night rolls around, they will have practiced for about 30 hours during and after school. And they will have coordinated many of the details themselves, researching costumes, creating programs, and building sets under the watchful eye of teacher Janet McLaughlin who admits that theatre is her fun. “If I wasn’t doing theatre in the evening here, I’d probably be driving to Spokane to audition for a play,” she says.
McLaughlin says she likes to involve students in different types of theatre, and usually tries to do a musical in the fall and either a comedy or serious play in the spring. Middle School students perform a social issues play, and high school students in the Advanced Drama class put on a “Song and Dance Tour” which they perform at various events around the community and at area schools.
Gess Elementary students sit spellbound when the group performs their lively assortment of song and dance routines along with snippets from Broadway Theatre productions.
Students show the same excitement when the Jenkins Middle School band and choir visits, under the direction of teacher Dave Johnstone. Gess Principal Jerry Pugh points out that many elementary students realize that in just a year, they’ll be up on stage, coaxing music from a trumpet or clarinet or beating out rhythm on the drums. Pugh notes that throughout the concerts, “Mr. Johnstone showcases specific sections of the band and highlights particular instruments. That really helps whet students’ interest in band,” he says.
Johnstone says they typically do about four concerts a year, as well as the Junior Lilac Parade and Large Group Festival in Spokane. Last year, about 50 percent of 6th graders were involved in band.
Joe Trudeau, who teaches band at the high school, believes that the music instruction students receive during their elementary years pays big dividends at the upper levels, when students start playing at games and marching in parades. “We’re lucky to have a certified music teacher in the elementary program,” he says, adding “if you cut out the beginning, it doesn’t take long for it to affect the top, at the high school, where everyone sees it.”
Trudeau is thrilled by the district’s commitment to the arts. Jazz band class, he says, is common in big schools, but rare in districts the size of Chewelah. “The proof’s in the pudding,” Trudeau says. “The district bought us new marching band uniforms. That’s a pretty significant cost and it would have been an easy thing to say no to.” And, he adds, rather than cutting sixth-grade band and theater when moving sixth grade to the elementary school, district leaders chose to accommodate both programs.
Like other Chewelah teachers, Trudeau points to research which suggests that the positive affects music has on learning in other subjects is strengthened when the music instruction begins at a younger age. Chris Carpenter, Music specialist at Gess Elementary, operates on the belief that music can help cement the concepts presented in reading, math, science and social studies. “I know what’s being taught and I try hard to augment it,” she explains, “either by embellishing existing songs or inventing new ones.”
The same theory is espoused by teachers at all levels. “The work we do in art has a lot of math, says Kia Lilley, Fine Arts Teacher at Jenkins High School. Lilley says that while interdisciplinary instruction is often intentional, it also happens when teachers note the passion that their students have for music, art, or theatre, and bring it into their classrooms.
Carpenter believes that Chewelah’s arts program also helps build healthy community connections. Students sing at the Long Term Care Center and honor veterans at the annual Veterans’ Day Assembly. Plays bring community members into the schools. And students from all levels participate in contests that showcase drawing, painting, and other art forms. Gess Teacher Dianne Kennedy coordinates student participation in the annual PTSA Reflections Fair, which fills the hallways with displays of student drawings, paintings, and other artwork. And students of all ages frequently enter the drawing contest sponsored by the Chewelah Arts Guild. “The community is very art-centered,” says Lilley.
Visual arts is a strong focus area for Jenkins Middle School (JMS) teacher Liz Tupek, who—although she is not an art teacher—regularly incorporates drawing and art into core classes. She notes that when teaching history, it’s important for students to understand how the art of a particular era is reflective of that time. Tupek says too many people are stymied by drawing, and think they just can’t do it. So she works hard to ensure that students are successful right from the start, and begins with foolproof projects. Once they’ve experienced success, they can use the different elements of art to tackle more difficult projects and finally learn how to create the likeness of a specific object.
That kind of fine-tuning occurs at the high school level, where Lilley teaches Drawing, Two-Dimensional Art, Three-Dimensional Art, and Pottery, as well as Advanced Placement classes in art. JHS Senior Raven Farneman says that the Advanced Placement art class she’s taking this fall will enable her to earn college credit for her work. “When I apply to college, they’ll be able to look at me as an artist and know I’m interested,” she says. She thinks Chewelah’s art program is amazing. “Mrs. Lilley gives me an assignment with guidelines, but lets me give it my own spin.” She says she’s also picked up a few small jobs because people know she has been enrolled in advanced art classes.
“We definitely have a fantastic arts program,” says Chewelah Superintendent Rick Linehan. “It all starts with our dedicated teachers,” he says. “They’re talented. But they’re also passionate about their subject areas, and that passion transfers to their students.”
Article Submitted By Sheryl Templeton
In This Photo: The JHS Jazz band dressed in beach attire for the 2012 Jazzin’ in the Park on May 25 at Chewelah City Park. Kellie Trudeau photo