By Plato Karafelis, Ph. D. & Matthew Dicks “The truth is one, the paths are many” Swami Satchidinanda

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Arts Education in an Era of Accountability:

Lessons Learned on the Front Lines of Change

By Plato Karafelis, Ph.D. & Matthew Dicks
The truth is one, the paths are many”

- Swami Satchidinanda

There’s a new sheriff in town!

September 1988
“Holy Mother of Mercy! We’re going to have to talk to one another!” exclaimed Dennis, a gruff but gentle veteran teacher. The chairs were arranged in a circle as the teachers entered the library for the first staff meeting of the year. I was surrounded by a veteran staff of traditional teachers. Change was not their forte. No one was amused.

“Good morning,” I said with youthful enthusiasm. “Welcome back. I promise that this will be an exciting year for you and the kids.”


Move along, Plato, you’re losing them already’, I thought.

“Does anyone here remember the old radio programs?”

“You mean like, The Shadow?” asked Margo.

“Lamont Cranston. That was his real name.” added another teacher.

“I liked Fibber McGee and Molly.”

“And how about the feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen?”

I allowed them to reminisce for awhile. They began to loosen up. At this point, I pulled a box out from behind my chair.

As I pushed the box to the center of the circle, I said, “This box is filled with the type of sound effect instruments they used on those programs.” They leaned forward. Over the next 15 minutes I pulled all manner of sound making devices out of the box. They reacted gleefully as each one was sounded. They reached out to hold and play the instruments. More memories were unleashed, like the time Fibber opened his closet and everything fell out.

“They did that with sound effects! Radio was so much better than TV. It forced you to use your imagination.”

Everyone nodded.

The time was right to move on.

“Does anyone know who Isaac Bashevis Singer was?” I asked. Catatonic stares. They looked at me with uncertainty. They looked at each other with uncertainty. Finally, one of the teachers, who happened to be Jewish, answered with pride in her voice.

“Isaac Bashevis Singer was a writer. He wrote about life in small Jewish villages in Russia called shtetles. He won the Nobel Prize for literature!”

“That’s right! I thought we would start today by reading a very short play based on one of his stories. The play is called ‘Herschel gets a Meal’. It is only one page long.”

Uncertainty returned. This time it was joined by discomfort approaching panic. Finally, Dennis said, “Let’s give the kid a break. I’ll read a part.” He then cajoled a couple of his cronies into joining him.

It only took a minute or two to read the play, and since the play is mildly funny, the experience was somewhat pleasant.

“Let’s try it again. Only this time, let’s do it in the style of an old radio play. Who would like to play a sound effect instrument?”

They fought like children.

“I want the one that makes the slapping sound!”

“I want the one that opens and closes the door.”

Within minutes we had created a throwback masterpiece. The teachers laughed when a sound effect was late or someone dropped one. The iron was hot and once again, it was time to strike.

“Who do you think is the antagonist in this play?” This question elicited considerable debate. One camp thought Herschel was the antagonist. Another group was firmly behind the Innkeeper and his wife.

“The play is very short. Why don’t we try it both ways and see which one feels better?” Herschel seemed to be gaining the edge.

Then one teacher playfully said, “I think the narrator is the antagonist!” So we played it that way to many laughs and much applause.

Dennis proclaimed, “I haven’t laughed this hard at a faculty meeting in years.”

That was my cue. I called the group to order.

“Was this fun?”


“Did you learn about Isaac Bashevis Singer?”

They sounded a chorus of acknowledgement and appreciation for the gift of a new author.

“Was it fun to explore the protagonist - antagonist relationship?”

Once again, they issued a chorus of assent.

“Did you learn something new today?”


“Do you think kids would have enjoyed this?” I asked.

“Oh yes, they love to act!”

“They love to move around.”

“They would love those sound effects!”

“Great, because this is the way we are going to teach at this school from now on.”

Stunned silence.

“Don’t worry though. It will take time. I understand that. Those of you who feel comfortable with this concept will help others. If you are willing and able, everything will be fine. If you are willing but feel unable, I will help you. If you are unwilling, if you are diametrically opposed to this approach, you will need to think about your future, because Wolcott School may not be the place for you. This is a new beginning.”

Two years after that first staff meeting of 1988, this group of traditional, senior teachers, who had not changed their teaching style in 20 years were honored by the State Department of Education and The Commission on the Arts as Connecticut’s Exemplary School of the Arts.
January 2007

Almost 20 years have passed since that first faculty meeting and our passion to create the most thrilling arts integrated school continues. Our greatest achievement, however, has been the ability to maintain a strong, integrated arts program in the face of high stakes testing. Because of No Child Left Behind, Wolcott School and others like us are a vanishing breed. Connecticut adopted high stakes testing in 1987 and over the years, we have developed effective strategies that have helped us level the “arts and academics” playing field and maintain our focus on extensive arts integration. We hope this article will offer guidance to others who share the goal of arts integrated schools.

Five Lessons Learned on the Front Lines
We are career public school educators. As practicing professionals with many years of experience on the front lines of arts education, we offer the five lessons:

  • Use the arts to celebrate each child’s powerful voice

  • Connect the arts and the academics

  • Focus on leadership

  • Adopt a culture based approach

  • Build a sense of community

These lessons have served us well and have proven to be effective in every school that we have mentored. Although we are an elementary school, we have worked with numerous secondary schools and the strategies involved remain the same.

1. Use the Arts to Celebrate Each Child’s Powerful Voice

We believe that every child has a powerful voice. We also believe that the arts are the perfect vehicle for giving life to those voices. Therefore, we use student writing as the basis for creating art, music, theater, and dance performances as well as video presentations. Through writing and the arts, students’ thoughts and feelings are elegantly framed and shared with a wide variety of audiences. In this way, students develop a strong sense of ownership toward learning and the arts.

For example, a student writes a poem or a song in the classroom. Her teacher recognizes that it has potential and refers her to the music teacher. Working with the music teacher, the student will write lyrics, develop a melody and over a long period of time compose, produce and record an original song (Karafelis & Hugh, 1995). We then present the recorded song as a World Premiere at our weekly assembly called Town Meeting. Often, one of our dance companies will choreograph a dance to the song and several months later the song will reappear at Town Meeting as a World Premiere Dance. Typically, those lyrics were created as part of a classroom writing assignment. In this way, classroom teachers share ownership of the student voices and their artistic expression.

Town Meeting is all about student voice. Therefore, it should be no surprise that an average of 200 parents attend Town Meeting each week and occasionally, 300 – 400 parents attend. At Town Meeting, parents, students and teachers watch as student writing is interpreted via all of the art forms. All presentations/performances are limited to five minutes. In this way, parents, teachers and students are able to experience a number of student voices presented in a variety of ways. Excellence is the standard for all performances/presentations. As you can see, parents attend Town Meeting because it is all about their children’s voices. In this way, parents share ownership of the school, student voices and artistic expression.


Over the years, we have developed a number of exceptional strategies for publishing student writing (voices) for a variety of audiences and settings. We are VERY good at this and we invite you to steal all of our ideas. Go to our website to see many examples of student voices. You may also listen to one of the 250 songs our students have written over the past 15 years:

magine a second grade student watching her song performed as a dance presented by fifth graders at a whole school assembly! Imagine being that child’s parent or teacher. When we celebrate a child’s voice, that child becomes empowered. In many cases, it is the first time a child learns she has a voice. Once children have submitted a piece of writing and personally experienced the power of voice, they become repeat contributors. Over time, their written expressions (voice) develop depth and elegance. They begin to have their own ideas about which art form(s) to use and exactly how they would like their voice expressed. Every time a child’s voice is celebrated, it promotes confidence based upon competence.

When a child is celebrated at Town Meeting, the parents and extended family attend. They arrive with video cameras and flowers. Parents of non-English speaking children or low income children may not come to the school often; however, they always show up when their child is celebrated. One Friday, a Hispanic boy was scheduled to read his poem to the school at Town Meeting. His entire extended family arrived at the school dressed to the nines. There must have been 20 people in their group. They were all so proud. Each of the teachers greeted the family and told them what a wonderful student he was. The family understood that we valued their child as much as they did. When parents understand that we value their child, they begin to show up at other times too, e.g. parent conferences and school events. In addition to valuing their child, they understand that we also value their culture. How important does that make a child and a family feel? By celebrating each child’s powerful voice, we also celebrate the diversity of the student population in an authentic manner.

By validating the child, we have built allegiance to our school and our arts integration model. The pre-school sibling who attends Town Meeting to see her older sister’s world premiere song learns to love Wolcott School long before she begins Kindergarten. The grandparents, who are on fixed income and sometimes question school budgets, willingly advocate for our school and vote for funding. The parents are always thankful and tell us how much they appreciate our school. They are willing advocates. Equally important, they are vocal, voting advocates.

Teachers, parents, and kids love our school with a passion that is difficult to adequately express. During the summer, kids ride their bikes to the school and ask if they can walk around the building. I ask them why and they tell me they can’t wait until school begins in September. It is because of the shared belief, indelibly etched on our office window, which states:

In this school, we believe in celebrating each child’s powerful voice.”
Those eleven words elegantly express our school mission. It is the goal to which teachers, parents and students have dedicated themselves day in and day out. Celebrating each child’s powerful voice is the glue that binds us all together.
2. Connect the Arts and the Academics

The public, many classroom teachers and administrators believe that the arts and academics are mutually exclusive. That is, if you are teaching the arts, you are taking time away from the academics. We ask the reader to accept that this perception exists and be ready to move forward with a plan.

We believe in art for art’s sake. The intent of this section of the article, however, is to build a case for connecting the arts and the academics. If we hope to maintain a strong role within the public schools, the arts community must develop more effective strategies for changing the perception of the arts and academics as mutually exclusive.

When we first adopted our school vision to celebrate each child’s powerful voice, the initial question was, “How do we get their voices?” The second question was, “How do we get classroom teachers to buy into the model?” We would need the support of classroom teachers if we had any hope of establishing an authentic, culture based, school-wide arts integration model.

We answered both questions with a single solution. Classroom teachers teach writing. It is one of their core curricular areas. It is assessed on the state mastery test. Writing is also an art form that students could use to express their voice. So, we set up a mailbox in the lobby. We called it The Magical Mailbox. We told teachers that we wanted their students to submit their best writing to The Magical Mailbox. We told students that we wanted to hear from them about the things that they were thinking or feeling.

We established standards for the writing that was submitted to the mailbox. We wanted their voice to be loud and clear in the writing. The writing had to reflect the student’s best effort and be well presented. Writing that was sloppy or incoherent would be returned. A student editorial board was established to evaluate the writing and determine the venue for publication, presentation or performance.

As students were celebrated, teachers began to assume ownership of the model. When a child’s voice was celebrated at Town Meeting, we made a conscious effort to also recognize that child’s classroom teacher. As a result, we now receive over 3,000 pieces of writing in the Magical Mailbox each year. The writing is submitted by all of our students at every grade level. Every written piece is published, performed, or presented before an audience.

Student writing is easily linked to all academic areas. Here are two pieces that are rooted in math concepts. We receive many pieces covering every genre and curriculum area; however, these two represent a clear connection between arts and academics. The first piece, Radius was presented as a dance through a technique we call performance poetry. The second piece, Place Value on Trial was submitted as a theater script. Please note that in each case the author had to have a clear understanding of the mathematical concept in order to write the piece.


By Tracey Prendergast, Grade 6
I am a radius, because I only show

One half of my real self.

The world influences me.

Sometimes I feel as if someone

Is dividing me up

Trying to make a new object out of me.

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