While Michigan is not always known as a leader in innovative arts education, there is one particularly effective model benefitting students in nine public school districts in Kalamazoo County: the Aesthetic Education Program (AE). AE develops the perceptual abilities of students in visual and performing arts through greater understanding of art forms, insights into how artists make choices and how these understandings relate to other aspects of life.
The program was initially developed at Lincoln Center Institute in New York more than 30 years ago. The Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA) became an AE affiliate 12 years ago, and today, is one of the few remaining affiliates left in the country and the only left in Michigan.
Nick Mahmat is AE’s program coordinator. He noted a few reasons why the program is particularly effective: the structure of the program, the quality and diversity of the art offered to schools and the experiential workshops used to prep the students first to see the art. Workshops are jointly designed by a professional teaching artist and an AE-trained classroom teacher.
“The program’s aim is not to create an artist,” Mahmat said. “It focuses on how to view and engage in works of art. The classroom teacher and the teaching artist view the works of art and look at the ideas the artist is exploring and design a line of inquiry that acts as a framework for the lesson.”
Nancy Haas, former principal of Portage Moorsbridge Elementary and current director of curriculum for Portage public schools, has been involved with AE for 11 years. Haas noted that some of the best success stories come from children who wouldn’t be considered traditionally “book smart.”
“All students will feel success in this program, because it’s the process of looking at art and exploring. It helps develop students’ critical thinking skills, and teachers who are trained to use these guided teaching techniques can apply that strategy to any other program,” Haas said.
Many parents have seen the critical thinking skills the children are learning and are beginning to request AE-trained teachers.
“Because it is so much about creating and exploring and reflecting, kids get good at answering open-ended questions and forming a conclusion. A lot of critical-thinking skills are developed that go across curriculum,” said Mahmat. “Science teachers remark that the AE questioning technique of ‘describe, analyze and interpret’ is similar to the scientific method, and language arts teachers will comment on how much it supports writing and builds the students’ abilities to summarize, take a stance and support with evidence.”
Participating schools are offered a selection of about eight to 12 music theater or dance productions or works of visual art to choose from each year.
One notable trait of the KRESA program is the diversity of schools participating in AE. The nine districts within the Kalamazoo area constitute a mix of urban, suburban and rural schools, all at different socioeconomic levels.
“We want our children to have an appreciation for the world,” Haas said. “No matter where you live, there’s art around you.”
Currently in Kalamazoo County there are more than 220 teachers trained to use AE, and there are approximately 4,000 students who participate annually.
While it seems remarkable that the KRESA program is one of the few remaining affiliates in the country, Mahmat indicated that Kalamazoo is fortunate because it is a community that has a lot of support for the arts, both general support and philanthropic. Mahmat also noted the 10 superintendents in the region have made it a point to make art education a priority.
“The superintendents are committed to making opportunities in the arts available to students,” he said.
And that has made all the difference in making the program a success.