Features & Columns

Return of the Renaissance

Coding can wait-how Silicon Valley schools are teaching kids to dream
Students are better prepared for the future when teachers emphasize creativity in the classroom. Photo by Greg Ramar

Oscar Pangilinan vies for the attention of more than dozen rambunctious fourth- and fifth-graders, who have gathered for an after-school class at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School southeast of downtown San Jose, near the Happy Hollow Zoo. Today, he is having students build their own instruments. There's a drum made of an oatmeal can and balloons; a pan flute of drinking straws and tape; and a harp fashioned out of a shoebox, rubber bands and a pencil.

Sound, he reminds the class, is caused by vibration, and that vibration is carried through the air to the ear. "Can you hear sound in space?" he asks the students."No!" comes the resounding, unanimous reply.

A casual eavesdropper might assume this is a science class. And it is. But it's also a music class, a design class and a course in critical thinking. Pangilinan uses hands-on lessons and the Socratic teaching method to relay scientific concepts.

Scenes like these have become increasingly common across Silicon Valley, as strapped districts turn to nonprofits and private contractors to help bring the arts—after years of cutbacks and deprioritization—back to public school classrooms.

A student of literature might call this newfound emphasis on classroom creativity poetic justice. Over the past decade—as politicized educational initiatives pushed increased math and science competency—music and art programs have suffered.

"Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?" Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, once asked, before answering himself, dismissively. "I don't think so."

Even President Barack Obama got in on the humanities-bashing with his 2014 quip: "I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

However, critics now argue that by going all-in for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, we're in danger of producing fewer citizens capable of applying their book smarts in the creation of the next great app or medical discovery. It's not enough to get the children interested in rocket science at an early age, if they don't have the ability to dream about life on Mars.

Renaissance Return
The world's best and brightest often possess by an aptitude for both scientific thought and creative expression. Leonardo Da Vinci was not only a great painter, but also an inventor and futurist. Steve Jobs, the patron saint of Silicon Valley, was not simply a savvy marketer with an affinity for computers. He had a keen eye for typography and product design and an understanding of the power of music to bring people together—and entice them to buy his devices.

Over the past half-decade or so, educators and policymakers who seemingly forgot the importance of creativity have come to their senses—inserting an "A," for "arts," into the STEM acronym. Now, in the twilight of 2016, it appears teachers, school boards and educators everywhere are striving to once again create a generation of Renaissance individuals.

Pangilinan, a Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and self-proclaimed "science geek," is the ideal candidate to teach in this ecosystem. A modern day Renaissance man, the class he teaches at Kennedy is part of the San Jose Jazz-run Progressions program, which targets students in the Franklin-McKinley School District. The goal of Progressions is to help children learn to play music, while also developing social skills and habits of responsibility.

"A thoughtful music education program can advance other academic objectives," says Brendan Rawson, executive director of San Jose Jazz, speaking on the benefits of the Progressions curriculum.

According to Rawson, the evidence-based and highly structured programs San Jose Jazz provides to local schools are intended to help the kids develop a multitude of skills outside of the obvious—everything is covered, from learning to care for their instrument to showing up on time to violence prevention.

"We're looking to educate the whole citizen," Rawson says.

Pangilinan is confident that he is doing just that, helping his students make connections between science and math, as well as other subjects. As he tells it, music was his gateway to an appreciation of science.

"I was always fascinated by the different kinds of instruments," Pangilinan says, explaining how he first came to realize the difference between reed and brass instruments. "Why does the alto sax sound the way it does?" he recalls asking. "I started with the why."

Years later, in college, Pangilinan learned how each class of instrument produces and modulates sound and he was immediately engrossed. He developed a deeper appreciation for musical instruments and the underlying technology. Picking up a trumpet, he demonstrates its mechanics.

"It's a very high-precision thing," Pangilinan says, pressing each valve of the shiny brass horn, before launching into a detailed explanation of how the many parts work together to produce a wide range of tones. The exercise of building a shoebox harp, or cobbling together a drinking straw pan flute, gets the kids "thinking about the world around them."

While the children in Pangilinan's class are quite young, they seem to understand that the lessons learned from one exercise may apply to things to come. Tuan, one of the boys in class, says he's interested in studying physics when he gets to high school. He also dreams of becoming a composer.

"I know what goes up must come down," he says, flashing a grin.

Teaching to the Test
Stem has been fashionable since the mid 2000s. And though its roots can be traced back to the mid-1980s, as well as the post-Sputnik wake-up call of the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union embarrassed the United States with the first satellite launch, the prioritization of science and math in American schools at the expense of music and art reached new heights under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The legislation passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2002. It was born out of much hand-wringing—on the left and the right—that American students were falling behind their counterparts in other industrialized countries, especially in technical disciplines.

In 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a comprehensive international study of academic achievement across the globe. The Program for International Student Assessment—PISA—looked at performance in multiple subjects but focused on reading and literacy in its first year, math in 2003 and science in 2006. American students performed around the OECD average in reading, the first study found; the second two surveys, however, determined that the U.S. was performing below global averages—trailing behind the bulk of countries studied in the subjects of math and science.

Reacting to the 2000 OECD findings, No Child Left Behind offered financial incentives to schools that improved student understanding of core concepts. In a 2001 speech touting the new law, Bush vowed social promotion would no longer be tolerated. Academic performance was to be determined through rigorous scientific testing. Funding would be withheld from schools that did not meet the federally mandated improvement milestones.

As a result, what was meant to create better and brighter students actually led to a glut of standardized tests, critics argue. Furthermore, as minimum requirements for these standardized test scores rose, and with big bucks on the line for schools that didn't meet those rising targets, educators went into overdrive preparing their students for standardized tests. Schools began prioritizing reading comprehension, persuasive writing, science and math over all other subjects—allowing non-core curricula, including physical education and the arts, to fall to the wayside.

"Music and arts programs traditionally have been early cuts when a school is facing budget challenges," Rawson says. The law only exacerbated this tendency—especially in poorer neighborhoods—as funding-hungry districts have been quick to place subjects like band, theater and art on the chopping block in order preserve math and science courses, while wealthier communities are able to turn to private boosters to maintain such programming.

A 2010 study by Purdue University supports Rawson's claim. In "No Child Left Behind: A Study of its Impact on Art Education," Robert F. Sabol, an art education professor at Purdue University, surveyed K-12 and higher ed art educators around the country. The consensus was that NCLB had hindered their ability to teach—with nearly half reporting that their funding had been cut and the vast majority complaining of increased workload.

Professional musician and self-described "science geek" Oscar Pangilinan helps a group of students make a pan flute out of drinking straws. Photo by Greg Ramar

The same year as the Purdue study, Obama picked up where his predecessor left off, pushing forward with his Common Core Standards. The standards were meant to increase preparedness among students on the college track, as well as ensure that every high school graduate would be ready to enter the 21st century workforce. The first states to adopt the Common Core did so in the summer of 2010.

Locally, the Common Core's emphasis on teaching 21st-century skills led to school boards approving the integration of high tech educational tools. Google dished out grants to school districts around Silicon Valley, including the Mountain View Whisman School District—located right in Google's backyard. Facebook got in the action as well, donating money and laptops to schools in neighboring East Palo Alto.

Riding the wave of excitement over the potential for new technologies to augment instruction, Salman Khan launched his wildly successful YouTube-based education platform, Khan Academy—and it's no coincidence Khan's first lessons were in mathematics, the backbone of Silicon Valley's computing economy.

Pair all of this with the Bay Area's post-recession technology boom, which made millionaires and billionaires out of 20-somethings and raised rents to record levels all over the region. The takeaway couldn't have been clearer: if you want to work in the service industry, keep reading Hawthorne; if you want the big bucks, learn to code.

Chris Reed runs Arts Initiative, a small music-education business that brings music instruction into South Bay classrooms similar to San Jose Jazz and the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View. He often wonders whether kids, especially in Silicon Valley, are being pushed too forcefully into the narrow fields of science, engineering and mathematics.

"I think in this area, it's very one sided," Reed says. "We're pushing programming and coding at such a young age, making kids feel like they have to oversaturate themselves so much. I have kids that are as young as fourth grade who will tell me: 'This is good for college.'"

Much like Pangilinan, Reed has an interest in a variety of subjects, though his career path more closely resembles the scrappy garage startup culture. Reed has no formal college education and is a self-taught musician. He's played in multiple local bands and recently co-founded San Jose Presents, a local live music production company, which earlier this month hosted a highly attended show at the newly opened Forager space in San Jose's SoFA District. In short, he knows how to hustle.

"At one point I think I had nine jobs," he laughs.

Reed founded Arts Initiative with his father, who worked much of his life as a full-time music teacher in local public schools. When he was younger, Reed would help his father teach courses, and when funding cuts led to a dearth of full-time work, the pair realized they could still sell their services to local districts, as schools couldn't keep a music teacher on salary with benefits but could afford to hire a contractor.

As a working musician, Reed enjoys the gig. But he's also pleased to know that music is still finding its way into local schools.

"We all have different ways of learning," he says. "Our school system only teaches to one or two types of kids. It's standardized. But that doesn't mean it works for everybody." As a tactile learner and someone who struggled in school, Reed empathizes with the challenges many kids face.

In an effort to reach the students who fall outside the reach of written and verbal lessons, he has used popular songs like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" to teach history lessons, written songs to unpack fractions and other math concepts. "I've even gone as far as doing songs that are straight-up science lessons," Reed says. "Music is just such a powerful tool for remembering things."

His greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that kids are still receiving access to creative outlets through their schools.

"The only way I really graduated high school was through theater," Reed says. The stage provided a vital release valve for the roller coaster of emotions he felt after the death of his brother.

We already have plenty of "worker bees," he says. "It's important to keep culture alive."

A Deeper Understanding
It's a 30-minute drive from Kennedy to Landels Elementary School in Mountain View, where instructors with the Community School of Music and Arts spend several hours each week teaching fifth-graders. Part of a partnership between the Mountain View Whisman School District and the CSMA, the classes are taught during normal school hours, which means the kids don't have to come early, stay late, or pay any extra to attend.

The day after the 2016 election, children in Patricia Bosio de Galazzo's class are coloring silently, while a nearby class practices counting quarter notes out on their stringed instruments.

De Galazzo, who has been teaching in the district for 21 years, says the CSMA courses are an indispensable addition to the curriculum. Over the course of her career, which began in 1995, de Galazzo has seen arts education ebb and flow at the elementary level, and she's glad to see her current class engaged in the CSMA's classes.

"I think we live in a very creative area, where thinking out of the box is important," she says. "Art is a metaphor for reality." Through studying music and art, she continues, her students gain valuable perspectives into other cultures and time periods. "Art is the window into that world."

Teacher Arlene Bautista says that CSMA programs not only give her time to take care of administrative tasks while the children learn from qualified music teachers, but the lessons of Baucus, Seiberlich and Shulenberger also pay dividends in her math class. Fifth-graders dig deep into fractions, Bautista says, and learning to read music helps students keep time and wrap their minds around the numbers. "It kind of makes it more tangible to them," Bautista says.

On the other side of the Landels campus, in a large multipurpose room, several groups of fifth-graders practice on their reed, woodwind and brass instruments. They're led by three professional musicians and CSMA employees: Robert Baucus leads the reeds, Jonathan Seiberlich is on brass and Kathleen Shulenberger handles the flutes.

Before breaking off to work with her little flautists, Shulenberger praises the CSMA's efforts to expand the children's worldview. "We get to show them there are so many different ways to be successful."