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As I go over the syllabus on the first day of the semester, most undergraduate pre-service teachers listen quietly and occasionally take some notes. It seems business-as-usual until I get to the explanation of the final assignment--the aesthetic representation. I see a range of reactions on my university students' faces as I explain that the final project will be an aesthetic representation of literacy.
The incorporation of the arts into any classroom can be a valuable way to go beyond traditional, linguistic-based instruction and to create multiple connections across academic disciplines (Eisner, 1997; Folsom, 2005). Artistic endeavors used to be quite common--and, at times, are still seen--in the elementary classroom. Ideally, teachers ask students to respond to literature in a variety of forms (e.g., drawing or painting favorite parts of stories, creating shoebox dioramas, responding to literature through poetry, dramatizing literature through Readers Theater). When reading children's books such as Green Eggs and Ham (Suess, 1988) or Stone Soup (Brown, 1997), teachers may engage in the culinary arts with their students by preparing dishes related to the story. Unfortunately in today's educational climate, these opportunities involving the use of art in the classroom are increasingly seen as immaterial or as a luxury that schools can no longer afford in an ever-growing push for meeting academic standards.
These criticisms fail to recognize that the incorporation of the arts in the classroom not only feeds creative thinking, but also promotes academic rigor (Eisner, 1997). Artistic endeavors are critical for students to express learning and understandings of literacy. In that regard, it is essential that pre-service teachers engage in and comprehend how to incorporate the arts into their educational practices. As the current educational climate often does not support this integration of arts into the curriculum, pre-service teachers are often not provided with opportunities in their field work to experience arts-based means to express academic understandings, such as aesthetic representations (the focus of this article). The responsibility becomes that of the pre-service teacher preparation program to expose students to the process, thereby modeling the importance of fostering creative thinking and allowing students to use a variety of learning styles to express understanding. By emphasizing the role of the arts in elementary teacher preparation programs, future teachers are introduced to a critical avenue that allows students to acquire a more in-depth relationship to the academic content, to strengthen comprehension, and to experience the arts integrated into the curriculum (Eisner, 1997).
This article explores a group of six pre-service teachers' expressions of literacy through aesthetic representations. First, we provide a brief review of the most pertinent literature regarding how literacy and the arts have been linked in educational studies. Second, we provide an overview of our study. Next, we describe three themes that emerged from the data: (1) connections to literacy through aesthetic representations, (2) the process that pre-service teachers went through in order to create their aesthetic representations, and (3) how the aesthetic representations informed their own professional practice. Lastly, we discuss how using aesthetic representations in the classroom has enriched understandings and expressions of literacy while allowing us, as university professors, to differentiate for individual students' needs, strengths, and interests. Implications will be addressed in relation to both teacher education and elementary education practices.
Literature Review: Ways of Knowing and Understanding
In her study of four pre-service teachers and their reflection process, Ostorga (2006) concluded that critical, reflective thinking "cannot be taught through a few simple techniques but requires education that transforms the preservice teachers' ways of knowing" (p.19). Short, Kauffman, and Kahn (2000) also discuss the importance of having students' learning experiences incorporate "multiple ways of knowing--the ways in which humans share and make meaning, specifically through music, art, mathematics, drama, and language" (p. 160). Just as there are multiple ways of knowing, students best demonstrate this learning in many different ways (Tomlinson, 1999). Students learn best when a variety of strategies are used that tap into their Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1999), funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Gonzalez et al., 1997; Velez-Ibanez & Greenberg, 1992), interest areas, and learning styles (Tomlinson, 1999). Teachers who acknowledge and actively engage these various ways of knowing tend to differentiate their teaching and their classroom environments. Tomlinson (1999) identifies three areas in which teachers may differentiate instruction: content, process, and product. By inviting students to use aesthetics as a means to express their connections to academic content, each of their processes and, ultimately, their products are as different as the individuals who create them.
Sidelnick and Svoboda (2000) underscore the benefits of incorporating multiple ways of knowing in relation to student motivation. Students not only seem to be motivated by the use of art, but often feel less threatened due to the fact that the fear of failure may be minimized (Dean & Gross, 1992). Beyond differentiation and motivation, another reason to include aesthetics in our teaching practice is to build strong academic connections and cognitive learning (Folsom, 2005). Academic learning can be increased with hands-on experiences of art. Eisner (1997) claims that there is a two-fold aim in education for students to be both well-informed and critical thinkers:
We would like our children to be well informed--that is, to understand ideas that are important, useful, beautiful, and powerful. And we also want them to have the appetite and ability to think analytically and critically, to be able to speculate and imagine, to see connections among ideas, and to be able to use what they know to enhance their own lives and to contribute to their culture. (p. 349)
Through the development of aesthetic representations, students understand that their ideas are both important and powerful. Additionally, they see personal connections to literacy and begin to imagine and speculate beyond the given curriculum. Using aesthetic representations in connection with course content is clearly a way to incorporate more analytical and critical thinking into a teacher preparation program while, at the same time, differentiating methodology, motivating all learners, and reducing the element of failure.
Within this article, we specifically use the conceptualization of "aesthetic representations" which require pre-service teachers to engage in a process that attends to both productive and responsive components. Kemple and Johnson (2002) explain that:
the productive component corresponds to creative expression or the act of putting things (ideas, materials, sounds, etc.) together in a novel way that has personal meaning and personal purpose ... The responsive component encompasses appreciation of natural beauty, appreciation of the arts, and forming judgments and preferences concerning aesthetic productions. (p.211)
Through productive and responsive components, students engage in creation and judgment--the two highest levels in the revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). This alignment supports Eisner's (1997) notion that using aesthetic representation adds the academic and cognitive rigor we desire for our students. Drawing …