Dr. Connie Corbett-Whittier’s grandfather read Beowulf as a bedtime story. It wasn’t unusual for her family to spend Saturdays at an art museum.
Art – be it painting, music, dance or drama – is integrated into the life of Dr. Corbett-Whittier, Assistant Professor of English at Friends University’s Topeka Education Center.
So it’s no small wonder that the arts have played an integral role in a three-decade-plus career that has seen her teach everyone from school kids to second-career adults.
“There is absolutely nothing that can’t be taught with art or music or drama. Even business classes, with role playing,” said Dr. Corbett-Whittier, whose Topeka role includes not only teaching in the Program for Adult College Education (PACE) but also serving as liaison to adjunct faculty.
“I teach the composition course. I make them write short stories and act them out. They’re horrified at first, but then they have such fun,” said Dr. Corbett-Whittier.
Recently, she wrote about how Topeka fourth-grade teacher Leah Anderson uses music, drama and other arts to deliver all the math, English, science and social studies required by standardized testing.
Anderson’s students at Lowman Hill Elementary learn and succeed because she plays to their strengths and curiosities. And because they’re having fun.
Dr. Corbett-Whittier’s study of the Topeka students’ work on a unit on Australia makes up half of a chapter published earlier this year in Focus on Literacy: Effective Content Teachers for the Middle Grades. The book by the Association for Childhood Education International contains many examples of how to teach reading, writing and communication within math, science and other subjects, not just English.
“Music and art are all about math. The visual arts are angles. Music is more than just being able to tap your feet. You have to know about math to write music,” she said.
How things work together is why multidimensional approaches can work. Students move and see instead of glazing over from “drill and kill” lectures.
Dr. Corbett-Whittier learned of Anderson through Anderson’s principal, Russ Hutchins, an adjunct faculty member at Friends University. Hutchins, she said, has a record of turning around schools using creativity and encouragement instead of a hammer.
The fourth graders studied Australia in numerous ways. Shy kids would do computer research, chasing facts as well as lyrics to indigenous songs. Math lovers calculated how long it would take to travel there. Others performed Australian songs and theater or made boomerangs. Each made a quilt square using Aboriginal symbols.
“[Anderson] uses every aspect of the arts, but making sure that all the time she’s doing every aspect of literacy and numeracy,” Dr. Corbett-Whittier said.
For the project’s conclusion, students weighed how to show off their work to parents and community members. They settled on a “wax museum,” where students froze in position until someone pushed a paper “button.” Then they recreated an Aboriginal scene or broke into song. Some prepared a brochure explaining each “wax” station.
“It was so amazingly impressive because each of those kids was so incredibly engaged,” Dr. Corbett-Whittier said. “They really know Australia and math and reading and literature and art and culture and the economy.”
That anyone can gain from such an approach is something she stresses to adult students.
“I say look around you, look at the CEOs of most companies, your bosses, even most politicians. They are well-rounded beyond their majors. That’s what allows them to be successful. You can look at the world from different perspectives and viewpoints, and that seems to make sense to them. And besides, that’s a lot more fun,” she said.