Putting the A in STEAM, part 1: the Myth of Expertise

When I started using music and the other arts to help my Title-1 students in LAUSD learn science and math 25 years ago, I hadn’t heard about STEAM yet; I’m not even sure STEM was a thing back then. Now that it’s trendy and more of the muckity-mucks are saying everyone should be doing this (sometimes I even get paid as a guest lecturer on the subject), teachers are rightly asking how we can add one more thing to the long list of subjects they need to know all about. We already expect our teachers to be therapists, social workers, yard monitors, parenting consultants, sports coaches, first-aid technicians, stand-up comedians, drill sergeants, crisis-intervention specialists, and am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, experts on a curriculum that keeps changing with the tides. And now we want every teacher to be an expert dancer, musician, painter, and playwright?

Well, no. One of the greatest and most destructive myths about the arts is that you need to be an expert for the arts to be worthwhile. Imagine if we took that attitude toward, say, golf. As I am sure you do, I know people who love to play golf. I honestly cannot figure why, but leave that alone for now; the point is, very few people will ever play golf at a professional level. My friends know this, and yet they keep playing golf anyway. Maybe they know playing golf at a professional level only matters if your “golf goal” is to make money. So, do you love playing golf? Fine, go do it and have fun.

With the arts, though, we take the perverse attitude that if you’re not very good at whatever you do then you ought to do the world a favor and stop doing it. You’re not a good dancer? Sit down. Tone-deaf? Be quiet and let the “real” musicians do their thing. What a pernicious message we tell ourselves when we accept this. A lot of my students have been terrible singers; some of my best friends are terrible singers. So what?

A friend and occasional musical collaborator named Kathleen Sloan wrote a lovely song called “Take it Back.” Here’s the first verse:

Do you remember back when we were kids?
We were artists and dancers and musicians all
We sang because we needed to, we danced because it gave us joy
(We) made art to share our very selves with the world

Then as we grew older it became very clear
Not all of us were good enough to make the grade
Our singing was sometimes off key, our dancing had a few mis-steps
Our art was judged a bit too odd to share with the world

Take it back! Take it back!
Take back the right to sing and play
It will fill your heart, it will feed your soul
When you take back the right to sing and play!
(full lyrics can be found here)

Here’s what this means for us as teachers: when you take a leap and start using the arts as an instructional tool in your classroom, you don’t need to be a Grammy-level musician unless your goal is to win a Grammy. My job as a STEAM specialist is to create and share songs and lesson plans that any teacher can use without expertise in the arts; but if you want your students to buy into it, you’ve got to join in. I don’t care how tone-deaf or color-blind you think you are; the good news is that your students don’t either. Just take it back.