Profile In Education - Summer 2018

Interview with Amie Tolton

by OPSBA Staff

Amie Tolton is an environmental and equity arts educator with the Peel District School Board for over 15 years. Amie began teaching Visual Arts at Turner Fenton Secondary School and for the past 12 years she had been Curricular Head of The Arts at both Turner Fenton SS and Stephen Lewis SS. From 2014-2017 Amie was on secondment with York University's Faculty of Education where she taught teacher candidates Equity and Inclusion, Visual Arts Teachable (junior, intermediate, secondary), Art Integration (primary, junior, intermediate), among other courses.  Currently, she is an Instructional Coach with the Peel District School Board.

Amie recently spoke with OPSBA staff about her connection to the Arts and the importance of Art programs in public education. 

Q.  What is your position with the Peel District School Board?  How long have you been doing it and what do you love about your job?

Since September 2017, I have been in the role of Instructional Coach with the Peel District School Board. Instruction Coaches work with educators and administrators to build teacher capacity and help to support board and school initiatives. I love working with educators to develop and support their teaching and learning goals. It is always rewarding to work with school leadership teams to develop structures for all educators to support student success. 

Q.  Can you talk briefly about your journey to working in a career related to the Arts?

 At a young age, I discovered the value of visual arts in my own life.  Art helped me to shape my identity and gave me the voice I needed to begin to understand the world.  The process of developing an idea and seeing that idea come to life gave me a sense of accomplishment unequaled in any other educational experience. My philosophy of teaching through the Arts was shaped by my own arts education and experiences.  I have always sought to give my students a platform to take risks, question the world around them and develop their artistic skills and interests, while creating experiential learning opportunities that would see them take their work out of the four walls of our classroom and into the community. I initially resisted the idea of becoming an educator. It was during university that I was offered a job as a temporary grade 9 arts teacher in a private school and it was there that I immediately fell in love with arts education. 

Q.  Over the course of your career, how have you seen arts education programming (music, dance, visual arts, and drama) evolve over the years in schools?

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a movement away from teaching the Arts as only skill acquisition (i.e. I can draw or I can dance) towards an emphasis on using the Arts for self-expression. It is through imagination and the creative process that students can explore personal and societal issues, question the world around them and be empowered to have a voice, whether that is through Dance, Drama, Music or Visual Arts. This has made art classes more accessible and is no longer about whether or not one has "innate talent." There has also been a shift towards highlighting transferable skills that the Arts provide: organization, time management, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and confidence are some of the skills that the Arts teach.

Photo Credit: Wavebreakmedia

Q.  From your perspective, what kind of impact can exposure to the arts have on students?

Students who are exposed to the Arts are well-rounded and have a greater sense that there is not only one right answer, but rather a wide range of possibilities. Through critical thinking and the creative process, the Arts teach students to make decisions and problem-solve.  Creating in the Arts gives students a sense of value and accomplishment while allowing for self-expression and fostering an individual sense of identity, which in turn helps students develop as individuals.   The Arts allow students to explore ideas and concepts that are important to them and question what they see in the world around them. I began the semi-annual art show Just Beneath the Surface, at Stephen Lewis Secondary School and it was most recent exhibited at the 2018 Summit for Children and Youth Mental Health. It is one example of how using art can give students a voice to express the mental health issues they see around them. By giving students a real-world art opportunity, like creating an art exhibit; students get to speak to their audience in a way that cannot be replicated in a classroom. Another example would be the Peel-wide secondary school art show Walk the Art. I co-founded Walk the Art 15 years ago to create an authentic learning experience, where students could talk about issues like sexism, faith-as-an-ism, and heterosexism through their artwork.  Allowing students to have a platform to discuss a subject as important as mental health and societal prejudices gives them a positive way to channel their critical thinking and personal experiences. Many students who have participated in these shows over the years have sighted their participation as being a pivotal point in their education; one where they were heard and had their voice valued.

Q.  Advocates for arts education say that programming has slowly been squeezed out of schools over the years.  What have you observed? Why do you think we are seeing less arts in schools?

We know more and more about what it takes to educate the whole child and a balance of all subject areas is important to a child's development. In elementary, the curriculum is overloaded with expectations, making it difficult for educators to cover everything in a balanced manner, sometimes leaving very little time for the Arts. With the upcoming curriculum renewal, I am hopeful that there will be more emphasis on having less expectations, without compromising student success, and creating the time for both discrete and integrated Art programs. In secondary, only one Art credit is compulsory out of 30 required credits for students to graduate. This makes it important to use a cross-curricular approach and differentiated assessment that encourages students to demonstrate their learning in other subject areas, through the use of the Arts.

Q.  There seems to be more of a focus on exposing students to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects to better prepare them for the present and future competitive and complex global and economic world. Why do you think arts education is not held in that same regard?

In Peel, those of us in the Arts have been purposefully using the acronym STEAM instead of STEM to bring the Arts into the conversation. It is impossible to integrate science, technology, engineering and math without using the creative process and critical analysis, which are two of the fundamental areas of the Arts curriculum.  By including the Arts into STEM, students also bring an awareness of world issues, creativity and critical thinking into the problem solving method.  Their empathetic and critical viewpoint is essential in the process of moving the world forward. 

Q.  What are students missing out on when they aren't exposed to the arts?

Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages

The Arts are an integral part of a student's overall education.  Through critical thinking and the creative process, the arts teach students to make decisions and problem-solve.  Creating in the arts gives students a sense of value and accomplishment while allowing for self-expression.  This is a key part in fostering an individual sense of identity that in turn helps a student develop as an individual. We have known for years that students learn in different ways, and when students are not exposed to the Arts, we run the risk of entire groups of students going through the education system disconnected and at the extreme end, disengaged. When we give students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in non-traditional ways, we honour their skill sets, strengths, interests and world experience. 

Q.  There are those that say if parents want their child to be exposed to the arts they should pay for lessons outside of school as an extra-curricular activity or enroll their child in a publicly funded specialty arts school?  Why isn't this good enough?

It is essential to educate the whole child.  If we want to create global, empathetic citizens who are responsive to the world around them and if we recognize that we do not know what the future will bring to the job market, then we need to focus on Empowering Modern Learners and on integrating curricular areas to provide our students with comprehensive programs where all subjects are valued and promoted.

In Peel we focus on Empowering Modern Learning, where Learning Culture, Informative Assessment, Access to Technology, 21st Century Competencies, Learning Environments and Models of Learning become a collective model for how we teach. Ideally every school should offer a well-rounded program in the Arts.  We need to ensure that parents and students know that the Arts, like sports, are not just an extracurricular, but an integral part of the education of the whole child.

Q.  In their 2018-19 budget, the provincial government committed to investing an additional $21 million dollars over three years to provide students with access and exposure to the arts education in drama, dance, music and visual arts.  What are your thoughts about that? 

There are always benefits when investments are made in education. The additional $21 million for the Arts shows that there is recognition by the government for the importance of the Arts.  This infusion of dollars over three years will allow school boards and schools to supplement existing programs and more importantly initiate others where they may not already exist. I also hope through this process that exemplary programs can be identified, shared and replicated across the province.