Walking into a third grade class at Eakin elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, I can't believe my eyes or my ears. Or my heart, which is soaring - not its usual response to a classroom filled to bursting with inner-city nine-year-olds.
But the scene I have entered is unlike any other class I have seen anywhere before. Belting out of the boom box is Billie Holliday singing The Man I Love. The African-American, Asian and white children sit transfixed, listening intently to the words, the rhythm, the poetry of the song.
Then the sparks start flying. Bill Engel, their teacher for this session, is conducting a lesson on speech-making as part of a study of government. Within a highly structured lesson plan, he is acting as a catalyst for them to make artistic and cognitive connections.
"How do you get your audience interested? How do you grab 'em? How did Beethoven begin his Ninth?" he asks.
A big lad dressed in ultra-hip ragga gear shouts out, "Adagio!" The others clap and cheer. "Right!" beams Engel. "One way of writing a speech is to start quietly like Beethoven - and then you hit 'em with it."
Marouf, an Asian boy, pipes up: "It's like shooting a three-point shot in basketball." As I sit there, scratching my head, the kids all agree noisily, enthusiastically. Then a girl asks: "Mr Engel, can you tell us something else about Beethoven?" They all clamour for the Fifth Symphony and he agrees to play a bit to illustrate his point about building up to the moment.
Within minutes he has this mixed-ability class that includes classic "under-achievers", middle-of-the-roaders and a couple of pupils with Attention Deficit Disorder, scribbling away introductions for a speech on Why Eakin is Such a Great School. Billie Holliday, Beethoven and Magic Johnson have all played their part in delivering a lesson on government.
Later in the day, a couple of miles away, 11-year-old fifth graders at Head middle school learn theconcept of how things connect in a science class through dance, movement, music and language arts. In pairs, they act out specific machines, choosing music they think is appropriate to accompany their action. Their classmates have to guess what machine they are depicting.
Over in one corner, two girls demonstrate axial and locomotion movements. Next to them, a pair of boys become a pulley.
The next stage will be writing up the exercise in their journals, choosing a verb from the science curriculum to link with the machine they have demonstrated. After that, a percussionist will visit to develop a musical score with them, based on their choreographed movements.
This is pedagogic heaven. It is a dream that has been put into practice, with the participation of teachers and students, by the Leonard Bernstein Centre. Named after the American conductor, educator and composer (West Side Story was his greatest and most famous creation), the centre is a five-year-old education charity based in Nashville that works with schools across the United States to develop ways of integrating the arts into the curriculum.
This is not about slipping a bit of art and music in between maths and science. According to the centre's director, Dr Scott Massey: "It's about the impact of arts on the life of the mind."
It was Bernstein's passionate belief that, in the words of his son, Alexander, a former middle school teacher, the arts are "totally connected to the process of learning. You can't study any particular subject in a vacuum. To be a truly educated person, you need the arts."
Bernstein himself worked with Dr Massey, who was president of the Nashville Institute for the Arts, in setting up the foundations for the centre. Their vision was the creation of an organisation that would construct a flexible but coherent pedagogic model based on what Bernstein called "artful learning".
It has done just that. The main work of the centre is the training of teachers to use this framework, which synthesises theories of cognitive and artistic development. Classic masterworks in visual arts, music, literature, drama and dance are used as vehicles for understanding and connecting knowledge. Crucially, it has been designed to be used within any formal curriculum.
After Bernstein died in 1990, Dr Massey developed the programme for the centre by bringing together his educational philosophies with existing practices of effective teachers, appointing an advisory board that included Professor Howard Gardner (who devised the theory of multiple intelligences) and other top academics from Harvard and Columbia universities.
The result is an approach that can be adopted by any teacher with training, support and an open, fluid mind. Eakin was the first school to trial the Bernstein programme. Principal Bob Dorris says: "This has given us the confidence and the structure to achieve real creativity in our classrooms. Through it, our kids have learned not to be afraid to take intellectual risks or to be redirected. They're fearless. Our boys are quick to take part in drama and to talk about feelings when they write poetry."
Programmes like the Bernstein Centre's do not come cheap, even with a federal government grant for schools to redesign their curriculum delivery. The cost of the four levels of involvement in the programme, from training a single teacher over two days to going all the way and working with the entire school with three years' support, range from $5,000 (pound;2,900) to $75,000 (pound;44,000).
Still in its embryonic stage, the programme is being used in 14 schools around the country, most of them inner-city state schools. But it is likely to expand, as will other alternative approaches to education, with the growing recognition that the status quo is not good enough.
Tom Cigarran, chairman of the Bernstein Centre's board of directors, says:
"What's going on in schools is not working. By the time children finish the third grade, there's a total disconnect between what they learn in school and what they should be learning to live in our rapidly changing society."
Giving children the intellectual building blocks, and the confidence to use them to make connections across disciplines, genres and arts, will enable them to do more with their knowledge base than simply pass exams.
Not that passing exams is undervalued by the centre. A detailed evaluation of academic outcomes is still on the way, but preliminary data suggests that children who learn the arts as part of their curriculum do better in exams than those who do not.
To ignore what appears to be a cogent argument for a different, effective and pleasurable way of teaching could be short-sighted. As Bernstein wrote:
"Will you accept, as artists do, that the life of the spirit precedes and controls the life of exterior action; that the richer and more creative the life of the spirit, the healthier and more productive our society must necessarily be?''
*HOW ART LOVERS MAKE THE GRADE
Among US studies looking into the impact of arts education on academic achievement are the following:
* A 1993 study of 890 children in grades 3 to 6 showed that children involved in an education programme in which the arts were integrated exceeded national averages for reading in every grade apart from grade 3.
* The 1997 National Education Longitudinal Study of more than 1,000 eighth and tenth graders conducted by the Department of Education found that pupils in "high involvement'' arts programmes earned higher grades in English and maths than those in lower involvement programmes. Those who had more hours per week of arts subjects scored 79.2 per cent in English compared to 64.2 per cent for the other group. In maths, the figures were 66.8 per cent compared to 42 per cent.