Changed for the Better · Teaching

Changed for the Better: the value of arts in education

We hear the cries all the time – budgets are getting squeezed, cuts have to be made, and things wind up on the chopping block. What is often the first to be sacrificed? The arts.

It feels like arts programs in schools are constantly under the shroud of becoming a thing of the past. Despite the immeasurable benefits to a young person’s mental, emotional and physical well-being, the arts are too-often categorized as the most expendable activity to the people looking at the balance sheets.

I remember, years ago, we had auditions for our fall production as usual. Just after the cast list went up, I learned that our program had been cut. At our first rehearsal, I had to tell the company that we couldn’t move forward. What a devastating moment that was. Fortunately, after many emails and phone calls were sent the superintendent’s way, funding was “found” for our program and we were able to continue as usual, but it wasn’t without a fight.

In another budget-failure year, elementary art and music classes were cut. For several years, our young children did not have access to those valuable early experiences in school that sparked their interest in the arts. For years, as those kids advanced into middle and high school, arts teachers had to “pick up the slack” and go back to basics to try to catch those kids up during their adolescence when they should have been able to provide more age-appropriate, intermediate and advanced arts experiences. I would argue that severe damage had been done; we are still trying to catch up, even though those programs have since been re-installed into the elementary education program for several years now.

Since then, I have always had some mental tremors whenever budget vote time came around. We’ve been okay so far, but it only takes one budget to go down, putting the district into austerity, for cuts to the bone to become necessary. We are never truly “safe.”

In this post, I wanted to explore some of the running themes that have cropped up in all of these Changed for the Better podcast conversations: the true value of the arts in the education of our students. It transcends academic grades because it actually integrates all academia into authentic, productive, hands-on learning experiences. One of our district’s learning frameworks is “I do, We do, You do.” In the performing and visual arts, the goal for all students is the “You do” piece. Whether the activity is dance, music, theater, design, painting, lighting, sound or production – in arts education, the students are responsible for making everything happen. Our mission is to teach them the skills and provide them with the tools to make something bigger than themselves come to life.

The following is a short list of the benefits that I have seen over the course of my 25+ year career as an arts educator:

  • The arts have so many different creative roles to play. Whether their talents lie in performance, tech, or production, there are hundreds of tasks that students can find their niche and fit in. If one thing doesn’t quite fit, there’s always something else to try on.
  • Students participate at every skill level. The arts-in-education model provides foundational, intermediate and advanced experiences to students so they can learn the scope of what their value is to the outside world while they are actively working on a project that is meant to share with their own community.
  • The arts offers students the autonomy to choose what and how they learn. One project can offer an innumerable variety of choices for individual students to come together and work on something much bigger than themselves. In an after-school setting, they can see, in real time, how their personal effort contributes to the greater good. They can work on developing their strengths, and they can step out of their comfort zone and explore new avenues of learning.
  • The arts provide a strong sense of purpose and self-satisfaction. Everyone involved in arts production benefits from this in a way that pure academics don’t provide. You don’t participate in the arts for a letter grade; instead, the work you do in the arts produces something real, tangible, and authentic. It is also meant to give the community something to share experiences of joy, catharsis, and ultimately, pride in their children. When students are the providers of that gift, they start to understand they have great worth and power.
  • Participating in the arts is a complete experience in mind-body-spirit connection. When you work on a show, your whole self is integrated in the work you do. When that work is applauded and appreciated by the community, the effort is instantly validated for students. (That is why they keep coming back for more, by the way.) They feel, through their entire being, that their existence matters, even if they are a small cog in a bigger machine. After all, without all of the moving parts, the machine doesn’t work. Giving so much of yourself to something, and having the gift of feeling joy and accomplishment returned to you, it is a spiritually fulfilling feedback loop that is hard to get from anywhere else.
  • It is the most authentic way of learning about yourself. Everyone who finds their way to participating in the arts discovers something fundamentally important about themselves. Some only get to participate in one production, some take advantage of every available opportunity. In my experience, they all end up wanting more, because they had the chance to learn something new about themselves: they are good, capable, better at something than they previously thought. They get what they need out of the experience, whatever that is. Since everyone has different needs at different times in their lives, arts education opportunities are very useful for giving kids access to discover new facets of themselves in a truly authentic manner.
  • The arts provide a sense of family and community outside the home. Year after year, students share how being a part Thespians not only made them step out of their comfort zone, but introduced them to a group of their peers who may have felt just as “out of place” as they did. Joining forces with others from different backgrounds illuminated just how similar they actually are, how much they share in common, and how they all tend to worry about the same things. There is power in numbers, and coming to rehearsals or tech meetings gave them a sense of belonging, a safe space to be who they really are, and share themselves with an extended family of peers and adults who care about them.

Education has always been about providing measurable data to demonstrate progress. While I do believe there is a place for data, there is an equally important place for hands-on discovery that does not require standardized testing. The measure of “success” is inherent to the student’s improved sense of self-perception, quality of their personal contributions, their ability to maintain healthy relationships, and their overall well-being. When they understand that their mind, body and spirit are valuable, they become better equipped to move into their adulthood as productive and happy members of our greater community.

That is the value of arts in education.

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