The state’s advocacy organization for the arts and arts education—ArtsNC—asked board members to share stories about the reason they became arts advocates. Since we are celebrating National Arts in Education Week, it’s interesting to go back and read about a group of students that were so central to all my later advocacy efforts.
I remember walking into my daughter’s middle school one afternoon about 10 years ago where I was a volunteer and served as an occasional accompanist. For several years the arts teachers had produced a play in the Spring as an extracurricular activity, even creating original works with local composers. This day, the music teacher met me, slightly agitated, and said very quickly, “We’ve decided to do Oliver! this year and … you’ll play piano, won’t you?” [His primary instrument was guitar.] “We’ve hired a great director and the kids are really excited.” “Ah… well … OK … sure.” And we were off.
A cast of 40 middle schoolers learning lines, choreography, music, and how to be pickpockets too. Parents and students searching out the perfect costumes. Recruiting a talented alum to play percussion and a local business to provide real sound and lights. Adapting the score for piano, drums, guitar, fiddle, and recorder. Scheduling rehearsals, researching program notes, designing posters, shooting photographs for publicity. Watching students work together, creating characters, blocking scenes, practicing vocal exercises, painting sets, learning harmony, helping design the choreography. It was thrilling. Here was a perfect project-based learning activity. Combining all sorts of disciplines. Engaging a wide variety of students and community. It was a play, it was a musical, but it was really just that in the service of something bigger.
I followed those students to high school where, for many, the Spring musical became the highlight of the year, from November to March. It’s an annual event, a collaboration of the entire arts education department and open to the entire student body. The faculty is the production team—the theatre instructor directs, dance instructors design and teach choreography, the visual arts instructor and students provide set design and publicity, band and choral instructors conduct and/or play in the pit, and teach the music to actors and musicians.
Those middle school pickpockets grew up to work on Once Upon a Mattress, Disney’s Beauty & the Beast, Into the Woods, Guys & Dolls, the 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee and Seussical. They traveled to elementary schools and introduced young students to live theatre. They played to standing room-only audiences. They turned the entire house into a glorious forest for Into the Woods.They were nominated for regional awards. They learned time management, how to create characters, collaboration, how to save their voices, how to share the spotlight, how to change keys six times in one piece, how to perform in the face of private fears and with the threat of a few very real tragedies. Dedicated, talented, creative teachers worked hundreds of unpaid hours to teach lessons with an incredible slight of hand that makes the teaching almost invisible.
From the time they entered middle school, these students had a yearly theatre project experience, involving a large number of students and teachers and parents. They got to work with experienced teaching artists and production professionals. There was a lot of community support and recognition for their efforts and the value of the project.
Students carried this enthusiasm and community and expectation all through high school. Looking back, quite a few went on to study dance, music, theatre, or visual arts. Some are still students.Others are educators, performers, journalists, social workers, arts administrators, lawyers, members of the military. What was the value and what was the impact?
There is lots of discussion about whether the value of arts education is arts for arts sake or for the kind of tangential benefits it can provide—increasing test scores, improving math or literacy or social skills or empathy or things like school attendance or civic engagement. When I think of all these students, how can you ever say? It’s all these things. Some benefits for one. Different benefits for others. For some the arts will become a profession. For others an avocation. For others a vehicle for community or worship or recreation or education or rehabilitation. That’s why it’s so important to make sure all our students have access to such transformative experiences.
Celebrate and Support Arts in Education in your community.