At Summit, Educators Explore Ways to Make Art a Focus

By Alix Mammina — April 23, 2018 4 min read
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How can we utilize the arts to address deep-seated problems in education, public health, and sustainability?

That was the question posed to the artists, educators, and innovators who gathered in Washington on April 16 for the fifth annual Kennedy Center Arts Summit. Over the course of the day, performers, panelists, and audience members considered the potential for art to effect change and eliminate inequities.

In conversations between panelists and a breakout session focused specifically on education, experts and audience members explored the benefits of making arts education a focal point in schools. Throughout the day, these three solutions were recommended:

1. Make Art an Everyday Experience—In All Schools

While panelists widely agreed that art is a necessary part of children’s education, some noted that urban schools are often disparately impacted by a lack of arts education.

Linda Nathan, the executive director of the educational non-profit Center for Artistry and Scholarship, raised this point when recalling her experiences as a middle school educator in Boston during the 1970s. (Though much has changed since then—Boston has made a concerted push recently to improve arts education.)

“For all these years I’ve worked in education, I can say with certainty that if you are a student in an urban school, you won’t get art,” Nathan said, later adding, “If we do give kids artistic experience on a daily basis, their view of the future, their view of themselves, would be enormously expanded.”

High school principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman also brought up her personal experience with inequity in schools. “I’ve been a leader of schools that have been labeled persistently dangerous,” she said. Because of this label, she explained, students at those schools weren’t given the opportunity to become artists or performers—or to explore their creativity and imagination.

“We are failing a large group of children just by simply not being able to bring arts to them,” Cliatt-Wayman said. “And so we have to find a way to do that so they can express themselves and be a part of this American dream.”

2. Make Art a Priority

Conversations also centered around the importance of elevating art to an equal position beside science, math, and language arts in schools. During an audience Q&A session, an art teacher at a charter school in D.C. asked how she could advocate for the resources her students need. “I feel like I’m standing alone and invisible,” she said.

In response, panelists urged teachers to take on roles as activists. Cliatt-Wayman, the principal, recommended that teachers take the time to educate administrators about the value of art. Independent consultant Liz Manne brought up the involvement of teachers’ unions in activism, particularly in the current strikes and walkouts taking place around the country, and suggested that arts advocacy could be incorporated into labor activism.

Others pointed out that a heavy focus on testing in schools can often push arts education to the side.

“The question for us as educators is, ‘What is our project?’ Are we using schools to sort children, in which case we may be doing a pretty good job right now, or are we using schools as sites of liberation?” Sam Seidel, a former teacher and current director of K-12 strategy and research at Stanford University’s, asked.

Adocates for arts education often note the wide range of skills that can be gained through art—from creative problem-solving to critical thinking. While some support adding an “A” to STEM, others argue that arts education “should be preserved in its own right.” To see where arts education seems to be heading in the next few years, make sure to check out Arts Education: A Look Ahead.

3. Solve Problems Through Storytelling

Whether considering the problem of limited resources for arts education or issues of systemic racism and inequity at work in schools, panelists suggested sharing personal stories and experiences as a potential solution. Cliatt-Wayman described her practice of leading townhall meetings between teachers, administrators, and students as “makeshift storytelling sessions.” By giving students the space to voice their concerns and share their experiences, Cliatt-Wayman could pinpoint problem areas and find paths forward.

When asked how art could be used to solve societal problems, Manne also turned to storytelling. “I think that the most powerful mode of persuasion is story and narrative,” she said. “To me if we did nothing else in the world, that in and of itself would change our society.”

In a speech given at the third annual California Teachers Summit, veteran English teacher David B. Cohen raised a similar point. “The way I see it then, we have to collectively saturate public spaces with positive stories about public education to offset each negative story that’s out there,” he said.

Photo by Michael Butler, courtesy of Michelle A. Pendoley.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.