Don't underestimate the empowerment of an arts education
With state and federal emphasis on science, technology and math education, arts curricula have taken a back seat. Guest columnists Teri Hein and Darren Lay, directors of two youth-based arts organizations, argue that an arts education has much to offer young people.
Special to The Times
THE No Child Left Behind Act drove schools to slash programs that don't directly contribute to the goal of higher achievement in reading and math. The technology revolution, with its emphasis on math and science, has further pushed us to prioritize those disciplines.
Neither bodes well for arts education. In an era of shrinking public resources, creative classes like theater and writing are systematically cut from schools throughout our city and across the nation. As directors of two youth-based arts organizations, we know firsthand what it means for young people to practice creativity.
One organization, 826 Seattle, offers free writing workshops and after-school support to young people, helping them discover and tell their stories with help from trained adult tutors. Many of our students, like Meron Kasahun, come from low-income families.
The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Meron arrived at 826 Seattle as an eighth-grader who was struggling in school. Four years later, she has dramatically improved her writing skills and is a confident young woman who plays in the Ballard High orchestra, traveled on full scholarship to a student exchange in Chile, and is busy applying for college. Meron credits her success primarily to her years at 826 Seattle.
Similarly, Young Shakespeare Workshop has been serving teenagers, tuition-free, for 20 years. Participants get a hefty volume of the "Complete Works," spend hours learning the skills to embody Shakespeare's words on the stage and eventually present entire Shakespeare plays, touring them around Seattle.
Jorge Chacon, a 15-year-old Columbian immigrant, came to YSW with only three years of English. Completing high school was a struggle for Jorge but in 2011 he graduated from Juilliard and is now acting Shakespeare at the Public Theater in New York City.
While math and science are vitally important subjects, the arts are equally essential. Many studies have shown that kids who participate in the arts are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and find meaningful employment. In other words: Art keeps kids engaged in school and community.
What's more, the arts invite children to articulate their feelings about important issues by interpreting and reflecting on their own lives and the lives of others. At a time when schools in our state struggle with swelling class sizes, a shortened school year and further program reductions, community-based organizations like 826 Seattle and YSW fulfill a critical need, particularly for the most vulnerable children in our region.
Working hard on a creative-writing story, polishing draft after draft, and then reading it aloud in front of a group, teaches more than the mechanics of grammar; it gives a young person a sense of what's possible through practice, focus and hard work. It builds confidence in one's voice and reveals the subtleties of effective communication. Shakespeare's writing is complex and challenging, but it also offers tremendous rewards to those who study it. Shakespeare reveals much about beauty and truth, concepts students can sense almost immediately.
While schools focus their limited resources on math, science and reading, the task of engaging children in the arts falls increasingly on the shoulders of organizations like 826 Seattle and Young Shakespeare Workshop. We are deeply proud of the youth we serve, but there are thousands more every year who never find us, or for whom we simply have no capacity.
If we are to raise children to become successful, well-adjusted adults, we need more than math and science to pave the way. We need innovation, curiosity, large thinking. We need compassionate children who can think creatively as they solve complex problems in our world. In short, we need to teach our children art — in school and out — in as many ways as we can imagine.Teri Hein, left, is the co-founder and executive director of 826 Seattle. Darren Lay is the artistic director of Young Shakespeare Workshop. Both organizations received 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards from first lady Michelle Obama at a White House ceremony Nov. 2.
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