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Why Arts Education Is Critical to a Sustainable Future

Posted Jan 20 2013 7:13am
The voices filled the hallways.  Me, me, me, me, me, me me. Up and down the scales. Huddles of children--more than 3,000, in fact, comprising 82 theater groups across 23 states--came to Junior Theater Festival 13 in Atlanta, Georgia, this weekend.

They came to perform 15 minute versions of their shows, all junior versions of full-scale Broadway musicals adapted specifically for youth theaters. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Pirates of Penzance. Godspell. They came to compete, to connect, and to celebrate. They came because theater is their sport, because expressing themselves creatively feels good and right, and because they have found that one of the few places left in our teach-to-the-test public school system where their souls can soar is on stage. Listen to these boys sing the National Anthem, in honor of a family that donates extensively to youth theater whose son is deploying this weekend to Afghanistan. Note the cheers of those children at the end, and just imagine what their lives would be like without the place like the arts to call home.

National Anthem at Junior Theater Festival 2013 from Pattie Baker on Vimeo .

I believe arts education is a huge component of sustainability for many reasons, but here's it in a nutshell. The path forward for us as a species depends on creativity and innovation (see If You Can Imagine It, You Can A chieve It and I Can Barely "Contain" My Excitement ).  In general, these critical attributes are not encouraged or rewarded in our public school system (and my particular school district is currently in major crisis, about to lose accreditation). Today's children are being trained to think like yesterday's factory workers (and not even so successfully at that--my state's high school graduation rate is 48th in the nation). This is a crime to humanity. One of the only "places on the edges" where creativity and innovation exists in the public school system is in the arts, and arts funding is continually be slashed. My older daughter is about to graduate from an arts magnet program, and my younger one wants to attend one as well. A big reason for this is not just to receive the arts training and opportunities, but to be somewhere where creative thinking is celebrated.  

The arts don't own creativity, however, and going out of county, driving long distances, homeschooling, or "going private" should not be the inevitable options in order to immerse oneself in these critical life skills, especially considering how those options require resources that many people do not have.

Creativity should permeate our public schools. The area where I am seeing some of the strongest creativity needed, in fact, is in the sciences, yet try telling the kids that. That's not, in general, what they are experiencing in school. I thought of this yet again as I delivered my younger daughters' science fair paperwork to the county offices on Friday (thanks, Ashley, for joining me and for taking this picture--there she is in the reflection!) She is the only student from her grade participating in the fair, and only because I was totally on a tear to get it approved so it could happen (and she delivered on the project). I thought it was unconscionable that in this day and age, when so many opportunities for our children (especially our girls) are in science, technology, engineering, and math-related (STEM) areas (which, frankly, touch everything) that a middle school would simply not participate in the county fair. The good news? I have been told that the entire grade will participate next year.

Ultimately, I believe that I am responsible for my children's education ( here's what I believe they need to learn in life : click on the link in that post titled Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader's Administrators?). But after seeing their faces when they are around other "theater kids," I have to be honest. I am very glad there are still places, such as Act3 Productions , the Atlanta JCC's Company J, North Springs Charter High School , and back at the middle school where rehearsals for the school play continue in an after-school club, where select teachers and completely committed parents seem to share my belief about creativity with me. Or should I say, Me, me, me, me, me, me me.

Food for thought on a joy-based journey.
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