Where are the Arts on the Food Chain of Education?  Who do we Invite to Dinner?

Reflections by Joanne Seelig Lamparter, Director of Education and Theatre for Change, Imagination Stage

Though the MasonARC convening was several weeks ago, the conversations still loom in my mind.  It is no coincidence that in Maryland, we are nearing the time that the Kirwan Commission Bill will be voted on by Maryland State legislation.  In short, the Kirwin Commission Report advocates for funding which will lessen the achievement gap.  At its core, it advocates for support for special education, mental health services, early childhood education, and teacher training.  As arts researchers and practitioners, we KNOW that at their core, the arts are able to bolster these areas.  And yet, the arts are very much at the periphery of the report’s recommendations.

This led me to consider the conversations at MasonARC.  Arts education research can and should play a role in policy. But perhaps there are gaps in research, and gaps in the who is attending the conversations.  It isn’t as though the commission intentionally is leaving out the arts.  It isn’t as though anyone is saying that the arts are bad for children. They aren’t junk food, but they just aren’t being seen as the main course!  Here are my recommendations:

1. Mental Health. The commission calls for more wellness centers and trained mental health professionals in schools.  Of course, more counselors is a wonderful idea.  But we also know that there many examples of the arts infused with a healing centered (or trauma informed) approach can be valuable as well.  The traditional form of therapy is not accepted by all cultures.  I would argue that in native cultures, healing circles have been proven effective ways to deal with one’s past trauma. And some arts programs can provide an outlet (especially when in partnership with mental health professionals) for finding one’s strength and voice as a way to heal and grow.  We know the arts can provide a voice, an outlet for creativity, a sense of healthy risk taking, build empathy and establish a sense of community.  And the conversation at MasonARC led to conclusions such as why not evaluate what the arts ACTUALLY do as arts rather than jumping on to the next educational trend.  I would argue that by doing this we will see more direct correlations to the same benefits we are looking for when it comes to young people’s health and wellness—especially in areas of mental health.  But when making those connections, when considering who to include at the table, let’s invite our mental health professionals to dinner.  The arts aren’t a substitute for traditional mental health services, but can work in tandem.

2. Special Education. Organizations such as Imagination Stage, VSA/Kennedy Center, and several others have shown the ways that the arts can empower different abilities.  When I think back to our conversation at the conference, I remember the questions that came up around the voices that are often lost when we focus on the rigor of the research and how to center those that are often at the periphery.  LGBTQ, impoverished, and racial minorities were discussed. I would offer that as we move forward we should include the disability community’s voice as we move forward.  How can the arts play a role in socialization with a community of actors with autism for example? What are trends and intersections with inclusive (or mainstreaming) in an arts setting?

3. Early Childhood. In the second panel of the day, a wonderful study done in cooperation with Minneapolis ‘s Children’s Theatre Company was presented.  We watched delightful videos of young children taking leadership in their creative play and the connections to their understanding of story. It was clear the effects that theatre can have on a young child’s development.  Moving forward, how can we make sure we are widening that reach so that its less program specific, and even showing the differences and commonalities across multiple artforms. For example, are the benefits the same if instead of theatre, a visual art from was used?  By a more collective impact approach, our voice as arts practitioners will be louder and stronger.

I sincerely hope the Kirwin bill is passed and the recommendations are taken to heart. After all, who would argue against higher paid teachers and more resources for children?  But I also hope that convenings such as the MasonARC and the incredible research our colleagues across the field are doing continue to push those making educational policy to think outside the box and start to consider the arts as a vegetable rather than dessert for the child.   To accomplish this, we must continue to invite multiple voices to the dinner table.

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