Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Importance of Quality Arts Programs

Over the weekend, I attended Family Share Day at the Center for Creative Youth. The Connecticut Regional Educational Council (CREC) runs this 5-week residential program at Wesleyan University for high school artists and they are completing their 34th year. When our oldest daughter announced that she wanted to go there, the five weeks was the part that stood out for me. Five weeks???

An older classmate inspired my daughter to apply, telling her that the program had changed her life. As Larkin went through the audition process, I continued to hear accolades from several of my colleagues and friends who had attended or had known someone who had attended. "That program inspired me to become a professional artist," one of our music teachers told me. Needless to say, when Larkin was accepted, she went.

At Share Day, the talent at CCY impressed me. CCY offers ten different majors, ranging from creative writing to visual arts to musical theater and students attend from all over the country--one student comes from France. Within each discipline, students presented what they have been learning. Larkin taught us a line drawing class before touring us through the art gallery and sharing her portfolio with us. (I will share with all of you readers that you can draw a person much more successfully if you first sketch the lines and the body should be seven times the length of the head!) The variation and the caliber of the gallery work was amazing. We also went to the film-making and musical theater presentations and their work and presentations were just as impressive. 


However, the attitudes and culture of this program were my greatest take-aways of the day. When Larkin talked to us about her work and the work of her peers, she talked about the process. She critiqued her pieces, wondering about the use of color and whether some of the proportions were off. She explained to us that when doing the self-portraits, the instructor had wanted them to try different angles or viewpoints than they normally would. At the end of the musical theater presentation, there was time for questions and someone asked the students what they had gotten out of the program. I was surprised at how many of them wanted to answer that question. They talked about the safe place the program offered them to take risks, the inspiration they received from each other's talents, the level of teamwork, and the commitment they felt to bring their learning back to their home schools.


During the afternoon, the students shared projects, performances, and work from their non-majors. On a stage, in front of each other and in front of each other's families, they performed highly emotional poetry, demonstrated ballroom dancing techniques, participated in combat fighting skits and then danced and drummed West African style. I loved that these teenagers did not only accept each other; they celebrated each other. They bragged about each other, promoted each other, cheered for each other, and garnered inspiration from each other. They also invited each other up to the stage at the end of the shares to try out the art form. On the stage, they made mistakes and laughed at themselves in front of peers and the audience. I wondered as I sat there if they would take these skill sets back to classrooms in the fall. The lack of self-consciousness and inhibitions was so powerful for their learning processes!

Like many educators, I worry about maintaining quality arts programs in our schools given the combination of financial pressures and academic mandates. As a member of the Board of Education, I know how hard we work to keep cuts away from music, art, and theater. However, I also know that we pay close attention to class sizes and any data that indicate that our students are not experiencing quality instruction in the core subjects of reading, writing, math and science. Having watched the students of CCY perform yesterday, I am convinced more than ever to protect and promote quality arts programs.  I have always seen the value of the arts in promoting creativity, innovation, self-reflection, collaboration, and communication. Yesterday, I loved watching the diversity, acceptance, honesty, and appreciation these young people had for each other's talents, choices, and differences. Yes, their creativity may lead not only to more beauty in our world but also, these humanistic qualities will help them to promote key tenets of democracy. 


CCY emphasizes leadership and Program Director Nancy Wolfe truly challenges these young artists to find ways to become ambassadors for the arts. Huge applause to her and her faculty for the amazing program and the commitment and focus on preserving CCY and programs like it for future generations.

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