Friday, September 14, 2012

Arts Education: A New Civil Rights Issue

At a conference last February, a middle school teacher from Bedford Stuyvesant proclaimed that access to the arts for young people is “a new civil rights issue.” I was very struck by this statement because I hadn’t thought about arts education in that way before. As the Director of Education/School Engagement, I am proud that The New Victory Theater will host over 32,000 New York City students and teachers at 102 daytime and after school performances this season, and that our 45 professional teaching artists will lead them through 1000 pre- and post-show workshops, where these kids will have the chance to explore an art form, and learn to make creative and artistic choices in a collaborative setting.

Because of great programs from The New Victory and other local cultural institutions, I’ve always been aware of how good this work is for the students of New York City, but I don’t always remember how urgent it is. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a longitudinal research study called The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies. In it, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman says, "Arts education doesn't take place in isolation. It has to take place as part of an overall school and education reform strategy. This report shows that arts education has strong links with other positive educational outcomes." According to this report, engaging students as artists can lead to better results in academic performance, stronger citizenship, a better understanding of the world around them and more varied workforce opportunities.

September 9-15, 2012 is the second annual National Arts in Education Week, and at this pivotal time, when local, state and federal funding is continually under review or subject to cuts, it is especially important to remember just how important these outcomes are. While research reports are published and organizations like Americans for the Arts are advocating on a federal level for the arts and arts education, there are still young people in this country who are deprived of participating in the arts throughout the school year. I’ve taken a moment to reflect upon my childhood and the testimony I can offer to advocate for all kids’ rights to access the arts.

I was fortunate to grow up with parents who were deeply affected by the arts in their own childhood communities of Georgia and Chicago. In our Nassau County home, there was always music playing: my dad played the guitar, the record player barely got a rest and there was lots of singing— in church, around the house and in the car. We would frequently travel into Manhattan to see Off-Broadway and Broadway shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin or Godspell. Arts seemed to be a natural part of my life. And, lucky for me, this art immersion at home was augmented by my school’s support of the arts as a resource for learning.

In my elementary school, each grade had weekly music and visual art classes. In fact, each student was given the opportunity to learn to play an instrument—I chose the violin. All along—since grade one—I loved to dance and act. In fact, my earliest memory as a performer was in the first grade. The entire first and second grades were in a production of Alice's Restaurant, an adventure through a magical land where Alice's Restaurant was the last stop. I was cast as a waitress in the restaurant with one line, "Did you eat too many cookies?" I remember practicing for hours on end at home, trying all the different ways I could say this line. When I finally performed it—after rehearsing for what seemed like forever—I felt a rush of excitement. I was hooked! I went on to play a Queen in third grade, the Mother in Hansel & Gretel in fourth grade, and Cool Mom in How to Eat Fried Worms in fifth grade. These experiences helped me realize my love of acting, which eventually led me to major in theater as an undergraduate at SUNY Cortland in Central New York.

As the daughter of a high school math teacher and a librarian, I grew up with an awareness of the education system, and with a great deal of respect for educators. I saw first-hand what it takes to work in the field effectively, from the extra hours of their own time that teachers spend on planning and grading, to much, much more.

Throughout my Pre-K through 12 education, I received a great deal of support and encouragement from all of my teachers, but was especially influenced by my art teachers, including Ms. Fields, the orchestra instructor. Ms. Fields was a very tall, statuesque and stoic woman who played multiple string instruments, which just goes to say that she was more than a little intimidating. She expected excellence from each of her students, and to be honest, I did not always live up to that expectation. Time and again I heard, "Courtney has a natural ability. She could be great if she simply practiced more." My response to this challenge was a bit delayed. It wasn’t until the summer before sixth grade, after two full years of playing, that I set a goal for myself to represent the school at an annual contest for young musicians called NYSSMA. To represent the school, I would need to be in the first seat as the lead violin in the orchestra, so I convinced my dad to let me take summer lessons, and for those three months I practiced specific classical songs over and over again to build my technique. Upon returning to my last year of elementary school, I was excited to show Ms. Fields all the hard work I’d put in to be a better player. Maybe I’d reached my potential? Maybe I’d finally met the expectations she had for me? Much to my dismay, however, I discovered that Ms. Fields had been replaced by a new orchestra teacher, Ms. Dunaj, due to a school closing and redistribution of teachers throughout the whole district. At the time, I didn’t fully understand this. I simply thought, 'Great, all that hard work for nothing!' Nevertheless, I did get first seat for the spring concert!

Without knowing it, Ms. Fields had had a huge impact on me, and through my experience that summer, I’d learned to set goals, to make an action plan, and then put that plan in motion—skills I use tirelessly to this day. I also learned that to be good at something does not mean that talent equals ability. I realized, too, that often the payoff for working towards your goals is just being proud of yourself, which helps to build confidence. Not only did I make first chair in the orchestra, but I was also selected to represent the school as solo violinist at the competition. You'll never guess who was there...

It has been said that through their engagement in the arts, kids can learn to build character traits like appreciation of beauty, social intelligence, integrity, grit and empathy. I know that for myself, exposure, opportunity and mentorship in the arts helped me understand that to accomplish something you have to put the work in, and that the work itself is meaningful and can influence who or what you become in the future—whatever that may be. I don't believe that every kid who participates in the arts will become a professional artist, but I do believe that engaging in the arts will help kids see the world more fully, and teach them to make creative choices, to problem solve, to collaborate, to think critically, to set challenges for themselves and to recognize their own ability to achieve those goals. Every kid deserves the right to have access to the arts, and this is what I celebrate this week, and will continue to advocate for each and every day.

How are you celebrating arts education this week? How have the arts impacted your life? What are you advocating for this week? I would love to hear from you.

To learn more about National Arts in Education Week:

To learn more about the Americans for the Arts at the Democratic National Convention:

Happy Arts Education Week!


This blog was written by Courtney Boddie, Director of Education / School Engagement. Ms. Boddie has a Masters in Educational Theatre from New York University. She joined the New Vic shortly after graduating, where she is currently responsible for supervising the New Vic Teaching Artists and New Vic in the Classroom. She has also been responsible for the implementation of professional development programs for teachers. She is an actor, teaching artist and administrator who is a member of the NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable TA Affairs Committee. She is on the adjunct faculty for the Educational Theatre Graduate Program at New York University and has affiliations with the Educational Theatre Program at City College of New York and the M.A. in Applied Theatre program at Creative Arts Team.


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  4. The art they provide opportunities for self-expression, bringing the inner world into the outer world of concrete reality.

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