Thursday, June 10, 2010

Teaching and The Arts

It was about ten years ago that my friend Laurie Pessano called me up and asked me to be a part of her teaching team. A privately funded project was getting off the ground and its purpose was to get dance, music, and theatre into the elementary schools. Laurie had written the curriculum and was now looking for teachers.

Laurie is a brilliant actress and director and I’m not gonna lie—the thought of teaching alongside Laurie was intimidating,

I’d already directed a number of shows (churches, children’s theatre and the like), and I’d directed the Junior Company. The Jr. Company is a performance group made up of dancers and singers between the ages of 8 and 16. But teaching…in schools…where educated teachers would watch me and learn from me? Was I capable?

I expressed my insecurities to Laurie and she simply said, “Liz, you know more than they do”. You know what—she was right!

I have been blessed to be a part of an amazing team of talented artists who teach kids how to express themselves through dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. In addition, we have written curriculum that teachers can easily use in the classroom regardless of their artistic abilities.

The Bonner Family Foundation—a huge supporter of the arts in the Fresno community, paid for the project for which I was originally hired. That job led to my being tapped to host several episodes of the PBS television show “Art Is”, and to the incredible job I’ve had for the past four years.

I’ve written lessons that incorporate theatre and dance with language arts. I am proud to say that because of my encouragement, teachers have found the confidence to expose kids to the arts and to help them discover talents they didn’t know they had.

The most recent project with which I've been involved has been funded by a Federal government grant. My team and I taught in three elementary schools in the Fresno Unified School District where we worked with all kindergarten through sixth grade students and their teachers. The project has ended because there is no money for the arts.

I think it’s a shame that creativity has been pushed aside for the stay-in-your-seat-and-don’t-move kind of rigidity that has infected the classrooms. I feel so bad for teachers whose jobs are on the line if their students don’t get the expected scores on the standardized tests they are given several times a year. The students can’t learn because half of their brain is being stifled and is told to shut up!

Music, art, and creativity live in the right side of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Math, numbers, and words come from the left hemisphere. If half their brain is being told to hush, how can we expect children to grow up whole? That is exactly what’s happening in the classrooms of today—at least here in California.

Personally, I’m very concerned about what I’ll do for work in the coming months. I do need to get a job and continue to earn money.

But, more importantly, my heart breaks for the students whose teachers are too overwhelmed and tired to be creative—even if creativity was encouraged!

The arts are essential to a well-rounded education. The arts are vital to the formation of a healthy brain!

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