Long before sticky-sweet, rainbow-colored candy came to represent the vulnerability of Black children to racist violence and murder, my daughter wrote a play called "The History of Evil Skittles." She was seven. At the time, Trayvon Martin was a year younger, in the first or second grade. She wrote the play when theater makers came to her school to teach children how to write their own scripts. Students created worlds and narrated what happened inside them. Arts education became a platform for students to talk about difficult things. The children's plays were performed before a packed crowd of all ages in the school cafetorium. Moments like these, when communities gather to witness and celebrate the creativity of children, affirm their immense potential. Safe, affirming spaces for learning are critical for children's flourishing.
Born and raised in California, I was educated in public schools, as are my children. I'm from an immigrant family that is intercultural and interfaith: Jewish, Black, Ifa, Brazilian. Our journeys to the U.S. came through Africa, South America, the Middle East and Europe. Cultures that don't often coexist found a home inside ours. First generation on my mother's side, and second generation on my father's, my parents also attended public schools. My grandparents, however, were not allowed to attend school as children. It was against the law for Jewish children to attend school. Families from different cultures have experienced obstacles, often far more severe. When poet Nikky Finney accepted the National Book Award for her work "Head Off and Split," she used her platform to reference American history. She spoke about the laws that forbade African-descended people from studying, citing "the slave codes of South Carolina, 1739." The lack of access to a fulfilling education has always been a part of any plan to reproduce social inequality. Finney wrote, "the ones who longed to read and write, but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men."
The fate of our children balances on top of this historical frame. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison wrote that "our race-inflected culture not only exists, it thrives. The question is whether it thrives as a virus or a bountiful harvest of possibilities."
Reimagining and reinvesting in public education is critical for any society to move forward. I've come to believe that we will never achieve the lofty aims of participation, belonging and democracy without reimagining our culture. Arts education, when dedicated to multiplicity and inclusion, can help us learn from the past and imagine who we wish to become.
Positive connections between home, neighborhood and school make a difference in children's lives. I've witnessed this vividly during arts and cultural activities in school. When my son's second-grade class drew imaginary passports to visit the African Savanna to study the ecosystem of the rhinoceros, his desire to learn was ignited by wanting to know more about where his father's ancestors hailed from. During this activity, students studied science, geography, language arts and sculpture simultaneously — a pedagogical approach called arts integration.
In his novel, "Long Division," Kiese Laymon wrote, "Only those who can read, write and love can move forward and backward in time." The power of literacy also flows through music, song, dance and image making. When the arts and culture are included in the curriculum the possibilities of literacy and learning are expanded 360 degrees to include the full breadth of human communications technologies, both ancient and futuristic.
Children deserve to be welcomed into the world of knowledge. There is no reason why rigorous study cannot be laced with fun. I imagine schools of the future as circular rather than hierarchical, community-nourished rather than individualistic. We can reimagine teaching and learning from art forms that have been regenerated through community process. For example, the art of Capoeira happens in a roda, or in the round. It is knit together through intergenerational relationships and performed through movement and call and response singing. Capoeiristas learn the history and geography from improvising in a ritual structure. Our bodies skim the floor and become airborne through spins and inversions, all this during healthful teaching and learning.
I've come to see education as a shared endeavor — a collaborative investment to welcome the next generation into the circle and fortify them as harbingers of the future. Including the arts and culture in education allows children to know themselves and each other as culture makers — people endowed with the tremendous powers of the imagination.
During the making of the Artbound special, "Arts Education," I visited public schools throughout L.A. County with a team of documentarians. This gave me an opportunity to see how inclusive arts education builds communities where students, teachers and neighborhoods can thrive.
Connecting Home and School Cultures
At Los Angeles High School for the Arts, you can feel the impact of arts education on the school culture in every classroom — from theater to language arts, and geometry to biology. In one science classroom we visited, a line graph arced across the white board with formulas scribbled below. Handmade models of internal human organs adorned the space that students made from felt, crochet and beadwork.
This is how your body works. You, and your body, are a miraculous creative and scientific project.
Curiosity, artistry and intellectualism combine to create a welcoming, exciting place to learn. This is what a science classroom feels like in a public high school for the arts. Students were teamed up to solve the problem on the board. I walked around the class observing the students collaborative process and asked them about their work.
"Chemistry?" I guessed.
"Yes," a teenager said. "It's fun."
I nodded, returned his smile and asked to meet his teacher. The young man pointed across the room.
"There's Melendez." He educated me, "They is their pronoun."
I walked over and introduced myself to his teacher, Juan Melendez, a creative nerd who enjoys teaching.
"What is it like to teach science at school of the arts?" I asked.
Light streamed through the windows. I'd already observed the school's theater program earlier that day. We'd visited a classroom with sewing machines, costumes on mannequins, colorful sketches and architectural maquettes made by students. We'd witnessed student teams present original set and lighting designs, peeked into an acting rehearsal and walked through a recreation of the historical Coconut Grove Theater designed by esteemed African American architect Paul Revere Williams. I was impressed by students' respectful, nonchalant comfort with collaboration throughout. Students were excelling in the performing arts, but how was this impacting their learning community across the curriculum?
"I can teach more," Melendez said. "This set of students is willing to go where I want them to go. They are resilient."
After teaching in other secondary schools, Melendez preferred teaching science to students who study the arts. Physiology lent itself to three-dimensional work, he mentioned.
I studied the detailed silver stitching on a biologically accurate model of the human heart made by a high school student.
"It's a lot about self-expression," Melendez said. "There are different ways to teach. They are learning in a creative way."
Melendez believed that students' exposure to design made them detail-oriented and confident in visualizing their ideas, while their background in theater made them open and communicative.
Down the hall, math teacher Andrés Galan wore matching fluorescent red glasses and guayabera, a lightweight men's summer shirt. Formulas and calculations were all over the walls, but we also found a drum set, guitar and microphone in his math class. At lunch, students gathered there to do homework, and perform romantic ballads on the guitar in Spanish.
Edwin Reconco, a PEN America Fellow and Language Arts teacher, said that "creativity helps writers communicate meaning." Students in his class used audio and web technologies to broadcast their stories through their podcast The Four-0-Eight. The podcast website states: "How often do some people pause to listen to us teenagers? To our stories? Our fears? Our hopes and dreams? The Four-0-Eight is our space. It's here for us to emerge with a voice that is loud, powerful and proud."
You know you are in a good place when your inner child whispers, "I wish I could have gone to school here." Rereading my notes from the site visit, I found in curly blue ink: "Kids and teachers get to be smart here."
Enthusiasm for Learning
One brisk morning, we visited McKinley K-8 School of Integrated Arts located in a well-cared for, historical building in Compton, California. The school entryway sports images of children in colorful attire interspersed with playful polka dots. The colors, shapes and smiles signal that this is a space for kids.
"We were the school that no one knew existed," grinned the Principal Jennifer Moon. "Everything goes hand in hand. The arts lead into everything else." (Since this writing, Moon has become the Director of Educational Services at Compton Unified School District.)
We met teacher leaders charged with instructing students in all subject areas and providing the groundwork for students' education.
Tahasijan Taylor, a lead arts educator who specializes in dance, was a galvanizing force on their team. The teachers' enthusiasm was palpable.
"Learning doesn't happen the same way for everyone," Taylor said.
Teachers took positive risks to invest in student creativity, and the school became a place where children and teachers could flourish. They created a welcoming culture at school where children in the neighborhood could flourish. They wrangled mildly-used art tables for students and turned an ordinary classroom into an open space for choreography and performance equipped with a dance-friendly floor and mirrors. The school serves an important purpose in the neighborhood. Many of the students struggle to have their basic needs met, including access to housing and meals, much less broad band and technology. They welcome students who are navigating the foster care system or facing homelessness.
"Our students go through a lot of trauma," one teacher said.
Principal Moon explained that the school had not always been such a positive place. Before this team of educators gained momentum, McKinley was the first school in California to be declared a "parent trigger school." Parent trigger, or parent empowerment, provisions were enacted by the California Department of Education in 2006 for "persistently lowest-achieving schools." In McKinley's case, the charter school company that intended to take over the helm was proven fraudulent, and it remained under the auspices of the school district rather than assuming an independent charter school structure.
It turns out that their arts-rich approach resulted in positive changes in attendance, behavior, literacy, and satisfaction — or what Moon called "smiles on their faces."
This elementary school chose to grow a thriving learning community through the arts. They wove the arts into goal setting and assessment procedures, included the arts in teacher professional development across all grade levels and provided weekly instruction in music, dance, and visual arts to students. The school has become a place of pride for the neighborhood, and a site for exchange between local residents and regional collaborators.
"Arts education has had a profound impact on our students — from an academic, social, and emotional perspective" states the school's annual report. "Our art programs have also helped foster a remarkable school culture and positive climate for students and community." Moon explained that they tried out new methods and evaluated their progress to guide each step forward.
"That kids come to school daily is a blessing," said Moon. "[But] they have to take tests, and they have to show growth."
It turns out that their arts-rich approach resulted in positive changes in attendance, behavior, literacy, and satisfaction — or what Moon called "smiles on their faces." The annual report reveals that "since the inception of our various art programs, attendance rates have increased 6% (from 2016 - 2019), disciplinary office referrals have decreased by 18%, and students who have met or exceeded ELA [English Language Arts] have increased by 27%." In sum, more children are showing up to learn, feeling comfortable at school, and gaining the power of literacy.
As an Angeleno born during the Watts Rebellion, whose son was born just before the L.A. Rebellion, I couldn't help but notice that this successful team was intercultural. Moon is Korean American; Taylor is African American. The children and arts teacher leaders we met were African American and Latinx. Moon grew up in L.A.'s Koreatown, and her parents lost their clothing store during the rebellion. She became the first Korean American in Administration in the Compton Unified School District (CUSD), dutifully mentored by an Assistant Superintendent who was also an immigrant, but of African origin. She has been with the district for 17 years now, and her immigrant experience grew into compassion for the struggles and aspirations of her students' families. Taylor was born and raised in South Los Angeles. She brought her depth of knowledge and commitment to children through the arts. Together they inspired a community of educators and students.
"We are learning that we are arts teachers," one teacher said. "I am art. It was a shift in our thinking."
After the meeting, we observed classes, including a dance rehearsal. Children practiced a choreography set to the song "Stand Up" by Cynthia Erivo. The children were utterly focused, determined to bring Tubman's story to light. The dancers were grouped into three tableaus, and the emotion of the music honoring Harriet Tubman's courage came through their kinesthetic expression. They moved together with slow sustained gestures, reaching and contracting to the lyrics of the song. After their performance, students fielded responses to our questions about their work. Their pride and pleasure in their performance shone through.
Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian educational philosopher, defined literacy as "reading the world and reading the word." Powerful learning helps us understand what is within us, around us, and beyond what we see in our daily lives.
Our regional culture is a mosaic of identities, and, according to the last census, 27% of Californians are foreign-born. It is no wonder that California is a hub of the creative economy because the arts and culture grow from the same root. The work of artists is to make culture.
We cultivate the qualities of open-mindedness, cultural competency and empathy at the intersection of self and community. The arts provide ways to learn from history, and to refresh how we see ourselves and each other.
California is a vibrant, intercultural region. No longer can we speak of minorities and majorities when it comes to who we are. Cultural competency is everyone's homework — in school, at home and at work.
When students make art, they are reimagining and remaking themselves, the culture of their schools, neighborhoods, and futures. Arts and cultural education help us do the important work of reimagining community. Every time a child creates, and is seen or heard, a new door to the future opens.