“Creativity takes courage.”
– Henri Matisse
It did not surprise any of us that the young man would reveal his deepest, darkest secret during the storytelling part of our class. That’s the kind of environment that we, as Arts Education providers, set up in our programs: respectful, compassionate and non-judgmental. The boy’s words were shocking and his classmates were stunned by his brave act of admission (for many of them resonated with his story of trauma and violence in his home and their community), but most importantly, he had revealed himself, through his storytelling, in a class where his artistic yearnings were honored and encouraged and he walked out of that room feeling empowered — and scared, of course — but ready and better equipped to go strongly into his future.
Arts education can save lives in our school system. I am not exaggerating. I have witnessed it myself. Film programs where students write and produce their own stories. Drama and theatre workshops where students can role play and learn the many choices they have when confronting fear. Poetry and writing classes. Hip hop and music work. Dance and movement. Art classes using every mode of artistic expression – all of these opportunities give these kids new ways to express themselves in a world growing more complicated and dangerous for them every day. This is the beauty and importance of arts education.
We have seen our young student artists delicately bring up such sensitive topics as aggression and violence in their homes and community, the pain of seeing loved ones suffer under the scourge of alcohol and drugs, the feeling of being pressured to do something one would not normally do (bullying, harassing, fear mongering) and the death of loved ones through gang violence, suicide and mental illness. These subjects do not normally come up in our science and math classes, as important as they are in our student’s curriculum.
Until recently, it has been all too common to have folks sit on the sidelines and not talk openly about what they are seeing and feeling in their homes and communities. Today, more than ever, in the wake of the inspiring Black Lives Matter protests and horrific filmed deaths of African American citizens, it has become imperative for all of us to speak out about what we are seeing and feeling- especially our young ones who are caught in the crossfire.
When our students know that they have a safe place through the arts to explore and learn about these often conflicting and intense experiences, they feel stronger and more able to face them. They are learning new techniques, new communication skills and are now able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes with empathy and compassion.
The data and feedback coming from the principals and teachers of these schools is quite remarkable. When asked what social, emotional or behavioral skills these administrators saw in the students after their exposure to an arts education programs- the replies were as follows:
- Thank you for getting so many of my students to experience a safe place where they could express themselves with their stories.
- Problem-solving empathy
- Students learned decision making skills and how to stand up for themselves
- Students learned how to compromise and negotiate
- How to disagree nonviolently
- Speaking honestly- more students are feeling comfortable sharing
- Students recognize how one’s behavior affects others
- The consequences of drugs and alcohol- drinking and driving
- Interacting respectfully with people of other genders
- How to get the kids to communicate effectively when they are angry
- How to compromise and de-escalating conflict
- To communicate their feelings through stories
A new question: Have you seen students using skills they learned in our program outside the workshop? Which skills?
- I’ve noticed more students being honest about how they’re feeling without being combative
- It was awesome to see the kids communicate together without violence
- I appreciate you getting certain students for whom the stories were a delicate matter to engage with each other. The students learned to give positive feedback to each other despite coming in at first with some reticence about sharing their stories
- Arts education is so necessary because the kids walk out of our classrooms realizing that they are more alike than they are different
- They should never judge a book by its cover
- They didn’t realize how their joking could be so hurtful
- When someone is shy or withdrawn, the kids now wonder what is going on in their life rather than think they are a “nerd”
- That it’s important to stop and consider how one’s words and actions will be taken
- It’s important to find someone you trust to talk to you about difficult situations
- The lesson of needing to have more respect for yourself
- It’s important to listen to your healthy friends
- It’s possible to communicate in an honest and non-confrontational non-dramatic way
One of the prompts that was given for a writing exercise was do the kids have any regrets about their behavior or actions from the past having establish some trust and mutual respect in the circle the answers were enlightening.
- I wish I had been nicer
- I regret letting myself be bullied
- I regret the bullying I did
- I wish I had studied more
- I wish I had been a better friend
- I wish I had not let my friend down – I wanted to be accepted
Finally, as proof that these classes are so important to our kids, an extraordinary event happened on the last day as the administrators and guests were sitting in to witness the student’s final projects. Before the class was completed the final bell rung indicating the end of the day but not one kid got up to leave. They each waited patiently so that the final few participants could show their work. This was a remarkable touching moment for all of us, as it showed the newfound respect they had for each other and the arts.
At a time when arts education is being severely cut from our schools, these programs are vital to the health and well-being of our kids.
The ability for our children to share their stories and experiences (in any number of creative modalities) is imperative to help them process their experiences especially during difficult and uncertain times.
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.
Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
– Georgia O’Keeffe
Bradford Bancroft, LMFT, RDT
Bradford Bancroft spent 25 years as a working actor doing theatre, films, and television around the world. He studied theatre at The Choate School and music at Yale before coming to California Institute of the Arts in the early 70’s to join the theatre and film school.
In the 80s and 90s, Bradford starred in films with actors such as Tom Hanks, and became a Registered Drama Therapist working in battered women’s shelters, hospitals, schools, prisons, and a great deal of time in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He has earned his MFT license and has added a private practice in Glendale to his busy schedule. He calls his work REHEARSE FOR LIFE.