The importance of the arts in schools

by Cheri Marshall

Foreword by Martha Madison: Several weeks ago, I had a wonderful conversation with Cheri Marshall regarding the importance of arts education. I am turning the Dance Arts page in SOKY Happenings over to her this month to share her thoughts with you. Cheri has been most supportive of Dance Arts student Eli Furlong, who is now dancing in New York with the Joffery Ballet, and Warren East High School student Katherine Kinser who dances with the Dance Arts Pre-Professional Program, SOKY Dance Ensemble. 

I am a child of the arts. My introduction to this world of beauty and creativity came in the form of dance lessons just before the age of two. When elementary school rolled around, my music teacher sought me out and encouraged me to be in the choir, and my love for vocal music was born. Later, in middle school, I began playing the oboe in the band, deepening my immersion into the arts. While some feel comfortable in a locker room, the place I excelled, the place I felt like I belonged, was in the music room. The summer after my 8th grade year, my family moved away from my hometown, so I entered high school knowing no one. I found my place, my home, in the choir room.

Arts education isn’t only about finding your place throughout the awkward years of middle and high school. It’s also not just about finding a passion. And it’s not just about finding a career. (Arguably, though, having a passion may be just as important, if not more so, than having a career.) Arts education trains the brain; it uses the mind in a way that connects all the other aspects of the core content subjects. Literature, math, and science combine to create a magical painting. Acoustics, math, and history combine to bring to life a master choral production. Dance and drama encompass elements of all core content from literature to physics and even physical education.

Core content, when separated from the arts, loses its impact and meaning. Imagine learning about history and politics without being able to attach cartoons from newspapers from a certain time period. Is it possible to study the events and politics surrounding the war in Vietnam without considering the youth opposition and counterculture that was made iconic through the music festival at Woodstock? Reading a book with no inflection or emotional attachment to the drama within yields a long, agonizing, and pointless slog.

Arts breathe life into our schools and into our students. Numerous studies have found a correlation between students’ participation in an art form and their increased ability to succeed academically. Participation in the arts uses many different areas of the brain at once which helps to make it function more rapidly when participating in a core content class. For example, in one moment while learning a choral piece, a student is counting, reading notes, reading words, and producing pitch simultaneously.

Unfortunately, regardless of the proof that the arts help make students more successful academically, arts education is continuously being threatened by those who either don’t see a need for it or by those who have forgotten that it is art that makes life beautiful. Educators and politicians talk about celebrating students’ diversity, but often the diversity of their passions is ignored. Not all students are going to find a home in the arts, but they will find a home and an interest in something. Encouraging arts education has the potential to raise test scores, create a positive environment, and enhance the lives of our students. Therefore, states should recognize the importance of the arts and encourage the education of the arts just as they do the core contents.

Parents, allow your children to find a passion, any passion, and, when they do, help them by being involved in the cultivation of that passion. Be involved in your child’s education as a whole, and help support the programs your child is passionate about. Students, do well in all your classes and know that the skills you learn in core content classes helps to make you stronger in your art form and vice versa. Community members, support your local schools and arts institutions; go to the shows and give financial support when you can. Educators, use the arts and encourage your art students in the same way you encourage your athletes. Politicians, please stop drafting and passing legislation that leaves the passions of millions of students behind.

About the Author:

Cheri Marshall is the Warren East Middle and High School Choir Director.

Photos by William Marshall