I entered my journey into a public education career through the arts. As a student at Berklee College of Music, I volunteer-taught classes in piano and electronic music composition to children and teens at the Daniel Marr Boys & Girls Club in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. After graduating from Berklee, I worked there full-time as the Assistant Arts Director, teaching in and coordinating the music program, which offered tuition-free piano, guitar, computer music, vocals, and music theory instruction to students.
I loved seeing the joy and excitement in the students’ eyes as they entered our workspace. They were excited to touch and make sounds with instruments, sing together, and learn to play their favorite songs for our well-attended winter and spring performances. Playing music with one another enabled me to connect with my students and their families, and soon they began to share their stories with me.
One mother told me of her daughter being so nervous over 3rd grade state testing that she began to have accidents at school. Two sisters who studied piano with me told me that a speaker had come to their high school, one of Boston’s revered exam schools, and told the audience of young ladies that most of them would have two babies by age 21. Parents frequently asked me for homework help, as they struggled to understand the “new math” that schools were teaching.
Learning about the schooling obstacles that presented challenges to my students and their families prompted me to enroll as a student in Lesley University’s M.Ed. in Creative Arts in Learning and Elementary Education program to begin my path towards teaching in the public schools. While attending Lesley, I was introduced to the work of arts proponent and Stanford professor Dr. Eliot Eisner through my course readings at Lesley, and I have hung on for some time to a tattered paper copy of his 1997 article in Educational Leadership titled “Educating for Tomorrow’s Job and Life Skills” in which he argues that:
A school’s mission is wider than learning how to make a living. It is a place where students can learn how to make a life.
Eisner then goes on to describe eight key competencies developed through arts integration. This article has helped me many times over the years in championing the use of the arts in providing a quality education for the students I teach.
Experiencing the arts-integrated Youth Equity Stewardship work of YES! co-founders Benjie Howard and Wade Colwell-Sandoval has not only brought me back to the musical and narrative roots of my own education career, but it has shown me strikingly exemplary practices within two of the key competencies that Eisner defines: framing the world from an aesthetic perspective and fostering the ability to make decisions in the absence of rule.
Framing the World from an Aesthetic Perspective
As part of the third session of their YES! work with DuPage District 88’s high schoolers, Benjie and Wade guide students in understanding how the combination of music and narrative can be a powerful force for change. Benjie opens up the discussion by connecting to the students’ prior learning in equity work, reminding the students that they had previously discussed issues of social dominance in systems. He then shared the goal of the third session—moving into the realm of problem solving and finding solutions to community issues.
Benjie and Wade then perform their folk and hip-hop tune “Music Voice Message Movement” (MVMM), and the students appear soothed by the music, reading along with the lyrics in their workbooks as if they are hymnals.
Pan to the right you’ve got society in fright
Video cameras in homes replacing nightlights
Like fear creating dysfunction and disarray
Is this the price we pay in the USA?
Following this powerful piece, Wade explains the importance of the musical medium: “Music connects us. It’s not just something that somebody else does. It’s about how we walk through the world.”
The YES! process of using music for social justice work is then laid out for the students. The music, in absentia of words, provides a natural source of connection. From there, the artist acknowledges his or her voice and develops content to be carried as a message. Finally, the movement is the achievement of music, voice, and message in developing awareness of a social problem.
This process readily articulates a means of achieving one of Eisner’s key cognitive competencies that the arts develop—the ability to frame the world from an aesthetic perspective. The MVMM framework that Benjie and Wade have articulated for creating a musical and poetic work allows for students to present their views on community and global issues through a fresh and inspiring medium.
Fostering an Awareness of Multiple Solutions and Answers
A repeated theme in the work of the YES! program is the importance of acknowledging the versatility of narratives and perspectives within a community through multiple arts modalities. Students are encouraged to share their personal stories during whole group conversations at the beginning of each gathering, either freely or through directed questions.
From this foundation, students then share narratives about their experiences with the dynamics of dominance—the ability to turn a blind eye to injustice, the assumption that there is a singular right way, and the acceptance of a legacy of privilege. I was impressed by the DuPage students’ ease with naming the inequities they had witnessed in the presence of their teachers and administrators who were supervising the sessions and even more so by the adults’ willingness to give students the space to share.
Our dress code doesn’t allow crop tops, but black girls are punished more than white girls for dress code violations.
Students in credit recovery are in the basement for days on end.
My teacher gives me A’s because he’s my soccer coach, but I turn in work late all the time.
After students share these experiences of dominant power relationships, Benjie and Wade guide them through a process of Creative Resistance, a means of taking action in the face of injustice that allows students to respond with thoughtful consideration rather than to react with emotion.
This process entails asking a question, listening to the response, and taking action through speaking one’s truth.
The students in the DuPage group came up with the question “How do we act when perceived oppression comes from within the school system?” Students discussed a number of issues related to ageism, body image and body positivity, sexism, transparency, and healthy relationships and then discussed possible solutions in small groups.
The solutions students came up with included improved home-school communication, increased positive relationships between teachers and students, developing better content to world connections, and allowing student leadership to have a direct line of communication with school administration.
Through sharing narratives with one another through the modalities of music, movement, and storytelling, the students in the YES! program are able to consider multiple solutions—in Eisner’s words “to develop awareness that good things can be done in different ways.”
While traditional schooling often emphasizes a singular correct answer, arts-integrated education allows for multiple answers that consider differing priorities.