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Making ‘Em Want To Sing, One Seventh Grader At A Time

I spent the morning talking to 7th and 8th graders about careers in the arts. The assistant theatre manager (ATM) and I sort of tag-teamed the presentation which included slides on some of shows to help communicate the need for good skills in research, reading, writing, communication, collaboration, math, technology and dedication alongside the specific skills you need for each discipline. Since the ATM and I had different career paths that brought us to our current jobs, we talked a little bit about that while quizzing the students on their knowledge and involvement in the arts.

On the drive over today, I couldn’t help feeling I might be selling the students a flawed bill of goods. The radio was full of stories about proposals to liquidate the National Endowments and the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores. Against a backdrop of news that arts and literature were not valued in the country, are students going to believe that the arts have something to offer them? Now granted, many 7th and 8th graders don’t listen to NPR every morning, but the message is still out there, each story contributing to students’ general outlooks and attitudes.

The only bit of sunshine was a story about Portland, OR which discussed that people keep moving to Portland even though there aren’t enough jobs. What keeps drawing them there? The overall culture and atmosphere of the city, including a mention of the music scene. I knew I had heard this sentiment before so I did a Google search before sitting down to write and sure enough, I found stories from 2010, 2009 and even earlier where people talked about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene. You can find plenty of blog entries on the subject as well. I was pleased to continually hear a story where the arts were mentioned as an attractive element of a city.

When I got to the school, we discovered we were assigned to choral room. That seemed like a good environment in which to talk about the performing arts. We spoke to the music teacher there and he told us because of the high stakes testing, they no longer had a drama program in the school. This was rather disappointing to us, of course. However, we also discovered that he has over 200 students auditioning for 65 slots in his choral classes. He said it used to be 100 students until American Idol first aired and he got a surge of interest. Then when Glee started airing, he got another surge. Now he has to turn away twice as many students as he can accept. The choral director actually used to teach band at the high school down the street from me, but moved when he started a family because he wasn’t getting home until 10:00 pm and then had to get back up at 5:00 to return to work.

Next door was the band room where the son of one of our college’s retired music professors teaches music. According to the principal, both the professor and his wife come in pretty much daily to help their son teach the class. If music gets cut in their school, (and the choral teacher is getting a masters in another subject area to hedge against that), not only will the school lose its music teachers, but the efforts of two parents as well. If the arts programs get cut from these schools, it won’t be because of lack of interest from students or lack of dedication from teachers.

This school does not serve zip codes where the education reflects the values of an affluent community either. This isn’t to suggest that the parents aren’t pushing their students to do well, merely that the school isn’t in a place where people automatically assume the students will excel and succeed based wholly on the neighborhood. I was pleased to see that the arts didn’t face an entirely uphill battle in relation to communicating the value of the arts in one’s life to their students. There were some good role models and practices in front of the students.

Americans for the Arts has set up an easy way for you to write your representatives in Congress about continuing to fund the NEA and arts education. I like the format because it is much more flexible about allowing you to mix your own thoughts with pre-written text than most email campaigns allow. I have had it bookmarked for a couple days because I didn’t really want to go with a lot of the pre-generated text, but hadn’t quite thought of a way to make what I had to say personal for my representatives. Thinking about what I saw today, I think I finally have something that will create the connection I want them to make.

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