Taylor Correia-Podolske’s great-grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and the high-school junior was concerned about the isolation that her beloved relative and others like her suffer.
After Correia-Podolske learned that musical memory was often intact even when other memory was gone, she decided to construct a senior-year project identifying a community need and proposing a way to address that need artistically. She engaged the residents of her great-grandmother’s care facility in communal singing, using songs from their childhood in the African island nation of Cape Verde.
Correia-Podolske researched appropriate songs, rehearsed them, and then led the group in sing-alongs. The recordings of her sessions show how successful her efforts were — a room full of smiling seniors singing and clapping along. Correia-Podolske is now in college studying to be a nurse, but she intends to bring music into her future profession.
As a founding teacher and the current principal of Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts, I have, over the past 20 years, had the privilege of hearing many young students develop their voices.
Like Correia-Podolske, who wanted to use her voice to connect with her great-grandmother, our students present their proposals to a review panel of outside educators and artists as well as business and nonprofit leaders.
The strongest project ideas are allocated small grants for implementation in the student’s senior year.
In her final reflection for the project, Correia-Podolske wrote that she learned through the experience that she had something powerful to contribute to her community and, most importantly, that she had a responsibility to use her abilities as an artist to make an impact. “I want to bring music to wherever I work and to make a program focusing on positivity and making sure everyone is delighted in rough times,“ Correia-Podolske said, writing in her project: “If you don’t take action, then who will?”
A number of our students go on to be professional vocalists, just as we have had students go on to be professional instrumentalists, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists and fashion designers. But while our arts curricula are pre-conservatory, our intention is not solely to prepare professional artists.
The vast majority of our graduates go on to other professions, just like Correia-Podolske. We have graduates who are engineers, lawyers, business owners, teachers, social workers and product designers. Like Correia-Podolske, our graduates say that no matter where they go, the training that an arts-based education instilled in them is something they carry with them throughout their lives. Our true purpose, as our mission states, is for our students to be engaged members of a democratic society. We want our students, in short, to experience the power of their own voices.
There are many arguments for the value of arts education. Some studies link arts education to increased student attendance and engagement as well as reduced disciplinary issues. Others point to the kinds of skills students learn in the arts that are generalizable across subject areas, such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication. Still other studies, less persuasively, connect arts instruction to higher levels of academic achievement.
At BAA, we have been most influenced by our colleagues Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, professors at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design and Boston College, respectively, who identify in their research the “dispositions” gained through arts instruction: developing craft, engaging and persisting, envisioning, expressing, observing, reflecting, stretching and exploring, and understanding art worlds.
We have also learned that the power of an arts education is in the experience of creating an identity as an artist.
Artists have the opportunity and, according to Correia-Podolske, the responsibility to have a greater impact in the world, and we have found arts instruction most effective when it enables students to discover that power. When students captivate an audience through their acting or inspire an audience with their dancing or create a visual-arts piece that makes the viewer appreciate the world a little bit differently, they experience that power. Young people want to feel like what they do matters, that their voices matter. Students respond to curricula that create authentic moments of agency and ownership. When students have opportunities to act as artists, they have their moment.
We need to invest in arts education because we need artists — but we also need teachers, business owners, engineers and nurses who have had the experience of being artists. When you are an artist, you connect to that part of you that is most human. “Music is way more than just sound,” Correia-Podolske recently wrote to me. “It is something that can be used to express emotion, a way to focus [and a way to] provide a safe space within us. What I learned from sharing what I love makes me want to make a difference.”
We believe that all students, like Correia-Podolske, should have such experiences.
Anne Clark is headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s only public high school for visual and performing arts.
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