Mightier than the sword

Writers in the schools: Asheville Middle School students, with teacher Moira Bradford and writer Tamiko Ambrose Murray, after a reading at Malaprop’s.

As a fifth grader at Isaac Dickson Elementary, Alicia was shocked to learn that in the 21st century, cross burnings were still happening — not only in the wider world, but within miles of her home in Asheville. She learned about it through scanning newspaper stories during a writer-in-residency program called “Writing to Change the World,” designed to let students express and share their beliefs through creative writing.

“The issue really resonated with her,” says Janet Hurley, the teaching artist who developed “Writing to Change the World” through Asheville Writers in the Schools, a project of True Ink, the organization she founded to bring creative-writing opportunities to Asheville kids during the school year and through summer camps. “She really thought that kids should be more involved in anti-racism efforts,” Hurley says.

Along with other kids in the class, Alicia refined and honed her essay against racism, audio-recorded it in a professional studio, and then delivered it on stage at the TEDx Youth event (a division of the globally implemented Technology, Entertainment and Design movement) at Isaac Dickson last year.

“Starting out, she didn’t think that her own words or ideas were good enough,” says Hurley. But by the end of the experience, Alicia had made a declaration: “I’m going to do it. I’m going to be a writer.” Working through the creative process helped Alicia discover not only a passion, but a confidence that she’d never had before.

Recent studies show that in the years between kindergarten and the end of high school, 1 in 7 students in the U.S. are bullied. In the years between fourth and eighth grade, that number reaches as high as 90 percent. While school administrators grapple with the latest behavioral and cognitive approaches to solve the problem, arts organizations have begun to confront it with creativity.

School budget cuts leave little room for such programs; however, creative partnerships such as the TAPAS program — Teaching Artists Presenting in Asheville Schools, a partnership of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, LEAF in Schools & Streets and UNCA’s Craft Studies Program — pool community resources to get artists into schools. 

Arts education provides kids with “teachable moments,” says Tim Mikulski, a program director at Americans for the Arts. And those moments can help them see how damaging bullying can be, and give them the self-confidence to step outside of the roles of bullied and bully that often develop at schools.

Anne Coombs, founder of Rock Academy N.C. (based at the Asheville Music School), agrees. She started the academy in 2007 as a summer program for kids ages 9 to 17, and now offers school-year programs for students who have some prior musical experience. “Kids who ordinarily wouldn’t be friends during school become quite close,” due to their involvement with the program, she says.

Part of that is the nature of the discipline: working as a musical ensemble requires communication, says Coombs. “If they’re shy at first, they have to overcome it. They have to speak up.” Performing in front of an audience is also an exercise in confidence building. A kid who may have mastered an instrument still needs to learn to be a performer. Coombs says that many go from standing stock-still to developing their own kind of stage presence. With older and younger kids working together, the younger ones can learn from watching older students, and the older kids gain confidence from mentoring.

“We get kids from all walks of life, all income levels,” Coombs says. Music serves as a common thread for kids who may lead very different lives away from school. It can be a gateway to greater tolerance.

Taking that concept a step further, experts say that the performing arts give kids an opportunity to experience for themselves what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes. As part of its education programming, North Carolina Stage Company has for the past few years offered residencies to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Francine Delany New School for Children. Some of them use a national anti-bullying curriculum focused on tolerance and conflict resolution, among other subjects. Through role-playing, kids have the opportunity to explore different situations through the words and actions of both the bully and the bullied. Students come away from the experience with greater empathy and confidence, says Lauren Kriel, education associate with N.C. Stage.

But performing arts don’t have to explicitly focus on combating bullying to be effective in doing so. Kriel has also facilitated N.C. Stage’s “On the Fly” initiative as part of Asheville Middle School’s In Real Life (IRL) after-school program. One of several arts activities offered at IRL, “On The Fly” introduces kids to improvisational acting, presenting them with different situations in which they have to make quick decisions and go forward. Encouraging kids to work together helps them develop confidence and learn to cooperate.

“They may have had trouble during the school day,” Kriel says. “But they leave that at the door. Coming to the program may even be the thing they’ve looked forward to all day. And even if they start in a bad mood, they leave with smiles on their faces.” Students fill out pre- and post-program self-evaluations, and the results indicate that the benefits of theater education are very real: surveys show a 10-percent average increase in kids’ perception of their own confidence after participating in the program.

That’s partly because the kids get an opportunity to do things they can’t do in any other part of their lives, says Brent Skidmore of UNCA’s Craft Studies program, who with Ginger Huebner of Roots + Wings School of Art developed the Asheville Community Design Lab program at IRL. Through the program, middle-schoolers work on collaborative art projects with UNCA students. Interacting as equals with college students is a great confidence booster for the kids — but so is the satisfaction of seeing the mural they painted transform a dull hallway of the school, or the collage they created screen-printed on bags sold through Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project at local farmers markets. “They love seeing that their voice matters,” says Skidmore.

While blockbuster TV shows such as Glee may be changing perceptions, artistic kids have often been stereotyped as outsiders. It’s time to frame that differently. “The arts give kids an opportunity to be in community,” says Hurley.

— Joanne O’Sullivan lives in Asheville.

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