Model D Speaker Series on creative education recapped

On the eve of a new school year, two groups on different ends of the state convened at two urban youth education institutions for a simulcast discussion of the role of arts in education. Rapid Growth, our sister publication in Grand Rapids, convened a group of interested citizens at the Creative Youth Center, while Detroiters got together at the Henry Ford Academy Elementary School, a public charter school where the arts are an integrated piece of the curriculum.

The Detroit audience, composed of a cross section of arts educators, teachers, and other interested citizens, joined in a spirited conversation with expert panelists, while also enjoying delicious food provided by Social Sushi.

Henry Ford Academy Elementary School opened in 2012 at the site of the former Doty Elementary School in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood. The building, the seeming archetype of a neighborhood school, is listed on the National Register of Historic places and was beautifully renovated when HFA moved in. Though the school's charter is authorized by Grand Valley State University, the school has a strong relationship with Detroit's College for Creative Studies, which houses HFA Elementary's older brother, the HFA School for Creative Studies high school, in its Taubman Center for Design Education Complex.

The discussion was moderated by Jennifer White, host of the All Things Considered program on Michigan Radio. Panelists included Terry Blackhawk, Founder and Executive Director of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a program that has been placing professional writers as teachers inside Detroit classrooms since 1995, Shawntai Brown, an InsideOut alumna, Andre Dowell, Artistic Administrator at the Sphinx Organization, a long standing music education program in Detroit that promotes diversity in the arts, Anita Bates, an art teacher at the Henry Ford Academy School for Creative Studies, Roberta Lucas, of Living Arts, an organization that promotes community development in Southwest Detroit through arts education, and Amanda Uhle of 826Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based organization that supports the development of students' creative and expository writing skills while helping teachers inspire their students to write.

Jennifer White set the context, stating a fact that is all too familiar a refrain in discussions around education: funding for arts education has taken a back seat. With the rise in importance of standardized testing and the elevation of the importance of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, arts is often playing second fiddle in the classroom.

"STEM isn't the only way for all students," said Amanda Uhle. "The artistic students will help drive our economy in the future." Arts educator Anita Bates echoed this sentiment, though clarified that her goal and the goal of HFA is not just to create professional artists, dismissing the commonly held view that arts education is only for the naturally gifted. "You don't have to be an arts professional to appreciate art."

"We're here to help kids understand that there are many things that connect to the arts--maybe its just changing the way you view the world and how to do things with different eyes," said Bates, who teaches her students, and in some instances their parents, the skills of creative problem solving through HFA's "Design Thinking" curriculum, which utilizes the arts to think about real-world problems. "People are creative beings," noted Bates. "Life is problem solving

Robert Lucas of Literary Arts agreed. "There is creativity in every process, regardless of the discipline," she said.

A resounding theme emerged as the panelists discussed the role of the arts in youth education. Over and over, panelists stressed the importance of the arts in developing the confidence of young students--a confidence that is easily translated to other subjects (including the STEM fields) and general life skills.

Shawntai Brown gave a testimonial of how participating in the InsideOut program boosted her confidence by saying, "I felt like a college student as a teen."

An audience member noted that all but one of the panelists were not teachers in traditional schools and that much of the art education available to young people is administered by community organizations and nonprofits due to decreases in arts education funding by schools.

Part of the problem, as Andre Dowell of the Sphinx Organization pointed out, is that "people don't know about the opportunities" that exist for arts education. Organizations like 826Michigan are attempting to rectify this disconnect. "We're a teacher-centric organization," said Uhle, whose organization works diligently to partner with local teachers to inspire students to love writing.

Terry Blackhawk made a point that seems simple, but is often taken for granted. "Arts education teaches kids that they can have fun in a school environment." As Shawntai Brown, who attributes much of her success in college and beyond to her participation in the InsideOut program, pointed out, "Arts education is not extra-curricular--it's essential."

Matthew Lewis is a project editor for Issue Media Group.

Video by Oren Goldenberg

All photos by Doug Coombe
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Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.