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Theater Education Drives Innovation: Hong Kong, USA, and the Economics of Arts Education Policy

February 25, 2013

As a teaching artist, I’ve had the privilege of spending a few years teaching drama, directing performances, and leading workshops in Hong Kong.  It was wonderfully fulfilling, meaningful, and well-compensated work; exactly the sort I struggled to find in the US in enough quantity to make a living in my field. Why is Hong Kong so keen on drama? There are a few reasons arts teachers, and particularly drama teachers, are in demand in Hong Kong.

Language development: Hong Kong’s official languages are Cantonese and English (a legacy of British Colonialism, though the Hand-over, as it is commonly called, from the British back to China occurred in 1997). Cantonese is largely the mother tongue, but as English is typically thought of both as prestigious and necessary to success, it is taught in every school and every grade level. Drama exercises are extremely well suited to language study, practice, and acquisition; many studies support their effectiveness.* For this reason, drama teachers are sought out either for full-time positions in schools, or via other organizations. Here in California, we face a similar challenge in preparing ESL learners to be engaged citizens. It’s interesting, however, thank unlike in Hong Kong, using arts for ESL development seems to be among our lowest public priorities according to our funding patterns.

Innovation mindset: In addition to language acquisition, drama classes help people learn to think “outside the box”. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, led in part by the efforts of Hong Kong Drama/Theater Education Forum and its accumulation of research in the field, have concluded that the skills drama education affords people are those most necessary for success in business and entrepreneurship, as well as for balanced personhood and community involvement. In the Confucian method of education, rote learning plays the leading role, and individualistic creativity is discouraged. As a colony, Hong Kong became a haven for independent thinkers whose lives were put in jeopardy during the cultural revolution. The government of Hong Kong is now leading the Chinese state towards an innovation mindset; recognizing that rigid conformism does not make for successful business people. Spontaneity and free association are a few of the necessary talents developed largely through the arts, and drama in particular. Public speaking and fluency.  A sense of confidence. The ability to work as a team, under pressure.  Creative thinking skills. The ability to innovate. A free imagination.

Americans continue to rationalize our historic economic power and continuing potential using a narrative in which we inhabit an innovator archetype. The conceit holds that simply by being born in the US, a person has a certain ownership of creativity, talent, and the entrepreneurial spirit; and that such characteristics are somehow denied to others born and raised in India, or China.  In reality, these skills and values are developed, not bred, are we are quickly losing our hold on them, while other nations make the choices necessary to invigorate their populaces and economies by funding the arts as a fundamental part of a basic education.

* (Coyle and Bisgyer 1984, DiPietro 1982, 1985, 1987, Green and Harker 1988, Haught 2005, Kao 1992, 1994, 1995, Kramsch 1985, Nunan 1987, Sjorslev 1987, Shacker et al. 1993, Wilburn 1992, Wagner 1988 and more). 

Contributed by Jean E. Johnstone

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I couldn’t read until I was in 4th grade

September 26th, 2012

 I couldn’t read until I was in the 4th grade. Because I’m now a literate adult who excelled in high school and then went to Yale, people are often surprised to learn this about me.  And, to be fair, it’s not the complete story.  More accurate would be to say that I couldn’t read fluently until 4th grade.  I could figure out what something said by sounding out the words (which is not a great system for tackling English), but I couldn’t read easily like other kids.

My parents and teachers were concerned and confused that my reading skills didn’t match up with my ability to articulate thoughts and solve problems.  I was tested for learning disabilities (no straight-forward diagnosis) and tutored.  

Fluency came slowly, but during the seemly endless years until it did, reading was my nemesis: incredibly frustrating and tedious and, to say the least, NOT fun: I didn’t read for true entertainment until I was in my teens. Also, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. No TV plus can’t read equals a lot of time to fill. 

 Thank goodness for art.  I filled my time drawing thousands upon thousands of pictures, walking around our yard singing, and telling myself stories.  Sometimes I wrote the stories down. To this day when I read these stories, trying to decode my 3rd-grade spelling fills me with sort of sad tenderness for my young, doing-my-best self.  

My inability to read was undeniably stressful to me, but here’s the thing: probably because I did eventually become a fluent reader, I am actually grateful for my extended years of non-reading.  I am grateful for two reasons. First, for almost all of our lives we are beholden to 26 symbols. The magneticness of letters, the words they form, and the meaning of those words are most generally the most compelling thing in the visual landscape.  But I saw line and shape and color first because I couldn’t read fluently for several years.  Second, and more importantly, because I couldn’t consume via the written word, I was forced to generate in order to entertain myself. And so, in the end, it was through the creative arts that my brain and my intelligence, my ability to articulate to problem-solve, developed during the first 10 years of my life.  It was an immensely creatively fertile time for me and I can’t help thinking that these years shaped me profoundly as a person.

One of the things we talk a lot about in arts education is the tyranny of API (Academic Performance Index) scores.  API scores are like a grade for public schools and they gage student performance on standardized tests.  Until 5th grade (at which point science is added to testing) the sole areas of assessment are English-language arts and math, so, of course, the tendency is to gage student success, and maybe even intelligence, according to reading and math skills.  

I feel salty about our excessive reliance on API scores.  I am UNBELIEVABLY lucky that my parents and my teachers not only saw my intelligence through my creative output, but also reflected this back to me.  Without the opportunity to produce creatively and without their recognition of my growth through these endeavors, I might easily have fallen through the cracks and thought I wasn’t smart.  And I know this would have been disastrous for my self-esteem and absolutely for my capacity to achieve.  I’m not saying it is ideal not to read until later in childhood, but I also want to scream from the mountain-tops: THERE IS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO DEVELOP REASONING AND EXPRESSIVE ABILITIES IN CHILDHOOD! IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT READING!

My awesome mom is a brain research scientist who is fascinated by emerging evidence that links early childhood experience in the arts to the brain’s physiological development.  But she’s been a believer since my childhood, when she watched with fascination and excitement as I developed cognitively through the creative arts. For that faith and foresight, I will always be grateful. 

Contributed by Emily Garvie, YANC Outreach and Development Associate

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Why create? Essential Questions

August 15, 2012

Can we stop thinking about art as primarily fun? Seriously. Sure, one of the things it can be is fun. But it is so much more than that. It can be exhausting, and challenging, and provoking, and uncomfortable, and fulfilling. Add to the word "fun" a few letters to represent these other things, and we arrive at better adjective for art–fundamental. 

When Pablo Picasso created the mural Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, he couldn’t have been doing it for the fun of it. The subject matter of the painting is the bombing of its namesake town, and its images convey the toll of this aggression on people, animals, and buildings. Composing a scene from this destruction, and painting it day after day required not only Picasso’s legendary technical skills, but careful considerations: What is war? What is a life worth? Are some deaths ugly? How does peace prevail? Generations later, it is still uncomfortable to view the finished painting, precisely because it is impossible to do so without considering some of these same essential questions. 

We all have unique stories to tell–some require words, others need paint, or pitch, or plies. Underpinning eachact of creativity is a question.  What does it feel like to be six? How do we awaken as people? 

An Essential Question, a question that motivates art, is a question you could ask yourself each day for your whole life, and not fully answer. For example:
               Who am I?
               Who are WE?
               What does night sound like?
               What is joy?/What is sorrow?
               What is art?
               What does my community look like?
               How should I express myself?

Other questions, while just as essential, may seem straightforward. Recently, I laughed when a friend very earnestly asked something I dismissed as simple: What is grey? 

But then, I thought about it. What is grey?

The vast spectrum between black and white. Neither the absence or presence of color. The stuff between our ears, and what makes us human. The fog settling over the city, calming the wind. The soft fur between a kitten’s toes. Babar. The Confederacy. Depression. Graphite. Guernica. Space capsules. Fluffy baby penguins. The Hindenburg. Old televisions. That racy novel that all the moms I know are reading. The uncertainty in which much of life takes place. The hair that you conceal, until one day you don’t. Rats. A pleated wool skirt. The attic dust on top of the box that holds a bundle of love letters.

What about you, you dancers, and singers, and actors? What is grey?

And what are some of your essential questions?

Contributed by Artsfan

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Party Against Graffiti!

July 10, 2012

Megan Leppla (YA Auxiliary Board Member and teaching artist extraordinaire) and I went on a reconnaissance mission to Club Six last Thursday night for “So You Think You Can Paint?”. The event is a Thursday night institution at Club Six and the inspiration for Paint The Night, Young Audiences’ fundraiser at Club Six on Friday, July 27th (be there or be square!)  We wanted to case the joint and solidify plans for maximizing awesomeness at Paint The Night (2 minute instaportrait booth, fishbowl of inspiring ideas, etc….no big deal.)

Megan and I showed up at 3 minutes to six and there was already a line of eager artists waiting at the door of the club, itching to claim a spot on the wall and start painting.  And I can see why: being one of the first people in the door at “So You Think You Can Paint?” is like entering the land of opportunity—fertile with paint and canvas and space to move.  And it doesn’t stay like this long.

By 6:20pm people were filling the space.  It’s a truly eclectic group.  Solo acts focused on their creations, groups of friends collaborating on a canvas, sipping spectators, SOMA/Tenderloin locals and imports (like me and Megan) from other neighborhoods.  Participants ranged in age from 21 to their mid-sixties.  It’s clear that people WANT this experience.  They want to leave a mark, express themselves. 

If that wasn’t clear from the crowd bursting out of Club Six on Thursday nights, it would certainly be clear from the graffiti tagging (the totally UNartistic, anti-social, pee-on-a-fire-hydrant initial/name-signing grafiti) that blights San Francisco’s public spaces.  And what is SO fantastic about “So You Think You Can Paint” is that it is the ANTI-Grafitti.  Akin to the San Francisco Art Commission's innovative SreetSmARTS program, "So You Think You Can Paint?" says, YES, come leave you mark, do it in public for all to see, but do something colorful, something fun, something creative.  It taps the same impulse that drives graffiti, our impulse to be seen and make a mark, and challenges it to come into the light and, for goodness sake, do something interesting

I want to say to taggers out there: So, you think you can paint?  Do it on Thursday night at 6pm in the Tenderloin.  Stand side by side with the people who share your city.  Come MAKE your mark and be counted.   

Contributed by Emily Garvie, Outreach and Development Associate at YANC

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