As districts plan for reopening schools in the fall, many parents, educators and policymakers are concerned about reengaging students, especially students who experienced trauma, stress and disrupted learning during the pandemic.
Across California, their conversations are about how to reimagine schools to better meet the needs of all students and place equity at the center of educational systems.
Our team at SRI had the opportunity to go to the source and ask students about their experiences with school — and they made a compelling case for why the arts should be part of any plans to rethink schooling and reengage students.
As part of a follow-on study to our research documenting systemic inequities in access to arts education in California’s K-12 schools (2007’s An Unfinished Canvas), we conducted virtual focus groups with secondary students in diverse California communities during the pandemic.
We primarily spoke with students enrolled in arts courses, and we asked them about their experiences with the arts and why they elected to take (or not to take) arts courses. We promised the participants confidentiality, which is why we have not included their names in this piece.
Students were overwhelmingly positive about their experience with the arts and highlighted numerous ways in which the arts support their educational engagement and personal growth.
Consistent with Mehta and Fine’s 2019 reporting on the American high school, students told us about how their arts courses — including dance, drama, media arts, band, orchestra, choir, painting and drawing, and photography — encourage creativity and student agency, help shape their sense of identity and support social and emotional learning, and foster connection to their school community.
Students described their arts courses as an oasis of creativity, agency and passion in an otherwise often stressful, restrictive or “boring” environment.
A high school student from the Redwood Coast reported that without a “creative outlet at school, then you’re just going to become essentially like a drone.” Similarly, a middle school student from the Inland Empire said removing arts from school would be like removing color from a film: “[Without the arts] it’s just like, ‘Learn this and learn this only.’ You have no creativity. … If you were to take away the art program, it would feel like you are “gray-ifying” the school … like a black and white movie.”
Unlike other courses, students said arts classes allow them to explore their own interests, ideas and emotions and help build a positive sense of identity. As a high school student, also from the Inland Empire, explained, “With art, you choose how you want to do it, how you want to express yourself, and I really like that.”
Students said that arts courses help them become more self-aware, develop as individuals and gain a sense of empowerment.
One Bay Area middle school student noted that this self-awareness leads students to “believe that [they] can achieve a lot more than [they] think.” Research on adolescent development supports these students’ experiences and, in particular, finds that culturally responsive arts programming is related to increased cultural values and ethnic-racial identity.
Engaging in the arts helped students develop a sense of community at school by having mutual interests, being more vulnerable with ideas and emotions evoked through art and working toward a common goal.
Another Bay Area middle school student noted, “You really just have something in common with the people that you’re in class with because you share an interest.” A Central Valley high school student explained how students get to know each other in class “because when they talk out their ideas or when they are drawing their emotions down, other people can relate to those emotions.”
Arts courses often culminate in a shared event or presentation, such as a concert, play or art exhibition, and students must work together to achieve success. A high school student from the Bay Area explained, “You accomplish this big feat … and I think it brings everyone together and just creates a lot of bonds and friendships.”
For some students, the arts community is the most important community they have on campus, with multiple students referring to others in their arts classes as family. One Inland Empire high school student explained, “I think one of my favorite memories is probably just meeting the people in the theater, the choir and the photography program and just making this family of people who all have a shared interest.” Research indicates that elective participation brings together students with similar interests and reinforces a shared sense of identity and that this kind of school connectedness is associated with a wide range of positive youth outcomes.
Districts should listen to the students about what will draw them into school. Students in our focus groups, especially those who felt connected to school by virtue of their participation in the arts, could not overstate the importance of those programs.
As one Inland Empire middle school student said, the arts make a “positive impact on your life because it gives you a good feeling. I don’t know how to describe it, but it just gives you a good feeling in your heart, whenever people come together to create something big and help each other.”
Katrina Woodworth, Candice Benge, and Elise Levin-Guracar are researchers at SRI Education, a research institution that works to reduce barriers and optimize outcomes for students.
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