UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education:

Building Creative Capacities for the 21st Century

March 6-9, 2005, Lisbon, Portugal

Panel Presentation #3: Teaching Methods/Teacher Training



Melanie’s Story:

Why Arts Matter, Developing critical minds and responsive schools

By: Linda Nathan


Good afternoon and thank you for including me in this amazing conference and this panel. I am honored to be among so many distinguished educators, activists, policy makers and artists. I am honored to be in Portugal – a country and a culture I have long admired. I am ashamed not to be able to deliver my talk in your beautiful language, pero nao falo portugues bem.


I have spent the last 28 years in public urban education working in the arts (specifically theatre) as well as teaching history, Spanish and math. I have also been a high school principal for quite some time. Currently, I have the privilege of leading one of the most exciting high schools in urban America -- the Boston Arts Academy. Our public high school is dedicated to educating artist-scholars for the 21st Century, which I will explain. Although my examples come from my school and my own experiences, I hope that you find ideas and dilemmas in my stories that will inspire your own thinking and be useful in your contexts. 


I will talk about my school and, more importantly, about the development of critical minds through active engagement and ownership of the educational process. I call this Melanie’s story.  In many ways, all of our stories are about the development of mature self esteem and a sense of agency for change.


Imagine a conveyor belt. Children and adolescents are seated on this belt. They are empty vessels waiting to be filled. The adults standing along the moving belt are enlightened, all-powerful teachers. Too many of our country’s schools still operate from this 19th Century Industrial Age factory model of education. On top of that in the United States, officials have decided on a misguided federal policy with a mantra of “test everyone to equality” -- as if one standardized test could ever remedy the legacies of poverty and unequal funding in our schools.


As many of you might agree, I feel the United States is really two countries—one for the haves and the other for the have nots. We certainly have made attempts to reduce that gap. The Works Progress Administration of the New Deal Era comes to mind as well as the War on Poverty of Johnson’s presidency. Still, we have never had a radical governmental policy to eradicate poverty or the stigma of racism.  We continue with schools that provide a rich and varied curriculum in our wealthier areas. Our poor and urban centers have yet to adequately fund schools, or to value students’ prior knowledge and cultural backgrounds. These schools are serving the non-white children who are the majority population in most of our major cities.


Yet I am hopeful. Educational research is starting to illuminate more about learning theory and practice[1]. I believe we can retrieve the beliefs of Dewey, Freire, Montessori and others.  Within a new research agenda, we are learning that arts education is one of the keys to reforming our schools[2].


Slowly, business and civic leaders in the U.S. are realizing that to compete successfully in an instant worldwide economy, we must develop creative, innovative thinkers. We need people who can harness and transform science and technology and envision solutions to seemingly intractable social problems. Writers like Daniel Pink argue that “To flourish in this new environment, we will need to supplant well-developed high-tech abilities with aptitudes that involve the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing.[3]


To create this kind of citizenry we must invest in the infrastructure—our K-12 schools and university system where our teachers are trained. However, at the very time that innovative thinkers like Pink, Eisner, Greene, Florida are calling for a new emphasis on creativity, much debate centers on very limited definitions of student success. That debate emphasizes curricular content that can be easily assessed by quantifiable tools. These measures include high-stakes tests that our government now requires. Our schools give priority to making logical connections. They give short shrift to the intuitive, kinesthetic, associative, emotional or even spiritual (and I don’t mean religious) connections.


Our young people need to be immersed in artistic experiences. They must also develop strong intellectual skills. At the Boston Arts Academy, we call that being artist-scholars. We believe that young people come to appreciate and understand beauty. They use that same appreciation to be creative mature thinkers in society. Over 60% of our students come from homes below the poverty level. For many of our adolescents, an opportunity for a structured exploration of beauty may only be in school.


The BAA student body reflects the diversity of our city and school system. Our students are 52% African-American, 25% Hispanic or Latino, 21% white and 2% Asian-American. Over 50% come from homes where English is spoken as a second language. The students are chosen on the basis of their interest in and passion for the arts. There are no academic requirements for entrance.  In fact, over 13% of the students have a learning disability. Yet, the school has established a remarkable record of acceptance to college of more than 95%. We are committed to empowering students to be active learners. The BAA is a very lively place, filled with the sounds of students creating, working and rehearsing throughout the day, into the evening and on weekends. One also can note how the high level of student engagement in arts courses carries over to the humanities and math, writing and science.


Much has been written about adolescent development and the need for exploration and new forms of expression.  The arts provide opportunities to explore and interpret and react to a world that can seem cruel and distant and complicated.


The arts help young people develop a critical lens towards the world. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules dominate, judgment counts in the arts. The arts provide another language, a way of working together with disparate people and creating an experience that will be appreciated by others. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives and enable children to have experience available through no other source. The arts provide that safe space, that structured time to be passionate, completely engaged, and taken seriously by both peers and adults. Given some of the stark and troubling realities of adolescents in our society and the rampant alienation and violence many experience, arts education offers solutions. Our curriculum, in both arts and academic classrooms and studios, has given our students an ability to understand and empathize with differences. Most important, our graduates feel a responsibility to create art that will help the rest of us experience what it means to be a citizen of the world, and what it may mean to take responsibility to change the world.


An emphasis on an arts education also helps students invest in their own learning by investing in others. One of my seniors describes how arts build a bridge for her back to her community. Melanie’s senior project, “Love of my Life,” shows how “Teens need a place where they can be themselves, and also figure out who they are—their identities.” Melanie explains why she took on her project. “It’s confusing out on the street today. So many pushes and pulls. So many pressures. You see the TV shows. You see the people in the community who have the money. You may not want to go that way, but where else can you go? You may be having troubles at home and that’s why you’d look to the street. You may not feel good about yourself and the gang on the street pulls you to join. My project can give you a different direction, and a sense of hope. It can validate your identity.”


Melanie’s project is part of a Boston Arts Academy graduation requirement. All seniors must develop a proposal that demonstrates their academic and artistic training over the four years of high school and also addresses a community need. The project directs their knowledge and passion toward a practical cause, and delivers experience as independent artists. Their final presentations must demonstrate artistic rigor, feasibility, and mutual benefit, as well as writing technique and presentation skills. In a Senior Project Fair, representatives from the community, universities, organizations, and artists review the proposals. They allocate funding for those who score within the top 20%. Some projects have included original choreography concerning the theme of eating disorders for young girls, a publicly designed mural project, a monologue performed to raise awareness of homeless teens, a steel drum workshop at a local hospital and a film for television on the effects of rape.


In addition to the Senior Project, BAA students also prepare portfolios in math, science, world languages as well as the humanities. Throughout the year, students demonstrate their accomplishments in several areas through performances, fairs and exhibitions. Students prepare deeply and know their area of study quite well. Our highly developed method of requiring students to display their academic and artistic competencies allows us to make judgments over time about student work. In addition, we have created an authentic assessment system that truly matters to students and their families and prepares students with skills they will need to compete after high school and in higher education. Melanie has traveled through our carefully developed system.  Her experience is one story of how our method plays out.


Melanie is hoping her project will be funded this year. She stands barely five feet tall. She is wearing elegant high heels that I couldn’t begin to fit into. Her two-toned red shoes match her suit and the ribbon in her hair. Melanie’s dark skin glows against her outfit and she is dressed impeccably. Over the years I have tried to support her as she has struggled in school. Math was particularly hard because getting to school on time (Math was first period) was a real challenge. She had responsibilities for getting her younger sister to school, and then her family lost their apartment and she was living with relatives. She came to me one day asking if there were any jobs at school because she needed to help her family make ends meet. I was able to convince our cafeteria manager to let her help. Today, she stands before me proud and passionate as she describes her project.  She plans to work in an after-school program in a very under-resourced section of the city to give teens the opportunity to take vocal technique and theatre improvisation classes that culminate in a small musical play. Melanie explains:


“I have learned over my four years here a lot about technique and how to use the body and the face to communicate that technique. I did a few musical scenes from Gilbert and Sullivan; I also learned some Broadway numbers, and I’m working on an Italian Aria now. We’ve also done some popular music over the years. I will be able to teach young people the connection between the voice and the body. Here’s my plan:  In each class we will have our daily vocal warm-ups and theatrical improvisations. We will have an icebreaker just so students can be comfortable with expressing themselves in front of a large group. The students will keep a journal. The journal will contain different prompts that elaborate on their experiences such as ‘write about an experience in your life that describes who you are,’ or ‘a struggle you have experienced and a song that relates to that struggle.’ We have done a lot of that in our writing seminar classes so I have good material to use.


“Students will also choose songs that relate to those experiences. Everyone listens to performers like Alicia Keyes and rappers speak to many life experiences. I’ve learned that people like Mahler, who most kids have never heard of, also wrote about pain and suffering the same way that Kayne West or Billie Holiday did. We will spend part of each class also learning about different music. I never knew about anything but gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and popular music before I came here. I’ll tell them that.


“At the end of each class, we will have a debrief based on each prompt. In this way, we will build a community of performers because we will be sharing our experiences and ideas.  In week four, students will begin to write monologues based on writing prompts. Students will then develop characters through improvisation and through song. At the end of eight weeks we will begin to rehearse the musical play and students will express themselves through their monologues and through the songs they have chosen. We’ll organize the final show based on the different scenes that contain different experiences that they’ve chosen. We will perform these scenes at the local community center or the church. We will also be sure to advertise the performances. The participants will invite their families and friends.”


Finally Melanie explains the rationale for her project. “It is very important that young adolescents get the opportunity to be a positive asset to their community. This generation is often influenced by the negativity on them and that surrounds them in their society.  I know firsthand how easy it is to be brought down by the bad things going on around you, or in your family or your community. The goal of this program is to give the youth a place of refuge from the negativity of society and also to teach them how to safely express themselves. In “Love of my Life,” youth are given the opportunity to voice their concerns through creative thinking, performance and song.”


Melanie recognizes what so many school or policy officials seem to forget – the arts are a powerful force to help change our world and that most young people can make an immediate connection between the arts and popular culture. Our schools must be places that recognize those links and embrace them. To ignore what young people are consumed by, where their waking energy and attention is focused, seems short-sighted at best.


Melanie’s senior project may be one of the most important experiences she has as a high school student. Her project must embody and reflect the BAA Habits of the Graduate which we have named as Invent, Connect, Refine, and Own. Our students are asked to be mindful of these habits. They involve a series of questions. Invent: What is my passion and how do I use it in my work? Connect: Who is my audience and how do I connect the work to the audience? How might I interpret or analyze this work? Refine:  What are the strengths and weaknesses of my work? Have I demonstrated good craftsmanship? What tools do I need to improve it? Own:  How does this work affect others? How do I find the drive to go on?


Melanie’s project while deeply engaging for her as a young person is also helping her to develop academic skills in reading, writing, oral presentation and even basic mathematics. She has had to develop a budget, and figure out what resources can be considered “in-kind” since she is learning early on the lesson that there is never enough money to do what you really want. And she has had to revise her proposal at least four times until she got it up to the required standard. She has had to read her proposal aloud, and commit much of it to memory or notecards as she stands before outsiders who will determine if she is deserving of actual funding.


Most importantly, Melanie is being taken seriously by an adult world where she must soon participate.  She has the opportunity to combine her artistic and intellectual knowledge to carry out a project that will help others explore their own realities and to communicate those realities. We know the positive power of expression. We know that students respond positively when given opportunities to make a difference in the world. But if we know all this, why aren’t our schools structured and designed so that the curriculum gives that opportunity? Why aren’t our schools places for students to explore positive relationships with learning and to voice their concerns and solutions for the world in which we live?  The arts provide an answer for how we must change.


The American Association of American Colleges and Universities issued a recent report that calls for sweeping changes in higher education[4]. These include a major pedagogical shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered education; to integrated and collaborative, rather than solitary, isolated learning; and to a coherent, sequential curriculum that is developed and refined over time by a group of colleagues responding to the real learning experiences of their students. The report calls for a movement away from time-based, piecemeal measures of learning and toward portfolio, outcomes-based assessment.  It calls for empowering students to become engaged and responsible, or as Freire[5], author of the seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” posited (no doubt in flawless Portuguese): “owning the word” or “conscientização.” He argues that the teacher become primarily the mentor or coach and the student the performer, writer, creator, and thinker.


The centrality of the arts at the BAA allows the school’s faculty to think deeply about curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. We ask questions about how our teaching connects back to the culture of our students. We work together to ensure that we understand the prior experiences that our students bring to the classroom because of their culture, race, socio-economic class, language background, etc.  Arts education can be a key entry point in responding to cultures and experiences that are not one’s own.

Culturally relevant pedagogy takes into account the actual backgrounds and experiences of one’s students. Arts instruction naturally does this, and we are translating these practices into non-arts classes. In addition, since process is often as important as product, teachers are more comfortable with assessment that is not a single-mode-right-answer-test. The teachers call this authentic assessment.


They use this term because they believe this form of evaluation promotes understanding and learning for both teachers and students. Since the definition of authentic is “genuine or real,” there is a greater chance that both students and teachers will care about the results. The inclusion of others to judge the assessment also highlights the importance of the student’s work.


Unlike pencil-and-paper standardized tests that usually have only one right answer, authentic assessments focus on a student’s process of learning and ability to describe, define and reflect on where one is in the learning process as well as his or her ability to master a given set of concepts. Furthermore, teachers have the opportunity to gain insights into their own pedagogy, and sometimes their own vulnerability, as they witness their students describing the learning process and their mastery over some aspect of what was taught.


Schools need not specialize in the arts to use the lessons from arts education, such as the passion and commitment that can transfer to academic classes.  The dullness of traditional school days leaves so many adolescents numb, alienated and disconnected. When schools can put relationships, so often found in the study of technical or expressive arts, at the center of study, school becomes a meaningful and rich experience.  From Melanie’s work engaging in an area she cares deeply about, we have learned that she will also improve her academic skills. Melanie has learned about refining her work. As she prepared the budget sheet for her senior project, she made strong connections to mathematics, which is such an important skill. She also realized how her writing and communicating skills must be convincing. Melanie has gone far beyond education that teaches a list of prepositions or algebraic equations to be memorized. She has shown us how education must  connect to a young person’s life and experiences in order to be engaging. Most importantly, Melanie has become part of a group of artist-scholars who are making a difference in the world. A trite and over-used phrase, perhaps, but the key to how we must change our schools. 


By embracing arts education, as Melanie and others have taught us, as an educational birthright, we give ourselves re-invigorated classrooms, and indeed, reformed schools. In this way, we will assuredly give the world far more capable young adults. Isn’t that what we truly desire?




Booth, Eric. The Everyday Work of Art: How artistic experience can transform your life.

 Naperville, IL:  Sourcebooks, 1997

Bransford, John, et. al. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999.

Davis, Jessica Hoffman. Passion & Industry: Schools that Focus on the Arts.  National Arts and Learning Collaborative, 2001.


Dewey, John. Democracy and Education.  New York: Free Press, 1997.

Eisner, Elliot.  The Arts and the Creation of Mind.  New Haven: Yale University Press,    2004.


Florida, Richard.  The Rise of the Creative Class.  New York: Perseus Books, 2002.


Flower, Charles.  Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Freire, Paulo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed.  New York:       Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.


Gardner, Howard.  Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity seen through the Lives of

     Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi.  New York: Basic

     Books, 1994.


Greater Expectations National Panel, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, A National Panel Report.  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002. < http://www.greaterexpectations.org >


Greene, Maxine.  Variations on a Blue Guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on      

     Aesthetic Education.  New York: Teachers College Press, 2001.


Hetland, L., Veenema, S., Palmer, P., Sheridan, K., and Winner, E.  Studio Thinking: How visual arts teaching can promote disciplined habits of mind. Manuscript submitted for publication, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Education, 2005.


McCarthy, Kevin F., et. al.  The Gift of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts.  Rand Corporation, 2005.  <www.rand.org>


Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1995.


Nathan, Linda. "The Development of Critical Minds: Reclaiming the Vision for Urban Schools." MASCD Sept/Oct 2004: 8-12


Nathan, Linda and Sloan, Kay.  Art Transforms Education: A Boston Pilot School Puts Student Learning Center Stage.”  Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education Summer, 2005:10-20.


Pink, Daniel.  A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual

     Age.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.


Sadowski, Michael.  Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education.  Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2003.


Seidel, Steve, et. al. Portfolio Practices: Thinking Through the Assessment of Children's Work. National Education Association, 1997.


Stevenson, Lauren and Deasy, R.  Third Space: When Learning Matters.  Washington DC: Arts Education Partnership, 2005.


Wolf, Dennie Palmer, Balick, D.  Arts Works! Interdisciplinary Learning Powered by the Arts.  Heinemann, 1999.


Wolf, Dennie Palmer, Pistone, N.  Taking Full Measure, Rethinking Assessment through the arts. College Board, 1995.









[1] Bransford, John, Brown, A. and Cocking, R. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999.


[2] McCarthy, Kevin F., et. al.  The Gift of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts.  Rand Corporation, 2005.  Stevenson, Lauren and Deasy, R.  Third Space: When Learning Matters.  Washington DC: Arts Education Partnership, 2005.   Flower, Charles.  Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[3] Pink, Daniel.  A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual

     Age.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.


[4] Greater Expectations National Panel, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, A National Panel Report.  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002

[5] Freire, Paulo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed.  New York: Continuum International   Publishing Group, 2000.