Empathy and Creative Expression: Why the Arts are Critical

By Deb Vaughn, Education Coordinator, Oregon Arts Commission

In a 2016 article in The Denver Post, Kurt MacDonald compares the desire to produce competitive 21st century workers to the intent of dog breeders working to produce ideal canines. “Both sought to achieve their ends by refining and concentrating valuable attributes into purebreds (dogs) and national content and standards (education.)” But there are serious consequences to a lack of diversity of thought, just as there are in genetics. “When a majority of tomorrow’s jobs and challenges have yet to be imagined, our students require the diversity of thought necessary to tackle them.”

The arts provide opportunities for students to discover new ideas while raising awareness of the world around them. Empathy is tightly wedded to creative exploration, a link articulated clearly by Oregon’s Poetry Out Loud state champions in a video released by the Oregon Arts Commission called “Why is Poetry Out Loud Important? 2012 Oregon state champion Jillian Frakes puts it this way: “[Poetry is] a way to help [students] find their voice. You’re able to use another person’s words to express ideas that you have.” Brynn Tran, 2010 winner adds, “[The poem] doesn’t belong to me, but I get to hold it for a couple minutes.”

The benefits of creative exploration are supported by research conducted by the national Creating Connection initiative, which defines four core benefits of arts engagement: self-expression, personal growth, well-being and happiness. For students, opportunities to explore the arts promote these benefits, as well as support multiple modes of engagement in overall learning, pushing back against over-standardization of instruction.

In Oregon, access to in-school arts opportunities vary greatly between school buildings. Using information provided by the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Arts Commission maintains a database on the availability of arts classes in Oregon schools. This information can be used to develop strategies for expanding creative outlets for students. Until we know where the gaps are, we can’t fill them.

Thanks to the work of arts organizations and artists around the state, many students benefit from creative exploration in classrooms. For example, the Architecture Foundation of Oregon brings professional architects in 3rd-5th grade classrooms around the state to help students explore the built environment, the history of their community and the fundamentals of 3-dimensional design. Elementary students in Hood River use basket weaving and storytelling to promote art, math and literacy skills through the Story Baskets project offered by Arts in Education of the Gorge. And, thanks to the Corvallis Arts Center’s efforts last year, visiting artists blended printmaking with an investigation of microbiomes to help students connect laboratory research to understanding of geometric shapes and color theory. Regular readers of this newsletter will be familiar with the integrated approach to learning that The Right Brain Initiative promotes through ongoing professional development for teachers and artists to provide coordinated arts experiences for students. All of these projects were supported by Arts Learning grants from the Oregon Arts Commission, one of several funders supporting arts education work.

Do you know about an exciting creative opportunity for students in your area? Now is the time to shout about it! National Arts in Education Week begins September 10, 2017. Led by Americans for the Arts (AFTA), the entire country will be recognizing the role of the arts in schools. AFTA offers a list of suggested ways to celebrate and provides advocacy tools on their website. The Regional Arts & Culture Council will be joining the celebration with a social media campaign (Facebook, Twitter) and beginning conversations with local policy makers on the importance of advocating for arts in education at all levels of the community and government.

As students assume increasing responsibility for the challenges of the 21st century, the best foundation we can give them is creativity, confidence and the ability to see things in a new way. Arts education promotes all these skills as well as motivates students to persevere as they seek answers to questions that generations before them have failed to answer, as well as those that haven’t been asked yet.