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The Importance of Arts in Young People's Lives

Recently I've heard a lovely song with very simple powerful words. It made me think about many of my feelings during my adolescence and reminded me why I often felt school was so irrelevant to me during most of my youth.

"I am covered in skin
no one gets to come in,
Pull me out from inside
I am folded and unfolded and unfolding..."
from the song "colorblind" by Counting Crows

There is so much talk in education circles, particularly among politicians and administrators about math and science scores, but not so much concern about the feelings of young people as they are growing up. Adults often expect young people to just put aside these feelings and concentrate on their studies because this is how they can supposedly insure their secure future. Of course, if the children are aware of what's happening in the adult world around them (and of course they are!), they can sense that studying won't guarantee them anything about their future.

But, children do need to develop some understanding about their feelings and how to take care of themselves. If a young boy or girl never hears the words or feelings - "I am covered in skin - no one gets to come in", they can easily imagine that they are the only ones feeling that way and be afraid to talk about such feelings with other young people or with caring adults. Some kids go deeper and deeper inside because they never feel that others understand their feelings or want to pull them out. Or they can't figure out how to pull themselves out.

In the same way, the idea that we are complex and have many different feelings and that we are developing beings just isn't a part of school curriculum. School mostly treats kids like scores: "What did you get on your math test?" "I got a 65." Which is like saying, "I'm a number." And what they hear is usually about states, not processes. "You're right!" "You're wrong!" But kids are feeling: "I am folded... and unfolded... and unfolding." opposites and processes, being and becoming... not scores... not numbers... not little bits of grammar and vocabulary... not little scientific facts... not right... not wrong.

So where can young people find some connection between their feelings and what happens in school? I think it comes through the arts - through music, through painting and drawing - both their own and that of others. In my experience of teaching in Japan and having children go through Japanese schools, I believe that primary schools are generally pretty good at bringing arts into the lives of children, but as kids move into middle and high school, everything gets compartmentalized. If the kids are lucky, there will be a good program of music and art, but it's separate from everything else.

The April 8, 2010 edition of Yomiuri Online reported on comparative research that was done on students from 4 different countries regarding classroom behavior.
( in Japanese)
The phrasing in the report was a bit vague saying that 45.1% of Japanese students sometimes or always sleep in class (compared to 32.3% for South Korea; 20.8% for America; 4% for China.) But the point brought out for me was that many Japanese students don't feel any connection between themselves and what is going on in the classroom, so they turn off.

I believe that one important way of helping students feel these connections is by utilizing music and art in ways which make other subject matter relevant to their lives.

In my first years of teaching high school in Japan I introduced a program called "English through singing and dancing." The administration and most teachers (and quite a few students as well) thought it was a pretty crazy idea. Throughout my teaching career I used listening to music, singing and drawing as part of my classes.

One of the most memorable times for me was asking my students to put their heads down on their desks, close their eyes, quiet their minds and listen to Cat Stevens'sing "Morning has Broken", a song praising the beauty of morning. Students kept a journal and some wrote about the experience, but most of them said nothing. Perhaps it had been forgotten in the busy rush of their day. Perhaps it wouldn't have been lost if some other teachers had used music in their math or science lessons.

But I did meet a student many years later who said that listening to that song in class was one of the most memorable experiences in his high school life...

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