A Thanksgiving pageant or other arts experiences can be life-changing for kids
Most of us of a certain age have childhood memories of being in a school play—and the odds are that it was a Thanksgiving play. For many of us, those experiences were pivotal, and concentrating on being the best tree ever may have helped shape us and who we would become.
Thanksgiving itself is a uniquely American experience. Many other countries have celebrations of their history or culture, but our country’s Thanksgiving remains unparalleled as a family-based celebration with national buy-in. Over 3.5 million people watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person each year and over 50 million of us join in on television, commemorating the original three-day autumn harvest feast first celebrated in 1621.
As Americans, we may not all celebrate the same holidays and we may have significant cultural or economic differences, but we can all talk turkey. Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, nearly 88 percent of Americans will enjoy 46 million turkeys this year and the story of that shared meal is one everyone knows.
It’s no surprise that the Thanksgiving play is go-to staple for arts educators producing plays for young actors. “It’s a story that everyone knows,” says Kelly Shimel, the chorus and theatre teacher at Normal Park. “The universal theme of Thanksgiving can connect with the history curriculum and there are so many parts, you can engage an entire class of children.”
Thanksgiving is a safe subject, an easy story to produce for children of all ages and it is often a Thanksgiving play at school that people point to as their first experience on stage. Studies suggest that students who are involved in drama performances outscore students who don’t on standardized testing, have improved school attendance and reduced dropout rates. Students who are engaged through drama and music education learn many important life skills. Cinnamon Halbert-Smith, mother, educator and professional dancer, encourages parents to work with their children to explore after-school opportunities in dance and performing arts, citing increased confidence, self-esteem and responsibility.
Way beyond “just frills”
Ann Law, co-founder of Barking Legs Theater, glows when she talks about the impact of art education on children’s lives. The relationship between art education and elementary students’ interests and aspirations is critical—and the importance of those moments can change children. “Everyone should be engaged in the creative process,” says Law, and, through her producing entity CoPAC, she has created a pilot teaching artists program designed to provide educators with an elaborate system to bring art education into the everyday life of students.
Choose a camp at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, a program at the innovative 4th Floor at the Chattanooga Public Library or a church play—there are great programs in Chattanooga to connect kids to creative outlets for expression. The 4th Floor is a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology and the applied arts, hosting equipment, expertise, programs and events that can inspire young minds.
Numerous studies point to the correlation between drama involvement and academic achievement yet few schools have the staffing, resources and time to offer this valuable connection between curriculum and self-expression. The performance of a story and other drama activities in the classroom can contribute to a student's understanding of the material and these experiences also develop increased understanding of language and expression.
Only a handful of middle schools in Hamilton County offer drama education, but Chattanooga’s vibrant arts community supports a plethora of camps, programs and partnerships that introduce students of all ages to drama and performance education.
The performance arts are all about creating something larger than each of us, and whether it is technical direction, writing, performing or set design, there are opportunities to connect important life skills with practical lessons for students while building self-esteem and teaching responsibility. Catherine Bolden, an educator, artistic director, curriculum design expert and arts literacy advocate, teaches the creative process and problem-solving through invention at TechTown, connecting the STEM focus with creative learning systems.
Bolden enjoys “making learning fun, creating systems that work for all learners, and giving every child who want to give art and technology a try a chance to try.” Creative learning systems are emerging in science education as “project-based” learning and, according to Bolden, “TechTown has the gizmos, the future vision and a commitment to level the technology opportunity playing field for kids.” TechTown will infuse cultural arts and fun into existing learning opportunities and deliver a series of creative programs that focus on 21st century job readiness, so that anyone with an idea can make techno-magic, incubating the creators of the future.
Writing original plays and the dramatic presentation of them can teach valuable life skills to students of all ages, building self-esteem, communication skills and responsibility. Kate Forbes, a veteran actress and director of the Muse of Fire Project, remembers her first performance fondly. From a humble beginning as the ninth shepherd in a Christmas pageant, she evolved into a celebrated actress, sharing her craft with Chattanooga children through a playwriting project that guides young people with widely different abilities and experiences in writing their own plays.
Students work together on theater games, drawing on skills that they know from math and science, as they use problem-solving and reasoning to address challenges on stage. “Acting in school plays gave me a voice,” says Forbes. “As a kid who wasn’t on a team, and was an introvert, being part of the school play was my first experience of success, of working with my classmates.”
The arts and closing the gap
There’s now a national focus on closing the “achievement gap” between students of varying abilities and socioeconomic status, and the arts, including drama, cater to different styles of learning, engaging students who might otherwise not be motivated by school and academics. Theatre arts and drama activities can improve social and language skills of students with learning disabilities and remedial readers and can contribute to improved reading achievement and attitude in disadvantaged students.
When surveyed, most people agree that the performing arts contribute to the education and development of children and over half of most respondents in a Performing Arts Research Coalition survey reported having attended a live theater performance in the past year. A Harris Poll reported that 93 percent of Americans believe that the arts are essential to a complete education and their impact can have a life-long effect.
In 1992, Jill Levine, principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet, was a Teach for America corps member assigned to a low-performing school in New Orleans. Recognizing that doing musicals was an effective way of getting parents involved, Levine put her art and history major to work and began producing musicals. Recently, on assignment in Washington, DC for the Department of Education, she saw arts education come full circle at the Warner Theatre as her former third-grade student starred in the national tour of “Memphis: The Musical.”
Azusa Dance, (SheShe to some), is another wonderful example of how the performing arts can change a life. A shy child, daughter of educators, Azusa was terrified of singing but remembers fondly being in a holiday play with her favorite doll, Jane, as the baby Jesus and a red-haired school mate as Joseph. “It felt good. It was all about me!” she remembers now.
As a mother, she celebrated her children’s growth and creative expression when they were students at Barger Academy of Fine Arts and the Center for Creative Arts. She baked cookies, ushered and worked behind the scenes for years and says, “What you do for your children shapes the future they’ll have and the dreams they can have.” Inspiring her church’s children as a youth minister, Dance produced plays and taught each child that every part is important and that everyone plays an important part.
Dance herself grew, changed and taught and today she’s far from being terrified to sing. A talented vocalist entertaining Chattanooga audiences with the Creative Underground and stealing the show in the Chattanooga Theatre Centre hit production of “Hairspray,” Dance is now taking her dream to New York.
She taught Chattanooga children to be proud of being the best tree ever and helped their parents understand how important it was to celebrate every role. This year she will follow that dream, taking every role she can get and embarking on an adventure and a mission. With a powerful voice and contagious enthusiasm, she is an inspiring example of how important it can for a child to learn to be a tree. Or a Pilgrim.
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.
Chattanooga Public Library
The 4th Floor
1001 Broad St.
Chattanooga Theatre Centre
400 River St.
The Muse of Fire Project
325 Market St. #200