by Stacie Sanders Evans, Young Audiences/Arts for Learning Executive Director
I was reminded of my friend Deborah Bedwell, the former executive director of Baltimore Clayworks, this week when I visited my daughter Virginia’s classroom to observe a workshop led by Tori Bertocci of Synetic Theater. Deborah wrote an article back in 2001 called “Measuring Joy,” which detailed her journey of trying to arrive at measurable outcomes in her work while remaining true to the spirit of her organization or, as Deb put it, “not lying” to the funders who were increasingly asking to quantify the impact of Baltimore Clayworks on humanity. Deb decided the best course of action was to come up with a way to measure the joy created by touching clay. I was new to Maryland and to Young Audiences when I came across this article.
“How rebellious!” I thought and I went on my way and on my own journey of trying to establish a connection between our work and academic outcomes. Deb’s evaluation tool and the article that accompanied it, has stuck with me for more than a decade—through No Child Left Behind, the adoption of the Common Core and new standardized assessments and teacher evaluations. When it came time to select a school for my own child, I ignored test results and walked through many school hallways and sat in many classrooms…simply looking for joy.
The second graders at Virginia’s school are currently studying fairytales so we thought it would be a good time to bring in the Washington, D.C.-based group Synetic Theater for a classroom workshop. Synetic Theater specializes in physical theater, blending elements of gymnastics, dance, improvisation, mime, and acting. Through teaching the four elements—body, emotion, focus, and imagination—they brought different interpretations of the classic fairytale “Cinderella” to life.
“They are SO happy!” Virginia’s teacher said to me. “Even the kids who aren’t happy are happy.” I looked at my daughter’s amazing teacher, and while she is always happy, and beloved by her students and their parents, she was especially happy that morning relishing the joy she saw on her students’ faces. At that moment I wished I had Deb’s observation tool with me because the joy in that classroom was off the charts.
While I believe, and research shows, that the arts positively impact student achievement, I understand that part of the secret sauce of learning in or through the arts is the simple joy that it creates. The joy these students experience give teachers and parents that same feeling of joy when witnessing this act, and this in turn creates a joyful learning environment. It is in this environment that kids and adults alike are more likely to look beyond any constraints and envision—and act on—something better for themselves and each other.
Richard Deasy, the founding director of Arts Education Partnership, has told me many times, “You can’t make a learner learn. It is the decision of the learner.” What Young Audiences teaching artists and teacher partners do is offer approaches in which the student wants to learn. We saw that in Virginia’s class of 26 students who were opting into learning at that moment because of the joy derived from physical theater.
Let’s imagine something better for our children in public education –something better but something also very basic — joyful learning environments — where kids, parents, and teachers are eager to engage. YA aims to do this every year through its mission. Won’t you join us in the cause?