Drawing it out

Cyan and Danyett in Nov 2014
Cyan McMillian, seventh-grade student, with Danyett Tucker, Young Audiences visual artist.

By Cyan McMillian, seventh-grade student, Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle

My name is Cyan McMillian and I am a seventh grader at Windsor Hills. I’d rather throw a football than paint my nails (seriously). I felt like a free spirit until my tenth birthday–which was the worst day ever. I was excited but made the mistake of not bringing enough cupcakes for the whole class. One girl–the drama queen–decided to take out her frustrations on me. She waited until we got in the cafeteria and took a mixture of yogurt, milk, juice, and water and poured it over my head in front of everyone. On my birthday! Everyone who saw it laughed. Even the adults. I was so hurt and embarrassed that I ran out of the cafeteria in tears.

I never wanted any friends after that. The more I tried to be myself the more I would get picked on. Bullies targeted me for all the ways that I was different–my weight, my clothes, and my love for school.

My parents signed me up for the Baltimore City summer learning academy, the summer before middle school started. I like math and science, but I was most interested in the art classes provided by Young Audiences. See, I don’t get to enjoy the liberties of art during the school year. Having art every day during the summer was a treat because I got to make new friends, I learned how to use the color wheel, how to make 2D pictures become 3D pictures.

Cyan sharing her story at the Impact Breakfast.

Watch Cyan share her story at Young Audiences’ Impact Breakfast event earlier this month!

My art class was taught by Young Audiences teaching artist, Danyett Tucker. She played a song by Lauryn Hill called “Everything is Everything,” and asked us to illustrate what the lyrics meant to us. I love that song. It was like math because my hands and brain were working at the same time to solve a problem. I was able to express myself without being judged in a way that was fun and challenging. I learned from Ms. D that there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to art.

Ms. D believed in me and gave me the confidence to believe in myself. She let me come to her when I needed someone to talk to and gave me helpful advice when I was stuck. I was free to be who I am again, which made me feel like my old happy-go-lucky free-spirited self.

Ms. D inspired me to keep drawing after the program was over. My dad loves to draw and after that summer we started drawing together. When I found out the summer program was going to happen again this summer, I found out where Ms. D was teaching and signed up. This summer was even better because not only did I get art with Ms. D, other artists also helped teach the science and math classes. I learned how ratios relate to music and how dance movements connect with science.

In Ms. D’s class, we created a mural that’s displayed here today illustrating Maya Angelou’s poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth.” The poem was confusing at first but the more we read it as a class it became easier to understand and inspired me to speak out about the positive and negative things that happen around me. I was able to use my voice through illustration again. I attended this program every single day and now I have two murals in my portfolio.

Cyan McMillian quote Nov 2014

Now when I feel like I have something to express but don’t know how to say it, I draw it out. Thanks to Young Audiences, I have learned a lot about myself. I’m more observant and I know what a real friend is. I know who I am. So what if I’m not a girly girl, I’m fast and I can handle my business. When they call my clothes trashy, I don’t let it bother me because their shiny white sneakers always end up dirty in a few days. And when they talk about my weight, like the song “All About That Bass” says: “Every inch of me is perfect from the bottom to the top!”

Last year I had the highest grade point average in middle school and it is still sky-high. I have a scholarship to any college that I want. I plan to get a PhD and work for NASA. Thanks to the support of my family, a few good friends, and the Young Audiences artists who understand me like a parent would, I am going for my dreams. And while the summer program is over, what I learned from Ms. D, that “Everything is Everything,” will stay with me forever. What that means to me is that if you want to be something and you work hard, you will most likely become that. So keep an eye out for me.

Breaking down barriers with the arts

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By Kwame Opare, High Point High School Dance Teacher and Young Audiences teaching artist

I have had the privilege to work with a diverse group of learners in the Prince George’s County school system so far this school year. As ​a​ dance teacher for all grades at High Point High School, I have been faced with a challenge not yet experienced throughout my years of bringing my craft to the classroom as a teaching artist. High Point’s population is largely immigrant and first-generation American young people and English is often not the first language (or even second language in some cases) for many of my students. This has compelled me to modify, and even synthesize new instructional methods, to ensure the transfer of knowledge.

What I’ve noticed in this short but meaningful time is that no matter where you are on Earth, young people want to learn, they crave information. They will test you as the adult to see if you really care whether or not they get it, or if they even show up. I care, and in this short time, I believe that I have convinced my students of this. Now that I “got ’em,” the onus is on me to make sure they know that they have the right to learn and that they must take the process of learning into their own hands. Creating an environment where students feel confident and enabled to take ownership of their learning is essential to their growth as students and beyond. We as educators must only provide a framework of knowledge and wisdom that comes from study and experience in a safe environment so that the true capacity for brilliance can be nurtured in our young people.

What do the arts have to do with all of this? After all, it’s just dance. Through dance, I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of my students and have used them both to fortify my instructional methods. The brilliance of all my students is evident, but is often locked away beneath external and internal distractions​, ​such as s​elf-doubt​, embarrassment, worries about​ what peers w​ill think, ​or ​problems at home. Through dance, we can successfully weed through these distractions. Some of my students at High Point tell me their stories and in response I just ask them to please keep coming to class because they are a part of something now. Their growth from the first day of class to today has been a joy to observe and I feel so fortunate to bear witness.

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At first they came in scared, terrified, some not knowing the English language, and nearly none of them knowing the language of dance. Though the proficiency levels vary, the feelings of frustration from the challenge is shared. Yet, we are starting to build a community of support and understanding with confident souls that know they CAN! Some of those who stood in the back of the class at first are finding their way to the front and are becoming leaders, helping others and welcoming newcomers.

In dance, the process often begins with what I refer to as the ugly duckling syndrome. “Feeling ‘stupid’ and looking ‘stupid’ is OK,” I tell my students. I remind them that we all looked “stupid” when we were learning to walk as babies but the alternative was to never run and we wouldn’t have that! The process is what makes art making so fulfilling and ultimately what makes a teaching artist so effective. Artists know and respect the strength of the process because we are immersed in it daily. Effectively bringing the idea of process into the classroom has a positive and lasting impact on students.

It is through these processes that students are engaged where they may otherwise be distracted or lack interest. The process instills in young people the ability to effectively gather resources, question, problem-solve, and persevere to see something through to the end, whatever challenges they may face in academy and beyond.

Creating confident students–and future leaders–through the arts

By Micaela Gramelis, Young Audiences Grants and Annual Gala Manager and former teacher

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Sitting in my class each day, Nadia did well. She worked hard; she smiled. She was kind, but deferred to her third-grade classmates for academic guidance during group activities. After the first half of the school year I would not have described her as a leader. Boy, was I wrong.

Nadia’s gift spent months undercover in our classroom. It was not until the class held a talent show at our pre-spring break celebration that a brave, confident Nadia emerged. As Nadia’s group began their rehearsed dance for the audience, her dance partners—both confident learners who often directed activity in the classroom—lost track of the dance sequence. All eyes turned to Nadia, whose poise and confidence in her movements indicated to her classmates that she was the one they should look to; she was the one they should follow.

During the two years I spent teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools, my students were aware of what was out there. They knew of museums, universities, and instruments, even if they did not utilize these things in their day-to-day lives. These artistic tools and institutions–so cool at first–quickly lost their appeal when my students thought that they were inaccessible. Consistently kept at a distance, they became the enemy and symbols of what one lacked.

Nadia was fortunate to discover her connection to dance outside of the classroom, despite not having access to dance classes at her school. Nadia’s visual arts classes often consisted of coloring with crayons and pasting one color of construction paper on top of another when she was lucky—but a student’s access to the arts should not be up to luck. Artistic opportunities in school are about much more than cultivating fine motor skills and identifying artistic talent; they are about closing the gap between what students know exists, and what they have been conditioned to believe is out of their reach from years of deprivation.

Nadia and her classmates did have the opportunity to play recorders in their music class, and the pride with which they carried their recorders down the hallway let me know that these instruments were prized possessions. When my students held their own recorders, with their names attached, the arts became tangible; they began to move forward, one step, toward what they deserved. When they performed in our talent show, and were cheered on by siblings, parents, and classmates, my students nudged forward toward what they deserved. When they wrote plays, and their written words were enthusiastically acted out by their peers, read aloud and valued by others, they began to experience how the arts can create a community and boost the self-esteem of each class member. Our students deserve this community. They deserve the opportunity to try new things. They deserve positive attention for their accomplishments, and for their voices to be valued. This is all possible through the arts.

To ensure that each Maryland student has the opportunity to experience the power of the arts, Young Audiences has increased its presence in Baltimore City schools from 89 schools to 119 schools during the last four years. In 2009, we served 22,033 students; in 2013, we served 38,317. Since its launch in the winter of 2009, our Access for All Initiative has subsidized programs for students in low-income Baltimore City schools to ensure that all students have equitable access to the best artists and educational arts experiences that our state has to offer.

Inequity in access to the arts is just one manner in which many of our students from low-income backgrounds are underserved. Increased access to the arts will not solve every challenge of poverty, but it can produce empowered leaders—equipped with resiliency, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills—who are prepared to tackle future challenges. It will produce youth who have learned to value their voice because they have had the opportunity to share it with others. It will produce students who know what they deserve, and have the tools they need to put up a fight for it.

If you are interested in applying for a Spring 2014 Access for All grant to bring a Young Audiences program to your school, the application is available online here. To learn more about Access for All and our work to increase equity in arts programming, click here.