high school arts performance

Cardinal O'Hara High's "Jekyll & Hyde"

When school budgets tighten, what is one of the first things to be cut? The arts are. Sure they are nice, but what do they contribute to AYP? How will they improve student scores on high-stakes standardized tests? So the arts disappear in schools. And the learning suffers.

I consider myself very lucky to work in a school where the arts have been strongly supported. For many years, one of my jobs has been to be the Producer/Director of our school theatre program. Through this experience, I have worked with students as singers, actors, crew members, and musicians. My wife Denise Allen has been my longtime assistant director and choreographer. So we have been able to share the years of shows together and have experienced the incredible learning and growth potential that the arts provide.

In this era where many of us understand the need for a true learning revolution, we often speak using words like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. We call these 21st Century skills. The arts have incorporated these skills since humankind first picked up a brush or tapped out a tune.

So here is an experiential post showing the power of the arts in schools, and how opening night in many ways is the ultimate project based assessment.

The Imagineers

It is a cold Saturday morning in February. At 10 a.m., about 40 students will arrive to work on the set for The Phantom of the Opera, our current production. It’s the weekend and early for high school students, but they are here and ready. We need to build the giant staircase for the Masquerade number. It will be huge. It needs to securely hold a large group of actors, and it needs to be able to be stored backstage in as small a space as can be. So here goes!

The plan begins to form. The students and I discuss the possibility of breaking the steps into sections. We decide on 5 sections, 3 for the lower, wider steps and 2 for the upper, narrower tier. Oh, and it all has to move easily, but not when our cast is on the steps in the scene. What a project!

Students build a barricade for Les MiserablesThis is what these great kids do all of the time. Figure out where we are going, and then, collectively, map out the route. There are challenges, there are questions, but together, they make it happen. I have seen them build a barricade for Les Miserables, build a castle for Beauty & The Beast, build and land a helicopter in Miss Saigon, fly Grizabella in Cats, and build a gigantic bridge for Jekyll & Hyde. They run the sound and lights, move the sets, imagine great ideas, and take it all apart when it is over. That is not just hard work. It is fun, and it is learning.

The Student Leaders

As a production moves along, many students serve in leadership positions. We have stage managers, lighting and sound directors, who are all kids. We also have our dance captains. Each year, Denise selects a senior and junior dancer to serve in this key role. While the choreography is overseen by the choreographer, the dance captains have great input, collaborate with Denise on each number, and lead the dancers to a successful opening. While these captains need to be accomplished performers, their leadership qualities can be even more important.

I always select a vocal rehearsal assistant, who is a student who can read music at a high level, to be the musical score checker for me and to assist me at vocal rehearsals. And then we have our leads – those students who have been given the responsibility of playing a lead role exert their leadership onstage and off.

The Teachers

Of course, we are a school, so we are teachers. We have a creative team of dedicated adults who work tirelessly with the kids to make the production a success and a life experience. In addition to Denise and student production jekyll & hydeme, we have two tremendous adult production assistants: a scenic designer and an orchestra conductor. We model the collaboration that we want our students to do. We are transparent. The students see us have creative differences, encounter challenges, and work together to solve them

It is truly the combined effort of students and teachers that brings the show to a successful opening. And that is the goal, Opening Night. That is our assessment. But we have learned all along the way. The entire company of students and teachers has worked together, fully aware that the hard deadline of our first performance looms ahead and will not move. We have to make it. And they always do. It is done with intention, and the students contribute to the “curriculum design” along the way.

Teaching with the Arts in the 21st Century

So, let’s see. We have kids working together. Patiently solving problems, thinking critically, serving in leadership roles, creating and communicating. Sounds 21st century, doesn’t it?

In our curriculum, we have a vocal class, a digital photography class, a 4-year art program, a 4-year instrumental music program, a choir, a dance club, and a theatre program that produces two musicals each school year. And our students benefit in multiple ways from all of it.

Many of the students involved in the arts at our school are also the “high achievers.” Some students who struggle make connections in the arts that inspire them to become true learners. Why are the arts so often marginalized? Why are they the first to go? With the national frenzy for accountability, racing to the top, and measuring school success with standardized, high-stakes tests that take a narrow 3R’s  view of the curriculum, it is no wonder that the visual and performing arts get cast aside.

But if we truly want creative citizens, who have a sense of culture, can solve real-world problems, collaborate in teams, and also keep us entertained, shouldn’t we be  embracing the arts and their teaching potential?

What do you think? Please share your arts-in-schools experience by leaving a comment. What might happen if we made the arts a key subject area to which every student has equitable access. Can we do that?

About the author
Ed Allen is a high school teacher and administrator at Cardinal O'Hara High School in the Philadelphia area with a firm belief that all learning needs to be networked. He has also been involved in arts education for many years and maintains that the arts are critical in schools. Ed blogs at Imagine and Teach and you can follow him on Twitter at horizons93.