I spent last Friday night at a 4th grade poetry slam.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. As the mother of a first grader I know that sometimes parents and teachers simply have to smile widely and clap loudly so that our kids will feel supported even when their skills make us want to cover our ears and look for aspirin. But the teacher, Eric Thomas, had been asking me for months to come to Trenton, NJ and check out the students at Stokes Elementary School. His enthusiasm convinced me I should attend. I was not disappointed.

The Stokes students did not recite the lofty words of other writers; instead they composed their own verse. In language that was precise, compelling, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking these 9 and 10-year-old children presented a surprisingly mature critique of our nation. They employed not only poetry but also drumming and dance to craft a unique and coherent vision of the world from the perspective of working class black children living and learning in an American city.

I was struck that the students had both far-ranging global analysis – much of the verse focused on global warming and environmental degradation – and a perspective on more immediate concerns about violence, poverty, and drugs in their own communities.

These students spoke about historic black political leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and they spent time reflecting on how inspired they felt by President Barack Obama. They called their elders to task for setting poor examples, and held themselves accountable for sticking to schoolwork and staying out of trouble.

At the end of their performance my applause were genuine. I was impressed. But beyond my appreciation for these extraordinary students, the performance reinforced several lessons about education.

I was reminded of how important it is to listen to young people. I know many adults who want to contribute to our communities and think the best thing they can do is go into schools and talk to young people. While role modeling and inspiring lectures are important, Friday night’s poetry slam reinforced my belief that what young people need most is to have someone listen to them rather than talk to them. I appear on television, write editorials, and give dozens of public lectures, but this teacher did not invite me to talk to his kids; he invited me to listen to his kids.

I think it is particularly important to listen to young people who, because of race, poverty, or language, are often marginalized in public discourse. We have a tendency to make policy on behalf of these youth without asking them what they think or what ideas they have about their needs or the solutions to the problems they face. Often times we silence children “for their own good” rather than giving them a chance to creatively and openly explore their own ideas.

I believe we need more opportunities for youth to be the experts, more chances for young people to set the agenda, and more opportunities for students to be the teachers. The pride and sense of accomplishment in these students was palpable because they had taken ownership of the performance. Students learn as much from having a voice as by listening to the voices of others.

The event also reinforced my commitment to arts education. Our national economic meltdown means school districts across the country are facing budget crises. In this atmosphere it is seductive to cut the arts first. Kids don’t need performing and visual arts, the argument goes, they need math and reading. This argument is especially likely to affect urban schools that serve poorer populations. It is seductive to sacrifice creative opportunities for basic skills training, but it is a mistake to do so.

Our country and our world need the arts more than ever. We need a generation of young people capable of non-violent self-expression who are sensitive to difference and capable of innovation and creative problem solving. I found the fourth graders at Stokes Elementary were more challenging, relevant, analytic, and careful than most cable news pundits.

Many of these students may have been unable to write a perfect five paragraph essay, but each of them was able to express important ideas through free verse, music, and dance.

The program at Stokes Elementary is not part of the school’s regular curriculum. It is a project endowed by Young Audiences, a New Jersey foundation supporting arts education in the schools. The work they do is phenomenal, but it cannot fill all the gaps and reach all the children who need it. Parents, educators, and communities will have to mobilize to save and restore the arts in our schools.

The challenges that these students face are real and daunting. Despite their glorious hearts and gifted minds many of these young people will be targeted by gangs, by police, and by premature sexual pressure. They live in neighborhoods with few jobs and plenty of drugs.

Many of their families have inadequate housing, insufficient health care, and few chances for economic advancement. It is easy to dismiss the necessity of arts education for kids facing such tough circumstances, but these are precisely the students in most urgent need of the arts.

Through the arts young people learn to imagine new possibilities for themselves and their communities. They learn to engage as full members of these communities with something positive to contribute, right now, in this moment, not waiting until after years of professional training.

In short, arts education is a training ground for participatory democracy.


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