Creative Confidence and the Education Revolution

Posted by Camille Zamora, Sep 16, 2021 0 comments

The late great educational philosopher Sir Ken Robinson was known for working with immense organizations—governments, school systems, multinational corporations—to unlock their capacity for growth using the tools of creative arts education. He used to tell a story about a student he had observed. All of about six or seven years old, the little girl sat in the last row of her classroom, rarely paying attention, and generally uninterested or unable to take part in the lessons being taught. 

This changed once a week, during art class, when the little girl would transform, coming alive, color rushing to her cheeks and her entire demeanor transforming as she poured color and form onto her sketch pad. 

Her teacher was fascinated. She approached her, asking, “What are you drawing?” 

The girl responded, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”

The teacher laughed, “But nobody knows what God looks like!” 

To which the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

I recently heard a pandemic-era analog of this story from another arts teacher. Over these past 18 months, like so many, she had pivoted her out-of-home professional life to an in-home, Zoom-facilitated version headquartered at her kitchen table. One evening while she was teaching her adult-continuing-education art class, her kindergarten-aged son asked what she was doing on Zoom with all those grownups. She explained that she was teaching them to paint. Her son responded, “You mean, they forgot?”

I love these two stories—not just because they make me giggle, but because they underscore a couple of deep truths about arts education. 

First, per the six-year-old sketch artist who blossomed through the act of drawing (and drawing the divine, no less, because you’ve got to start somewhere), one of the greatest fruits of an arts education is creative confidence. (There’s some great writing on creative confidence by IDEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley, and by my dear friends, early Sing for Hope champions, and inspirational arts innovators Marina and Kevin Krim of The Lulu & Leo Fund.) Art-making seeds a certain bone-deep faith in one’s instincts, a deeply grounded sense of comfort that frees one up to try new things. Developing one’s artistry is an exercise in taking risks and living to tell the tale. Mistakes aren’t only tolerated, they’re expected. Built into the artistic process is the act of rough-drafting, rehearsing, reframing, “take-it-again-from-the-top”-ing. The voice will crack at some point as we seek our sweetest, most vulnerable sound, and our foot will falter occasionally as we attempt a new pirouette. Producing meaningful art means that we’ve given ourselves space to experiment, iterate, fall and fail and get up and try again. 

In Anna Deavere Smith’s words, “A lot of times we think art is about congratulations, but we rehearse things for the opportunity to correct. And that area, the area of correction, is where the education begins.” This opportunity to correct flies in the face of an educational system predicated on the right/wrong binary of standardized testing. It’s radically freeing to look beyond that binary, and creative confidence is the byproduct. With creative confidence in place, anything is possible for our students. Drawing God is just the start.

The second little story—“You mean, they forgot?”—is a nod to artistry as everyone’s birthright, our natural state. We are all born artists. Given a crayon, every toddler will make their mark. And we didn’t learn to walk because we did it “right” the first time; we were born iterative, wanting to practice, wanting to play. (I always love how those two same words—practice, play—are used in the linked, liminal states of art, spirit, and childhood.) Picasso famously said, “Todos los niños nacen artistas. El problema es cómo seguir siendo artistas al crecer.” / “All children are born artists. The problem is how to continue being artists as we grow.” How do we ensure that we don’t, in Sir Ken’s phrase, educate people out of their creative capacities? How do we ensure that we grow into our creativity instead of out of it?

Historically, we haven’t always peeled the arts out of the STEM equation (STEM = science, technology, engineering, math), as so many school systems have done over the past decades in some misguided attempt at pedagogical rigor. Art and science once commingled naturally in the classroom and beyond. STEM was, in Yo-Yo Ma’s perfect phrase, STEAM. From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, the arts and sciences were complementary parts of a (w)holistic approach to life, itself rooted in ancient Greek ideals. The arts were an integral and integrated part of learning, growing, connecting, and healing. 

I happen to be a proud product of a public arts education via Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, where I was a member of Ms. Bonner's Girls’ Chorus. (Shout-out to Ms. Bonner, who taught half a century of teenagers to breathe deep, among other key life lessons.) From HSPVA, I went on to Juilliard, and from there, to singing repertoire from Mozart to tango with dream collaborators across the world. That said, the creative arts experiences I had in grades K-12 (especially 9-12) are my most important resume credits. Without the arts education I received at HSPVA—the first school where I ever felt comfortable in my own skin—none of the rest would have been possible. My life is a testament to the power of arts education, and not just because I happen to make my living as a singer, but because arts education taught me collaboration, innovation, resiliency—basically, how to live in the world

Given my far-from-unique experience, I often wonder how we can justify not offering this source of human connection/optimization to our most vulnerable youth. Knowing arts education’s particular emotional/intellectual alchemy, how can we not bring it to every child as we emerge from the pandemic and seek to build back better? 

By virtue of the fact that you’re on this website, you likely already are a co-investor and believer in the importance of arts education. Thank you for your energy, advocacy, and belief in the power of arts education to make a difference in the lives of our young people. This week, Sing for Hope had the honor of watching our students and teachers return to schools on both coasts: at our Sing for Hope Young at Arts Lab serving the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and southern Westchester County, and all across Los Angeles as our school partners there received their newly delivered Sing for Hope Pianos, thanks to our partnership with The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and the City of Beverly Hills. I’d like to give our students the last word here, through images that radiate creative confidence and make our hearts sing.

Students gather around a bright orange painted piano, a student in the front holds a large pair of scissors poised to cut a ribbon in front of the piano.
Students at Sing for Hope Partner School PS 4 at their Citizen Artist Assembly. SFH Piano by Lance Johnson, photo courtesy Sing for Hope.

Young students sit around a white piano decorated with photos of dogs
Students in Mr. Jonathan Moritz’s music class at
PS10 Brooklyn Pre-K280 get up close and personal with a piano designed by fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Photo courtesy Sing for Hope.

A group of students pose for the camera around a white textured piano.
Students at PS161 with their new Sing for Hope Piano created by artist Keith Carollo. Photo courtesy Sing for Hope.

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