Acrylic paint, sidewalk chalk, and calligraphy pens are staples of my English class. These items, along with reciting poetry and acting out scenes from plays allow my students to communicate through a variety of mediums, and to integrate their creative capabilities into their everyday learning.
In 2001, I walked into my 6th grade classroom ready to share my love of reading and writing. However, I soon discovered that my students were in need of much more than an enthusiastic teacher with an English degree. I needed to engage them and make them want to learn.
My students that year struggled with the basics of reading and writing. Many had already decided that they hated school, and could already be labeled as chronic absentees. Instead of teaching Shakespeare, I was struggling to keep students engaged. I too struggled that year. It took a few months, but The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was the gateway into exploring the arts. We broke the story into parts and acted it out, we made 3D models and we wrote poems as the main character. It was a start.
Two years later, I was given the opportunity to teach at my alma mater, The Las Vegas Academy of the Arts (LVA). Teaching at LVA challenged me to continue integrating the arts into my teaching, as I didn’t want my students to see academics and the arts as separate entities. Thirteen years later, I am still teaching English as well as Creative Writing at LVA. Every day I am given the opportunity to work in a community of creative students who have chosen to dedicate their high school years to the study of the performing, visual and liberal arts.
I have learned throughout my years as a teacher that if you give a kid paint, he will paint. If you offer a student a calligraphy pen, she will use it. If you give students the choice to express their learning in song or spoken word, or with chalk, they will. It just takes an invitation for them to use their talents.
These talents, however, are not exclusive to my campus, these kids are everywhere. They need a community where they can be exposed to and encouraged to engage in the arts. All teachers can be arts teachers, and every kid deserves to be given the opportunity for the arts to be a part of their education. Those paints, that chalk, that mop bucket waiting to be a drum, these are powerful tools that can unlock the opportunity for a student to learn about Math, English, or Science. An arts education is possible at any school.
It was arts that bridged the gap between my 6th graders and me at the start of my teaching career, and it is the arts now that has my students asking questions about Alexander Hamilton. I believe in the power of the arts, as they have played a part in my life both as a student and as a teacher, and I know the power that they have to encourage empathy, artistry, inquiry, and community.
Stacey Dallas Johnston is a 2016 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. Johnston has taught English and Literature at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the last 13 years.