This month, educators gathered in Albuquerque for the first New Mexico Ted conference to focus on education. Over a dozen presenters gave short talks at the event, affiliated with the national nonprofit conference organizer “Ted.” Presenters spoke of the innovation required in an era of standardized tests. As schools have seen the arts squeezed out of their schedules in favor of academics, several speakers argued for preserving the critical role of art in education.
Educator Gretchen Williams describes a surprising thing that happens when her arts program enters a school. The students begin as in any other class, she says. “They’re wearing their street clothes, their tennis shoes, they come as they are. It takes place in a room that usually smells like milk, a cafeteria, a gym, something of that nature, but the space is transformed through imagination.”
She’s talking about dance, but her comments could equally apply to visual art or poetry. For Williams, director of development at NDI, the National Dance Institute, in Albuquerque, creativity allows every student to express themselves. “The kids get swept up in this process, they are fully engaged. There are no labels like “troublemaker” or “wallflower” or “athlete,” even. So it really has a unique impact, particularly with dance. That’s the element that brings the joy and exuberance to this process.”
She says she’s seen students who participate in the NDI program develop skills that transcend dance, becoming healthy, empowered young adults.
Educator Carlos Contreras’s preferred teaching tool is the written word. He’s a poet who works in schools and prisons. For Contreras, art gives kids opportunities that are fundamentally different from academics. He says, “I think creativity in education allows kids to not be wrong.”
He says writing and teaching poetry has given him direction in life, and a way to stay grounded. At the Metropolitan Detention Center, Contreras has seen poetry become a path towards healing. “Poetry begins to connect and mend populations. Art finds its place, in a place where over three thousand people are searching for something.”
He leads the men in writing and sharing their lives, often with powerful results. “They all live in a place where taking risk is seemingly unallowable,” he says, “but when we get in that room, I witness men finding feelings they never knew they had.”
Contreras says that his goal isn’t to make his students the best poets, but to help them make sense of themselves and their lives.
Denise Hinson agrees that art helps us access something fundamental, elemental. She’s a writer, actor, and an educator at Santa Fe Community College. She explains, “I firmly believe that art is what makes us human, it is part of our special humanity. And so if we take that equation out of schools, we are not creating full humans.”
Yet Hinson says it’s not enough that students participate in art—their teachers must also. When teachers develop their own passion, she says, they inspire their students to do the same. She advises teachers, “Go hang gliding, write bad poetry, play the guitar, sing, dance, make cookies with your grandchildren, just live outside that classroom until your artist is so full of joy that you can do nothing but bring it back to the classroom.”
For the teachers gathered, the final act of the Ted talk was a dynamic display of the power and potential of art.
The dozen students glowed as they danced across the stage. And at the end, they were breathless, and smiling.