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Why the arts and arts teachers enrich schools

Michelle Thorne

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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky has been writing a Great Georgia Teacher series for the blog. Here is his latest installment on Michelle Thorne of Heritage High School in Conyers.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Schools in Georgia face a challenge that reflects a national educational dilemma: Money is in short supply. There are many ways to address a budget shortfall: reduce staff and enlarge class size, cut back on the administration and its bureaucracy, eliminate after school programs, prune the curriculum to offer only what is essential, require teachers to take de facto pay cuts by giving them furlough days, and other measures. I don’t envy any administrators or boards of education who are forced to decide which services, and whose, must be cut in order to make ends meet.

Both nationally and among Get Schooled commenters, a common suggestion is to get rid of anything in the budget that does not prepare students directly for the workforce, either immediately after graduation or after a career-oriented college experience. Because many anticipate that the future is oriented to technology, reducing the curriculum to STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is, they say, a viable way to make public education affordable to the public and practical for students.

I’m all for STEM fields. I like bridges that don’t collapse, budgets that balance, and weather forecasts that are accurate. What I’m not for is forcing everyone, regardless of ability or interest, to be educated solely for fields that require a STEM emphasis. I support a curriculum for schools that prepares students for the whole of their lives, rather than for a narrow range of professions that they might never enter.

In spite of my preferences, one popular target for budget trimming is what is broadly considered to be the arts. Who, after all, becomes a professional artist? If school is considered to be preparation for work, why invest in programs that prepare people for other payoffs — in the case of great Georgia teacher   Michelle Thorne, director of theater at Heritage High School in Conyers, for the play?

Michelle’s outstanding work with kids in Conyers helps to provide an answer to the question of why the arts should be included among the options that students have in mapping their educational experiences. True, few kids that she teaches will perform on Broadway. But then, if that’s the criterion for retaining a school program, we should really get rid of sports, given that 99.883% of high school athletes never suit up for pay.

As a former high school athlete and coach—one who believes in the value of healthy competition, teamwork, discipline, and other values that are available through sports—I would never make that suggestion, because the plan was never to prepare ourselves or our athletes for professional sports careers. (Well, OK, like 99.883% of high school athletes, I thought that I was surely headed for the pros.) Nor would I support getting rid of art, theater, or music programs just because they do not directly prepare students with technical skills for the workforce.

So, what exactly does a theater program prepare students for, if not a career trajectory? If the play’s the thing, then what is the thing that the players are experiencing? Let me count the ways.

First, let’s set the stage by consulting with Michelle’s students to see what they think of her teaching. At RateMyTeacher.com, where teachers’ reputations go to die, they think a lot of her. Here’s an excerpt from what’s available:

“One of the friendliest and most approachable teachers I've had. She could get a little too enthusiastic at times when it came to the . . . more "abstract" areas of acting, but she was a blast to work with. . . . If you're interested in acting even a little bit, check her out. You won't regret it. I certainly didn't, and I spent nearly four years with her. . . . She is AMAZING! She made my high school experience awesome! We also have amazing plays, thanks to her. . . . Mrs. Thorne is an amazing drama teacher and has done so much to make the Heritage drama department ... without her we would be nothing. thank you Mrs. Thorne.”

Although few high school actors reach the professional stage, one of her graduates wrote to a county bulletin board, “For over 10 years, Michelle Thorne has brought quality theatre to the Rockdale County community and a peerless educational theatre program. I am a professional now due in no small part to her dedication, wisdom and theatrical savvy. . . . I was deeply honored to serve for two years as Michelle Thorne's assistant director, and I say with absolute certainty that no one does more for these students.”

If you like a terrific drama program, then I’m convinced that Michelle is getting the job done. She prepares her student crews and performers diligently enough that her Heritage HS troupe has taken first or second place in the region for the last seven years at the Georgia High School Association One-Act Play Competition. In what little spare time she has, she also runs workshops and does productions with elementary school students in order to foster the love of arts within a larger cross-section of students.

One factor rarely mentioned in teacher assessment initiatives is their cultivation of students’ “soft skills”: those relational and emotional capabilities that work in concert with “hard” technical skills of the sort valued by those oriented to school’s utilitarian mission of job preparation. As psychologists have found for many years, participating in drama can produce greater emotional sensitivity among both the actors and, in a performance that projects deep human emotions, the audience.

When Michelle directed her students in “The Boys Next Door," for instance, she focused on their capacity for empathy in portraying special needs adult men and the social worker who cares for them. The actors needed to project emotional qualities such that the audience came away affected and sympathetic. That ability to establish relational pathos can enhance the use of virtually any hard, technical abilities that contribute to workplace success.

A second, related quality of drama is the manner in which it contributes to the development of a school community, another overlooked aspect of effective schools in the current assessment climate. Plays bring together wide audiences to share the same, school-affiliated experience. Folks come to the school after hours and gather for an evening of entertainment, exhilaration, sympathy, or other feeling that follows from engagement with the performance. This feeling of connection is key to having a successful school in that it ties people to the institution above and beyond what the instructional dimension can provide.

Drama programs can also provide for many students a positive social updraft. I’ve previously written about this capacity with respect to music programs, and it is also available through sports and other extracurricular activities. A pursuit that provides a positive social updraft enables students to experience success and acceptance that can help them find additional reasons to persist in school. Theater groups often involve kids who are from outside the social mainstream, and their involvement often provides the currents through which they become better integrated with the rest of the school’s social flow.  

What do we fund when we fund theater? We are investing in more than just a series of profitable performances. A dramatic production involves a vision that is seen through by a dedicated team under the direction of a committed teacher like Michelle Thorne so that a team of diverse members may provide a community of people with an enriching experience. It gives the students and teachers involved a feeling toward school that is hard to achieve in classrooms, one that makes school something greater than the sum of a student’s grades and test scores.

Whether the kids become professional actors or not, being involved in such a complex production, and entertaining audiences in the process, should provide for them a strong foundation for working effectively in any setting that involves their harmonious involvement with others. That’s a future I can believe in and feel good about supporting.