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Creative Teachers Help Teens Thrive, But We Keep Cutting Arts Classes Anyway

A trip to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards reveals the value of educators who inspire

Funding for arts education is once again on the chopping block, but that doesn’t mean teachers have stopped encouraging students to develop their creativity. Some of the most expressive work produced this school year by the nation’s middle and high school students was recently recognized at the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards—the nation's longest-running and most prestigious recognition program for creative teens. The awards ceremony and accompanying gallery reveals inspiring and inventive arts education from around the country and the importance of arts educators in the lives of students.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We can never stop creating. If we do, we lose understanding of complex situations, our emotions, and of others.[/quote]

With no entry fee, the competition is accessible to teens who come from urban and rural schools and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. There were roughly 330,000 submissions in art and writing this year, about 90,000 teens won at the state level, and 2,700 national winners attended the celebration last week in New York City. Students accompanied by their families and, at times, their teachers picked up their awards and certificates at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, but the official awards ceremony took place at Carnegie Hall.

The student galleries, where their work was on display, were split between spaces at two of Gotham’s centers of creativity: Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute. Proud families and teachers walked through the galleries, snapping pictures of favorites and searching for their student’s work. Some students were seniors, winning an award for the first time after years of trying. Others were seventh- and eighth-graders, eyes still glittering from their first big creative “yes.”

Research shows that K-12 students who study visual and performing arts reap benefits like higher SAT scores. A well-regarded study by the University of Maryland found that for each year a student has art coursework, they are “significantly more optimistic about their chances to attend college than non-arts students.” Each year of art class is also “significantly associated with a 20 percent reduction in the likelihood that an adolescent would ever be suspended out-of-school,” according to the study. Despite these benefits and the critical role educators play as mentors, when budget cuts come, art teachers tend to lose their jobs disproportionately often. With an additional $9.2 billion in federal education cuts looming, it’s likely that more art teachers will get pink slips.

As we stood in front of her award-winning photography, Allyson Manzella, a senior from Oswego, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, told me about her teacher Daniel Whipple. “He pushed me into AP Studio Art since sophomore year, and he had a lot of faith in me since I was a freshman,” said Manzella. With Whipple’s encouragement, she’ll be studying fashion photography at the Columbia College Chicago this fall. Her teacher allowed me “to step out of my comfort zone and push the limits of my pictures,” said Manzella.

Amid the black-and-white photographs, paintings of classic landscapes, and pencil portraits on the walls, the power of student voices was on full display. Many of the human subjects in the artwork stare back, confrontational and unafraid, like the selfies that millennials are often criticized for. Themes of social justice—from trans rights to the Syrian refugee crisis to #BlackLivesMatter—drove many of the winning works. “It is not my job as a Black Woman to Educate you when Google Exists—I Will Not Do It!” stated the caption on a Gold Medal editorial cartoon from 17-year-old Amir Khadar, a senior from Fridley, Minnesota.

An intimate theater showed short films about a range of topics that prove teens aren’t afraid to get personal. Winner of the Best-in-Grade award, “Inge,” a documentary by Rachel Schlesinger, a junior from Austin, Texas, told the poignant story of Schlesinger’s grandmother returning to Germany for the first time since her family fled the Holocaust.

Students at the ceremony said their teachers provide guidance without doing too much handholding. “I mostly worked on the writing alone. My teacher mainly helped me with the editing, whenever I needed her help,” said Gold Medal Writing Portfolio awardee Elizabeth Lee of Boise, Idaho. But knowing her teacher was available for feedback helped Lee, who will attend Columbia University this fall, feel supported as she worked through the often-solitary creative writing process.

The Portfolio awards are arguably the most competitive and selective of the Scholastic Awards, reserved for 12 seniors—six in art and six in writing. Feng-Ching Chang of Anchorage, Alaska, won an American Visions Medal for a painting from his Silver Medal Art Portfolio. “He’s awesome. He helped me a lot,” Chang said of his teacher, Cullen Lickingteller.

Makayla Forde, an eighth-grader from Charlotte, North Carolina, who won a Gold Medal in ceramics, said she came to the New York City celebrations with her mother and her art teacher, Lisha Silver. “She’s been teaching me for a decade,” Forde said of her teacher.

Silver said she believes the Scholastic Awards provide a critical space for students to share their worldview—and step into their peers’ shoes. “It’s an important opportunity because we’re celebrating unique perspectives. We’re teaching our future leaders that there is more than one right answer,” she said. That might be why Flash Fiction winner Catherine Ji of Boise felt so inspired by her peers’ gallery pieces. “We can never stop creating. If we do, we lose understanding of complex situations, our emotions, and of others—I am still blown away,” said Ji.

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