Civics and the Arts

Despite the unusual nature of the past school year, Democracy Schools have continued our mantra that “every teacher is a civics teacher.” To support this mission, we have offered a series of webinars since December that have explored “Civics across the Curriculum.” Blog posts and recordings are available on the Webinar Archive page.

Melinda Wilson is the Dance Artistic Director at Curie Metropolitan High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Chicago. She is a choreographer, dance instructor, dancer, and test writer for ISBE dance certification. Melinda has been recognized for her work — both locally and globally — with great distinction and numerous awards. She has vigorously engaged her students in meaningful ways in their communities. Melinda’s leadership in connecting the arts and civics makes her a valuable member of the Advisory Council of the Democracy Schools Network.

How do the arts help students find their voice?

With so much volatility in the world, students need to understand how to use their voices in a positive way. Art, music, drama, and dance have been squeezed out of the curriculum at a time when they had never been more important. The arts are essential for personal growth and self-understanding. They teach students to think creatively, communicate effectively and build resilience. Through the arts, students can find their voices to create change and do incredible things. The arts draw from daily life to create content, and then integrate creativity, performance, response, connection, and appreciation to deepen learning. Despite the limitations of the pandemic, students have offered a visionary sense of freshness as we enter this explosion of digital visual creativity.

Could you given some examples of how students have responded to current societal issues?

My students are from Chicago’s southwest side, where local community members have been responding to inequalities in health care, job opportunities, safety, gender biases, racial discrimination, economic disparities, residential segregation, immigration, and incarceration. These have been exacerbated by COVID. To formally document their own experiences during this virtual year, students have created numerous projects including: Active Citizenship Musicals based upon social movements, Human Trafficking Awareness Public Service Announcements sponsored by CNN’s Freedom Project (see two examples), and individual TedTalks through TEDEd. Students have also worked on international projects, winning first place from, The Ring of Peace Film Festival (United Kingdom).

How did the Active Citizenship musicals deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

This initiative focuses on how the arts can play a part in developing and encouraging positive change for individuals and communities. The musicals represent compassion, equity, and hope through the arts. Students created musicals based on gender equality, racial biases, women’s suffrage, Black Lives Matter, social media, immigration, and COVID-19. They began by determining the storyline, conducted research, created the score, performed, and edited their projects. Students presented the Active Citizenship musicals to their peers. The musicals were judged by professional musical theatre artists from around the country. Inspired by the Tony and Olivier Awards, we celebrated the student’s musicals by creating the Tilly Awards. When hearing about the student’s musicals, WGN-TV kindly offered to announce the winners. You can imagine the student’s surprise when we celebrated the Tilly Awards virtually, while watching with families, friends, and pets.

How have your students become better citizens because of their experiences in the arts?

It is the artist who continually pursues beauty through story. The options aren’t limited to protests or writing to political leaders. We seek alternative ways to move ahead, encouraging our teachers and students to creatively consider “what changes the world?” One student offers this: “With these projects, I can see the possibilities of the world around me.” Another notes, “Through my projects, I’ve learned to find compassion…compassion will heal us more than vengeance ever could.” Teachers have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that our youth become engaged global citizens, equipped with 21st century learning skills. We can’t let children become isolated at the mercy of their own fantasies. We must allow them to dream and become creators of beauty.

What advice would you give to teachers of the arts about incorporating elements of civics into their practice?

As we move beyond the pandemic and focus on equity recovery, we need to think about the importance of social cohesion as one essential pre-condition to long term community change. Creative practices can help us reflect on the past while paving the way for a more equitable recovery. There are vibrant, creative spaces in every community. It is up to teachers to help students understand their role in ensuring that these spaces are utilized for communities’ safety and equity. Get students out of their chairs and off their computers, by inspiring them to create art that reflects their stories and understandings. The arts will enable students to confront the systemic inequalities, while supporting their own health and well-being.