Agency in the Arts Classroom
Art is typically thought of as a class where students can express themselves, be creative, and “do fun things” instead of academics. But what if you're a student who isn’t particularly interested in visual art but loves performing? Or if you love to move but aren’t a fan of singing? I think we can agree that exposure to art forms and as many experiences as possible in early childhood and lower elementary is critical for brain development and explorations of deeper interests. However, as decade-long teachers, we found by the time our students reached 4th and 5th grade they had strong opinions on their likes and dislikes and were extremely aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Despite these strong preferences, we still were forcing them into arts classes they had little to no interest in instead of listening to students. This led to apathy, limited progress, and behavioral issues in the classroom. They were NOT being creative, freely expressing themselves, or having fun.
Imagine if someone told you you were going to be forced to go to cross-fit three times a week even though you were a yoga enthusiast. Then when you begrudgingly dragged yourself to the studio, you found out yoga was literally happening next door but that didn't matter, you had NO CHOICE you had to fully participate in the cross-fit class you hated. Because you have agency as an adult, you probably just would choose not to show up to the next class. Even though modern education preaches it gives students agency and makes accommodations for their needs and interests, it’s often performative.
Now, we know gen-ed teachers don’t have this luxury because as important as arts are they are not survivalist skills like being able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. However, arts programs are not bound by this academic necessity, with the exception of outlier cases, we are there not to ensure students survive but thrive.
From personal experience as arts educators in the New York City public schools and seeing these trends in our classrooms, our arts team tried to take action. After a lot of insistence and the support of our wonderful arts director at the time, we adjusted the arts programming at our school to cater more to what our students wanted. 4th and 5th graders got to elect which two arts classes they wanted to dedicate their time to weekly. Unsurprisingly, we saw a dramatic shift in behavior, the quality of the students' work, and everyone was just generally happier. Our shows and exhibitions were the best they had been in our years spent at the school.
I think America generally infantilizes our students. We can see this across the country as book regulations pop up without their consent, the time teachers have to spend preparing students for tests, and adults deciding what it is acceptable to talk about in the classroom with no regard for student curiosity. We assume because they are young they can’t make proactive choices for themselves, explore curiosities, or define their interests. This simply isn’t true. And before we get the naysayers, shouting that “kids need to learn that you don’t always get to do what you want in life”, are arts classes really the place to teach that lesson? By nature of what art is, probably not.