Building Character Through the Arts
By Bryan Stanton, Alamo Heights High School
It is widely known that the arts are an essential and unique human experience. When COVID-19 disrupted our daily lives people turned to Netflix, Hulu, painting, and Zoom calls with friends while drawing or watching a movie together. While it’s nice that the arts are the world’s primary source of entertainment, for the actor, director, technician, artist, musician, or writer it’s a much more meaningful experience. Practicing art is a transformative experience that not only gives each student the ability to objectively look within but also critically look at the world. Through various media art teachers are able to teach the core values of perseverance, community and belonging, respect, and critical thinking on a daily basis.
Consider perseverance for a moment. Every piece of art whether a play, a piece of music, or a painting requires focus and time. Students are expected to practice or sit and make multiple attempts to bring the piece to life. Students must work through the various challenges that arise with each new piece to not only overcome the immediate challenge but build their skills, so they are able to navigate similar challenges more easily in the future. Art, being subjective, means that the challenges are endless, but what we are taught in the end is to persevere and work through problems rather than giving up. That perseverance comes in handy when dealing with global challenges as well. For example, when COVID-19 made it clear that Alamo Heights High School (AHHS) would not be returning to live theatre productions, their technical theatre students came up with a solution: a drive-in haunted house. They developed their own story, created set pieces, costumes, makeup designs, and complied with all local health ordinances regarding events in public places. Their past experiences of having to overcome obstacles made creating theatre during a pandemic a surmountable obstacle rather than a point of doom and frustration.
As educators, building a sense of community and belonging is a part of not only our beginning of the year process but our everyday mission. We are charged with monitoring and caring for our student’s social and emotional needs. One of the amazing things about performing arts is the sense of community that comes from working in an ensemble. From marching band to orchestra to Shakespeare, ensemble work requires a strong sense of community. Students learn to collaborate in a way that creates a safe space for vulnerability. That groundwork opens the possibilities to try new things, to play a solo, to sing in front of a group. Furthermore, students are taught to work together, bounce ideas off each other, teach each other skills, and help in collaborative work. When it comes to visual art it is incredibly important to step back and allow your community to see your work. You are able to gain a new perspective that allows you to push past your own preconceptions of your piece and see it anew.
None of that community would be possible without respect. When it comes to laying down the foundation for a collaborative, creative environment mutual respect is key. One way that AHHS theatre created this environment during the pandemic was to specifically look at our school’s core values. In teams, students worked together to define each value and create a list of actionable items to not just talk the talk but walk the walk when it came to living our values. This assignment was both personal and collaborative because students were tasked with defining their own core values and adapting the school’s core values to an artistic environment, e.g. theatre. When students have respect for one another and are thinking creatively they can come up with powerful statements that will drive change. Here are some examples:
Self-Worth: I will go for the role or position that I’m scared of because I know I am worthy of playing or holding it.
Compassion: We will consider the strengths and weaknesses of our peers and not judge them for them.
Service: We will work together to give back to the community.
Empathy: We will not think of someone as weak if they are struggling, because everyone struggles and deserves help and compassion.
Through these statements students and teachers can hold each other accountable for the type of culture they want in their classroom. These have become the rules of the class and are used as reminders of what we are supposed to do as individuals.
From a theatrical perspective there is one additional area of character that can be used to help students grow and that is character development. It may seem like a weird term but to an actor character development has nothing to do with you, personally, but to the character you are creating for the stage. Students every day are literally putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. As students begin to understand their craft, they are able to clearly see how societal or family pressures influence a character, how to spot when a character is telling the truth or lying and most importantly, they begin to understand “why” these things are happening. This skillset stays with the actor and is used whether on stage or in real life. By understanding the “why” behind a person’s decisions students can be critical thinkers when it comes to choosing friends, understanding society, and navigating interpersonal relationships. This skillset literally allows students to empathize with other individuals because they begin to connect dots with a character that later appear in reality. In the people they meet and interact with.
The arts are not only a form of entertainment but a critical part of the character development process for any student or individual involved. It is why so many art teachers come to work each day because they know the work is vital. Art teachers know the work they are doing will not only impact their students directly but also the character of the world.