Since 1961, Arts for Learning (AFL) Indiana has been the premier provider of arts education programs for youth in Central Indiana and beyond. With 200 programs and 40,000 children impacted annually, this non-profit fosters creative learning experiences to empower youth and transform education.
In light of the pandemic widening the educational equity gap and creating unprecedented stressors for students and teachers, AFL’s 60-year initiative has never been more relevant. In fact, today’s worldly climate has called on schools to reconsider how they’re supporting the well-being of youth and educators now and in the future.
It begs the question: What if we let art and creativity lead the way in education? We sat down with Arts for Learning to discuss just that.
Nurturing Students Through Art
The arts have remained vastly underrepresented in education for decades, and there’s been a long-time battle of keeping arts and music teachers in schools. When budgets are cut, these classes are often the first to go. And how could this be? It seems odd, considering the majority of Americans (88%) support arts education.
According to the AFL’s Senior Director of Programs, Ploi Pagdalian, this is typically the result of schools putting less emphasis on the arts to focus on subjects like math and English that are measured for state testing.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our schools were a safe haven for mistakes and failures? What if that’s where we allowed children to experiment and hash things out rather than memorizing the right answers to the right questions? No one is even asking: Are these the right questions? If we have schools that are driven by creativity,” Ploi says, “our teachers will be trained differently, our tests will look different, our classrooms will look different, and the way we interact with each other will be very different.”
“Different” is what many educators today are looking for — and AFL is doing its part to fill this gap. With the pandemic and political landscape increasing demands and leaving teachers feeling overworked and undervalued, Ploi emphasizes that arts education can be the solution that many schools desperately need.
“Teachers are doing the most impossible and important task in our society, and they need help,” she says. “The art forms we bring into classrooms show teachers that they can do things differently. We don’t just teach art skill sets; we can also connect these skill sets to the curriculum to serve as a partner in the classroom.”
Education is not whole without the arts, and teachers can lean on AFL’s Teaching Artists for emotional and mental health support, as well as an alternative way of accessing information. Ploi says the creative process AFL brings into classrooms has a “healing tendency,” and if it can work so well for young children, she believes it will also work to support our educators.
The Teaching Artist's Way
AFL recruits professional, practicing artists with diverse backgrounds and disciplines who desire to give back to the community. From music, dance, visual arts, multimedia, storytelling, acting, poetry, and more — AFL’s roster is curated yearly and adapted to the needs of classrooms.
With many schools facing student and educator disengagement, AFL and its Teaching Artists believe the arts can serve as a remedy. “When you expose kids at such an early age to the arts, you’re also helping them build their confidence levels, social skills, as well as helping their mental and physical health,” Bollywood Instructor and Teaching Artist for AFL, Usha Sirimalle, says.
“There’s so much behind Bollywood dances. The little ones I teach aren’t just learning about the dance; they are learning about the culture. I give them fun facts about India and show them where it is on a map. Many children ask, ‘Did you come here all the way from India?’ and I laugh,” she says. “They are intrigued by my dress and jewelry, and it opens their mind to other cultures — other ways of living.”
Visual Artist and Teaching Artist for AFL, Giselle Trujillo, echoes this sentiment: “We work with schools’ curriculum and try to combine different ways to learn. Some people learn with reasoning, some with building, and others with dancing. The creativity we bring to classrooms helps kids and teachers know they have these different tools to utilize.”
“I start every class with five minutes of dance,” Giselle says. “This gets their creativity flowing and shows them a different way to express themselves. It’s really opened a new window for these students.”
AFL and its Teaching Artists strongly believe in the power of artmaking and fostering the nurturing aspects of the actual process itself. To Nasreen Khan—a Teaching Artist at AFL whose primary medium is pyrography — there’s so much opportunity to connect with kids through the arts. “I think that being trusted with a hot wood-burning tool feels empowering — they really seem to rise to the challenge. When you look a little one in the eyes and say, ‘This is very hot, but I trust you to hold it and make beautiful art with it’ — they take that seriously,” she says.
“I hope to help the students I teach learn they are worth trusting and that they can trust themselves — physically, emotionally, artistically. In that hour I have with them, I want to tell them that their point of view, their emotions, and their narratives are important and worthy. It’s not just art,” she says, “it’s much deeper than that.”
Community Call Out: Join AFL's Cause
Through the arts (and many other ways), AFL is working hard to bring representation to students. “We want our roster of artists to represent the students in the schools we serve,” Ploi says. “Belonging is very important in what we do — especially for students that are non-native [English] speakers, like myself.” AFL is nurturing inclusivity and creativity by ensuring DEI is at the forefront of what they do, and they’re calling on artists, administrators, and community members of all different backgrounds to join the cause.
“We want diverse artists working in the community to know there’s another venue for them to expand their artistry, and we want teachers and principals — even with minimal budgets — to know that they can lean on us,” Ploi explains. “Even if you’re just someone with a heart for education and our future, consider being an individual donor!”
“We can’t stop now,” she says. “The kids are changing, education is changing — everything is changing. And creativity needs to be at the heart of what we rebuild.”