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New York City
December 2001

Special Approaches to Education: The Importance of Creative Arts
By Matilda Raffa Cuomo and JENNIFER WARD

Mentoring USA recognizes that the value of dance, drama and the visual arts in these uncertain times are particularly crucial. Youth often do not know how to express their inner feelings and many may not want to speak about their fears and anger. The arts can provide them a less-threatening outlet to communicate. Many volunteers have come forward to Mentoring USA to offer their talents at sites, working to provide youth and mentors alike with creative projects. Week after week we have seen these projects flourish and allow children moments of pride in their own work and opportunities to express, and talk about, what is troubling them.

As Howard Gardner taught us many years ago, there are multiple intelligences and therefore different ways of looking at and interpreting the world and of learning. Many youth find conventional classroom settings, with their emphasis on reading, writing and quiet learning, difficult environments. Special approaches to education, particularly those that rely on creative and often physical expression, are important to utilize and respect.

The arts in education should be encouraged and supported in all our public and private schools.

Here is one teacher-mentor’s story of how yoga and dance led two young women to find pathways to success.

Alicia: She had ponytails in her hair, and a smile that was as bright as the sun. Born in Japan, she and her seven sisters were raised solely by their mother. When we met, she was in third grade. I was her yoga teacher. Alicia struggled with her math homework, hated science and history and had difficulty communicating. English was not her first language, and others thought of Alicia as shy and withdrawn, a loner. Yet, I could see that she wanted to communicate. It took about three months for us to become comfortable with each other; some days she would stay after class to talk about creativity and to show me her own yoga poses. Over time, I saw a shy little girl start to embrace her own individuality. She started to label qualities she previously viewed in herself as “faults” as “unique.”

Alicia turned out not only to be a great student, but also a great teacher. She taught her poses to the other children, all of whom admired her for her creativity and dedication. The changes spread. Alicia’s grades began to improve, she raised her hand more in class, and she spoke up when she did not understand something. She found ways to use the arts to understand academics — creating dance rhythms to learn addition and solve mathematical problems and yoga poses to depict historic events and people. Alicia taught me the invaluable lesson of how expression through the arts can profoundly change a youth’s sense of self and relation to formal schooling.

Vanessa: She was a high school sophomore, on probation because of low grades, and raising her own child. She took a dance class for “easy credit.” But then she fell in love with dance. She brought her little girl to the classes and stayed after class to learn and perfect techniques. As her love of dance blossomed, her grades started to improve and she felt more confident asking for extra help when she needed it. In her junior year, Vanessa started to talk about college, a word that was not even part of her vocabulary a year earlier. We came up with a plan: to apply to the dance department at New York University. Together we wrote essays and choreographed audition pieces. Not only did Vanessa gain acceptance to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts but she received a partial scholarship as well. Vanessa’s passion and persistence were born out of a love of dance but now underlie a broad and firm personal and academic base.

Sister Ona Bessette has written about “Dance as Healing Prayer,” — “an invitation for a greater integration of the body and spirit in a moment of communication with the source of life and love…a medium of reflection that opens the soul to insight and strength.” Particularly for troubled youth, we should remember the lessons that Alicia and Vanessa teach of the power of art and movement to lead a child back to the classroom as a reinvigorated learner.

Mentoring USA is reaching out to children early to prevent school dropout with an effective intervention strategy and one-on-one relationships. Resources such as books and art activities are valuable; however, what really matters to a child is the human touch of caring. This is irreplaceable and invaluable to any child.#

Matilda Cuomo is the Founder and Chairperson of Mentoring USA. Jennifer Ward is a Program Manager at Mentoring USA. Previously, she was Dean of Dance at a public high school.



Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.