Sensoria

The sensory dimensions of art and culture

What Would Socrates Do?

He would have fired school security guards in order to hire art teachers, too.

Recently, Orchard Gardens, a public K-8 school in Roxbury, MA, has been in the news. Once ranked as one of the state’s lowest performing schools, it was troubled, disorderly, and a place of increasing unrest. A quarter of the students spoke little English, and 90% qualified for the free lunch program. Another disabling problem was the 50% turnover in teachers every year.

The school was given a second chance thanks to an innovative choice made by Orchard Garden’s sixth Principal in seven years. Andrew Botto decided to fire all the security guards, and used that sizable budget for what he thought could be the most effective path to transforming the school’s culture: he hired the most outstanding art and music teachers he could find.

Then, with some additional federal funding, Botto expanded the school’s day to increase learning time. It was an approach that could allow each child to achieve something self-defining and life affirming—and it worked. By involving the students in creative process, within three years they became successful learners, and had been given the opportunity to go from a life-limiting situation to one of self-discovery, growing self-awareness and confidence. Today, Orchard Gardens’ students spend hours practicing their instruments, and the walls are filled with colorful and meaningful creations showcasing authenticity, cultural diversity, hard work and talent. In the process, the students developed tools to manage their own behavior and reconcile emotional conflicts.

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Orchard Gardens made a dramatic transformation, and is now one of the state’s top achieving schools. Among other things, there has been a significant improvement in reading and math results. It now sees itself as a national model, and has enriched the students, their families and the community.

I recently spoke about Orchard Gardens’ transformation with Dr. Susan Firestone, a psychotherapist and licensed creative arts therapist who has worked with children and adolescents within the New York City public school system. She said, “It’s the Principal who creates the school’s culture, and Mr. Botto has demonstrated what that leadership can mean. I’ve worked in three different schools, but only one principal out of the three had the vision to make the school really work for the kids. He deeply cared about their emotional state. The students all knew him, and knew he supported them. That makes all the difference. It’s teamwork and building trust. In that age group, the emotional development of the student is paramount.”

The arts are a way to find the uniqueness within oneself. Creativity is vital because it allows children to express themselves, explore and take ownership of their own identity.  Their artwork is hung alongside their classmates’ and they are proud of what they themselves have done.

Firestone said, “I once had a group of troubled boys who were in grades six through eight, the years kids make a choice which way they are going to go, such as into gangs or not. It's a time in life that is critical, and they can easily be lost. Giving them a space to get away from negative stimuli, and providing a situation with teachers who are really interested in what they have to say makes all the difference, and often leads to better decision-making. In my experience, displaying their work—giving them their public space—changes them and gives them a positive identity. Such experiences also bond them, and make them want to do better as a group. Kids want to communicate, be seen, be heard and be understood, and that brings them into healthy relationships with their peers and the adults interested in them. They want ways to show us who they are.”

Because of the neuroplasticity of the brain (the ability to rewire our neural pathways), curriculums focusing on the creative arts work to improve learning and behavior. The complexity of art and music involves large areas of the brain. “Creativity has a huge influence on physiology,” she added.

Artistic expression can release the unconscious, and the humanities can profoundly guide a person’s ability to reason throughout everyday life. The social critic and writer Earl Shorris understood that it was possible to fight poverty with knowledge. He created the Clemente Course in Humanities, a free class in philosophy, history and the arts, and saw first hand that it helped people focus on practical goals. Even though he passed away last year, it is still administered by Bard College, and the curriculum is taught in dozens of cities in the United States and several other countries.

Shorris once said, “The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you.” He felt these students connected deeply not only with Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Thucydides, but also with Native American, Korean and other myths.

He also believed Socrates, in particular, spoke to his students. This Athenian philosopher, who asked questions to gain insight and answer important moral questions about life, often went against popular opinion—and he would have reasoned that it is the arts and humanities that are necessary catalysts for social transformation.

It’s likely that Socrates, too, would have fired the security guards and hired teachers of the arts.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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