Sunday, November 1, 2009

Honoring Song, Dance, and Play

A few days ago three Needham High School alumni, Steve Gross (’85), Leslie Woodies (’70), and Lisbeth Scott (’76) received the Distinguished Career Award for their accomplishments in the fields of the arts and social service. Following are the remarks I shared at a luncheon honoring these outstanding alum:

You know, over the years I have attended many assemblies and workshops with student and community groups. And I always try to leave an assembly with at least one idea, one take away that will help me summarize my experience and what I learned. So here is my take away from today: Song, Dance, and Joy. My take away is learning that our honorees have used their skills, talents, sense of wonder, and playfulness to lead creative and exuberant lives.

Your presence here today is a reminder, especially, of the power and relevance of scholarship in our world today and the importance of the arts in a comprehensive and rich academic program. You see, embedded in our definition of scholarship, at the very core of the way the Needham Public Schools understands scholarship, is the essential role creativity plays in our lives and learning. We believe it is essential to nurture a sense of awe, wonder, and playfulness within our children so that they may innovate, invent, and create. The role of music, literature, fine and performing arts, theatre, dance, and athletics are all essential ingredients to a high performing and high achieving school community. They also happen to be the DNA of a broader community where lives are enriched, neighborhoods enhanced, and human relationships are made meaningful and joyful.

Without a sense of creativity one has little capacity to problem solve, think independently, or take risks. The schools must promote an atmosphere of learning and scholarship that helps young people learn to think outside the box, offer alternative ideas, promote diverse thinking, and develop hypotheses that may be unconventional. In my view, the juxtaposition of scholarship and creativity makes sense; one supports and complements the other. Scholarship without creativity is a stately library without books.

Two authors folks in the Needham Schools have been following lately offer cautionary tales for those schools and communities that ignore the role of creativity in our classrooms.

Yong Zhao, a Michigan State University professor who recently penned Catching Up or Leading the Way (ASCD, 2009), exhorts Americans to be careful about the disabling effect of standardized testing and increasingly reduced opportunities for students to participate in the arts, music, and play in school. He notes that in an effort to encourage higher tests scores and become more competitive with other countries we have cut art programs in schools, for example, and emphasized academic drill and rote. Zhao believes the unique success of the American education system is its ability to help individuals grow into self-discovery and fulfillment. He posits that our economic and democratic success is a direct result of an innovative and nurturing education system that celebrates both diversity and divergent thinking. He warns us about trying to emulate the rest of the world too much. He writes:

“ Two paths lie in front of us: one in which we destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others in tests scores and one in which we build on our strengths so we can keep the lead in innovation and creativity. The current push for more standardization, centralization, high stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path, while what will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous … is the one that cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind (Penguin, 2006) tells us that a heavy reliance on right brain activities—emotion, creativity, big picture thinking, and inventiveness—is the key to our continued success individually and as a nation. Like Zhao, he cautions us to reconsider the notion that only the highest SAT scores or GPAs are the sole source of success in a highly interdependent and globalized work place. He encourages us to remember the importance of creativity, design, storytelling, and play in our lives, schools, and work.

He relates the story of a greeting card artist and designer who was a frequent visitor to schools. When he walked into classrooms, he would note all the artwork on the walls and ask the same question: “My, there must be several artists in this room! Where are they?” In Kindergarten classes, every hand shot up. In second grade, 3/4 of the hands went up, and in fourth grade maybe half went up. But by sixth grade, no hands went up.

As our children grow and schoolwork and academics takes a more serious turn, do we push aside the arts and squelch the natural and bubbling enthusiasm, joy, and pride of our students? Do we turn off the music, eliminate recess, gut sports and co-curricular activities all in the name of promoting a first class educational experience and in the process deny young people a chance to discover the gifts within? Pink asserts: “The wealth of nations and the well-being of individuals now depends on having artists in the room. In a world enriched by abundance but disrupted by automation and (the) outsourcing of white-collar work, everyone regardless of profession, must cultivate an artistic sensibility.”

And that brings me back to song, dance, and joy—and to our three honorees. Using song, dance, and joyful play our three honorees have lived honorable, caring, and creative lives which have enabled and encouraged the dreams of their audiences, students, and community.

Lisbeth Scott, a singer, songwriter and composer, has lent her voice and her immense talent to several major theatrical and movie productions. She has received extraordinary artistic acclaim and has devoted herself to assisting those in need in rural and impoverished areas to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. Leslie Woodies, dedicated choreographer, performer and teacher, has immersed her life in the art of dance, theatre and movement. Steve Gross has inspired hope and possibility to untold number of children locally and in areas around the globe devastated by crisis and disaster. Relying on his love of athletics and theatre, Steve ensures at risk children have the opportunity to express themselves through movement and joyful play while healing their pain and trauma.

They have each shared their time, talent, and wisdom to make this a more beautiful and just world for all of us. They began their journey at Needham High School and were influenced by family, friends, and teachers to express themselves and to celebrate the creative spirit and possibility that lies within. Their lives are a manifestation of our core values, and a reminder to all of us of the power of creativity in our world and the need to rededicate ourselves as a school community to ensure that we always allow the arts, athletics, and co-curricular activities to remain a significant and integral component of the Needham Public Schools experience.

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