Kate Zoeger is loving my book! Here’s what she has to say:

“Reads beautifully…Love your thinking…

And love how your work has inspired and transformed the lives of thousands upon thousands, from 5-year-olds on up!

Mine included! Thank you, incomparable Robin Lithgow.”

 

Kate—actress, puppeteer, educator, inspiration—was one of the dozens of fabulous theatre teachers I hired into the Elementary Theatre Program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She had a frenetic and razor-focused energy that drew kids in and kept them active for their entire lessons. She was able to spark the creative spirit in every one of her students. 

She is now retired and living in Michigan, near her daughters and grandchildren.

 

You can use this link to buy my book at a 20% discount:

Lessons from Shakespeare’s Classroom: Empowering Learning Through Drama and Rhetoric 

 

 

Desiderius Erasmus was a really funny guy. History seems to have forgotten just how funny he was! Sadly, his brilliant, hugely influential and engaging light was all but obliterated by his conflict with the firebrand that was Luther. As I explain in my book, “Lessons from Shakespeare’s Classroom,” he was not a fighter, he was by his own admission a bit of a coward; and at the end of his life, as the bloody Reformation embroiled Europe, he retreated from the politic world  and devoted himself to writing colloquies to teach schoolboys conversational Latin.

I’ve shared some of his hilarious colloquies in previous posts, but Proci et Puellae is one that those of you familiar with Shakespeare’s comedies will recognize immediately as a source. Think of all his sparring couples: Beatrice and Benedict (Much Ado About Nothing), Viola and Olivia (Twelfth Night), Rosalind and Orlando (As You Like It), Silvius and Phebe (Also As You Like It), and, of course, Kate and Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew). (You’ll also see his wit in full display in In Praise of Folly, which he wrote as a homage to his dear friend Thomas More). Thanks to my friend Janet Borrus, we have this video of a totally unrehearsed Proci et Puellae, or A Lover and His Lass, performed by Susan Angelo and Dov Rudnick.

(This recording was done with a cell phone and I’m an amateur and can’t seem to get it to fit, so Susan, unfortunately, gets cut off for part of her luminous portrayal. Sorry about that! If I can find someone to fix it I’ll post it again.)

Remember that Will Shakespeare only ever encountered this colloquy in LATIN!! He would have performed it as a schoolboy learning conversation Latin, the lingua franca for aspiring travelers to Europe, probably at the age of 10 or 11, and they were not published in translate in his lifetime. That’s the reason they have been largely ignored by so many scholars documenting his sources.

Currently you can purchase my book at a 20% discount, with this and  four other of the colloquies in Latin and English at:

My book is finally coming out and can be pre-ordered as of December 9. I’m so pleased and excited! The release date will be after December 30, so not quite in time for the holidays, but it will be a great gift for the new year. It’s a fun and informative read for educators and parents who are passionate about empowering learning through the inclusion of the performing arts in every aspect of schooling.

My brother John Lithgow did the art work for the cover and a drawing for each chapter. The project was a family affair.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the Routledge Publishing. The whole process has been a joy, from the enthusiasm of their first readers to the support from their editors all along the way. Every first time author should be so lucky!

This book will contribute to the vibrant conversation among educators about renewing arts-rich curriculum in our schools. Follow the link here to order your own copy and share with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear readers, do any of you believe that that the January 6th rioters were made up of citizens who had had a rich education in the arts? I don’t. The arts humanize us. They teach us empathy. I believe that if the arts were deeply embedded in K-12 education throughout our nation, those riots would never have happened and our states would be vastly more healthy and united.

Here I’d like to recommend ”’: Necessitous Men Are Not Free Men‘: Ruskin’s Influence on the New Deal via Settlement Houses,” an insightful lecture by the historical geographer Gray Brechin. He had seen a piece I posted about arts education in Settlement Houses and my parents’ involvement in the Works Progress Administration, which was founded in the late 30s to address the ills of the Great Depression. He sent me this valuable contribution. Although John Ruskin is in the title, a principle subject of the lecture is Eleanor Roosevelt.

Today the primary financial backers of the arts are foundations formed by the super-wealthy and chiefly benefiting audiences from the middle and upper classes.

But it wasn’t always that way.

My postcard of a true patron of            arts: arts for everyone

The WPA was a federal program included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It expanded the work of the Settlement Houses into a national program to address poverty. One of its most famous components was Federal Project Number One, which employed musicians, artists, actors, directors, and writers to bring the arts to struggling communities all across America. My father started his theater career in the project, and my mom taught theater at the Henry Street Settlement House in Greenwich Village.

Because I can’t seem to insert an in-focus image above, I will write out the quote by Holger Cahill, the national director of the Federal Art Project, an arm of the WPA:

“FDR was more deeply interested in the arts than any president since Thomas Jefferson and it is doubtful that any head of state since the  Renaissance equaled him as a patron of living art.”

But Cahill fails to point out that FDR’s interest in the arts was chiefly nurtured by his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the best known of a number of remarkable women influenced by the ideals of John Ruskin. She was teaching social dance at the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side of New York City when she met Franklin. Later in life she wrote about the experience, remarking that she would walk to work instead of riding in a carriage like all of her peers. “It terrified me, but I had to learn the conditions of this neighborhood.” When she became the First Lady, this inspiring passion for serving the neediest in our nation by encouraging their engagement in the arts had a huge influence on her husband. And she walked the walk. With her friends, she established an arts and crafts colony at her house on the Roosevelt property. She made her own bedroom furniture there. She promoted arts education for young children in schools and community programs.

According to Brechin, the New Deal was a comprehensive moral vision that embraced:

*    Dignity of Labor

*    Social security

*    Crafts, self-sufficiency, and self-respect

*    Resettlement in new towns

*     Integration of the arts into life

*    Public education

And this vision was very much the result of the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

We’ve had other presidents since Roosevelt who have advanced the arts. Kennedy and Clinton established national programs. Currently there are substantive murmurings from Jill Biden, and if it falls to the wives of Democratic Presidents to carry us forward, so be it! She’d be stepping into the shoes of the greatest first lady ever.

This is on the FDR memorial in Washington DC:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough to those who have too little.”

Let the arts again be a part of the advancement of those who have too little. Let’s bring back the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

 

 

 

 

Pesha Rudnick’s TedXTalk: Live Theater is Dangerous

Is anyone out there missing audiences as much as I am? I don’t miss being in front of an audience: I miss being in an audience. I miss sitting in the dark with total strangers and sharing intense delight or catharsis with scores of people I don’t know and will never see again. I miss standing up after the applause and looking around and feeling a moment of intimate recognition with anonymous individuals from all walks and worlds. Live theater is nearly a religion for me, and I never realized how vital it is to my well-being until it was taken away for an entire year! Theaters gone dark, concert halls silent, museums empty. Wow. It’s been hard!! The flu pandemic in 1918 took my dad’s father and two siblings, but he was too small to be aware of its impact on theater. His entire life was spent as an actor and director, so it seems odd that we never discussed what that pandemic must have meant for those in theater or for those in the audience who can’t (or at least don’t want to) live without it.

This blog, too, has gone dark for awhile. Like many of us, I’ve been kind of frozen in time since the pandemic began, trying to figure out what role theater and drama in education might play in the new world that emerges from it. I’m wondering how my as-yet-unpublished book might need to be adapted to a new reality. The teachers I hired and trained for the elementary theater program in LA Schools have continue to teach on-line, and, being extraordinarily creative, have developed captivating lessons; but take the communal experience out of theater and what is lasting? What endures? What cognitive benefit is there, interacting in the world of Zoom?

Most of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits enjoyed by students participating in dramatic activity, linking Shakespeare and his generation’s dramatic performance in school to the brilliance of the age. But Shakespeare’s audience—the Elizabethan audience— was also extraordinary. It was likely the most sophisticated and critical audience in history,  and I believe that too was a product of the humanist curriculum in the Latin grammar schools of the time. You will hardly ever talk to a theater teacher who does not have a story to tell of a student’s life being turned around, even saved, by a drama class. They could fill a book! But look at the other side of the curtain: the audience side. There you’ll find yet another compelling story of the growth of emotional intelligence.

Because I had such a conviction that my own experience as a child growing up in a theater family was responsible for my love of learning, I connived to get my own children to see lots and lots of plays. Of course they loved them, and you can watch my daughter’s TED talk at the University of Colorado where she connects her childhood of theater-going to the development of empathy. I wanted the same experience for my students. For much of my career I taught English in a small span school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with many students bussed in from the inner city. Many of them had never seen live theater, so I took my classes to as many plays as possible, building a curriculum around each of our trips. The Music Center, the Los Angeles Theater Center, Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum, and UCLA’s excellent theater department offered student matinee programs to schools, and because I taught in a span school and had students in more than one grade, my students had the opportunity to see as many as eight fine, classical and/or modern productions by the time they graduated. They loved the trips and would chase me down in the hallways whenever there was a rumor of another one planned, begging to be included. Whenever possible, I would also wangle low-priced tickets to offer students and their families to go to evening performances. Honestly, it felt like feeding students pure joy, and it had the added benefit of lighting up their curiosity, their focus, their agency, and their caring.

Theater (and all the arts) will survive the pandemic, of course, because they satisfy a profound human need. I for one can’t wait to see what theater artists make of what we have been through—once we can all share our experience together again, as a living audience .

This from the Washington Post yesterday: Leading public education advocates write open letter to Joe Biden: Your ‘statements encourage us’

If Biden stands by what Diane Ravitch quotes him as saying in her letter, every public educator needs to get out and work for his election.

When “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was published in 2009 I devoured it in one sitting. It was a palpable relief to have  such a credible authority give voice to the frustrations of an entire generation of veteran educators. I found an email address for Diane Ravitch at NYU and sent her a thank you, and, remarkably, she responded. Since then, with “Reign of Error,” published a few years later, and her daily blogs posted relentlessly over the past decade, I have watched her almost single handedly succeed in what ten years ago seemed impossible: pushing back against the tide of the delusional reform ideas funded by corporate privatizers. For that she joins my short list of truly courageous heroes.

A half century ago, after my first disastrous and ego-shattering semester teaching first graders, with an emergency credential that required no training, and having no legitimacy besides what was (at least in that situation) a worthless BA from an ivy league school, I fled to San Francisco. It was the summer of love and I just desperately needed to dance in the streets with the hippies. One evening I found myself sitting with friends in a coffee shop, in a booth next to a group of policemen. Their caps were hanging from the rack above me and I could see little John Birch Society pins stuck into the inner rims. I had heard of the Birch Society and had a vague idea that it was a megaphone for the right-wing, but I had never actually spoken to a member or paid any attention to their doctrine.

When the policemen left, they left a booklet on the table. Out of curiosity I took it home and read it. I was astounded. The first page, the first chapter, in fact the entire booklet was about doing away with public education. The arguments had the resonance of outrage: “Why should people with no children pay taxes to pay for other people’s children to be educated?” “If people want children they should pay for their education themselves!” “Parents of children in private schools should not have to pay for education the children of the poor,” etc.

At the time I just wrote it off as crazy talk. What about the bedrock of democracy? What about the benefit to the commonwealth? What about humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment? Did these guys actually want to throw us back into the middle ages? I wrote it off as the work of lunatics and tossed the booklet in the garbage.

How I wish I had kept it!

Within a year I had entered the Los Angeles school district’s new intern program and began training and teaching with support and guidance. I got a job at a school with an exuberant principal named Kathy Henry, who would come into my chaotic classroom and shout over the noise, “Oh, you lucky children! Your teacher is so creative!!” and I would think, what???? I’m dying here! But I didn’t die, I got better and over the years I think I became a pretty good teacher, at least some of the time. (And don’t let anyone tell you great teachers are great all the time and were born that way.) Kathy Henry gave me the courage to stay in a profession I grew to love, and I will always be grateful.

But I was in the classroom and then in administration for long enough to see wave after wave of educational “reform” sweep through. I sat through one in-service after another, and countless men and women in suits sold us products and programs designed to improve our practice. I and most of my experienced colleagues just watched each wave go by, taking the good parts and discarding the rest with an “uh huh, been there, done that” attitude. But I couldn’t help watching the upheavals they caused through the lens of that booklet. I was too busy teaching and raising my own kids to dig deeper into what was happening around me. I had never heard of the Koch brothers (whose father was a founder of the Birch Society) or the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was busy pushing bill after bill through legislative pipelines designed to undermine the work we teachers were patiently and expertly doing in our classrooms.

When I started teaching, most every school in Los Angeles had a full-time music teacher and a full-time visual arts teacher. My second graders had a music class and a visual arts class every week. To finish my credential I had to take two classes in teaching the arts: one in music and one chosen from dance, theater, or visual arts. That was 1970. Within ten years that was ancient history. Within another twenty years I had started teaching high school English and Drama, and the entire focus of education had shifted to “accountability” e.g. test scores. We teachers were expected to teach to the test, the arts were seen as extra curricular electives, not core, and the crucial role of the arts in education had become a footnote.

So when Diane Ravitch came along and explained clearly and brilliantly exactly why and how this travesty had happened, starting with the free market champion Milton Friedman in the 50s, everything became clear. Why had I not seen it?

Initially, at the administrative level in the district, “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was well received in LAUSD. Our instructional leadership welcomed it. I remember that Jim Morris, who was the fine head of instruction at the time, purchased copies for every one of the administrators reporting to him. But Morris soon moved on and was replaced by leaders who bowed to the pervasive pressure (and the money behind it), and for a painful era test scores ruled.

And then there came the charters and yet another flood of money. After I retired I worked on the agonizing campaign to re-elect our visionary board president, Steve Zimmer, and watched as the charter schools association poured over twelve million dollars into the coffers of his opponent: a young man in his early thirties who never attended public schools himself but had one disillusioning year teaching with Teach for America in one of the district’s most challenging middle schools. They won. Zimmer was defeated, and we lost a true champion for our students. It was the same year Trump was elected and I think I was more horrified by Zimmer’s loss than Clinton’s, only because I watched it happen from the inside—watched their strategy—watched them field four opponents in the general election to drain away just enough votes to force a runoff, and then flood the field with expensive, negative, and dishonest ads targeting Westside voters. Very few voters come out for a runoff elections, and they must have spent hundreds of dollars per vote to pull of that scam.

But now I think that was the nadir, and Ravitch’s new book, “Slaying Goliath,” is full of examples of hope. Here in Los Angeles and across the country, new public school advocates are being elected to school boards, teachers unions are making a powerful resurgence. When our schools finally reopen and, we have new leadership at the national level, I hope we will see a flood of new and better policies, and the arts will be back in full.

Fingers crossed!

I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do. 

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Tolstoy’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

One of the experts I worked with in the Multi-cultural Office explained it to me this way. “In Mexico,” he said, “We have the phrase ‘flores y canciones’ (flowers and song) deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture.” The arts not only entertain, explain, soothe, and edify: they contextualize and they teach.

Just as the poet Euripides had to write the story of Medea, a poet had to write the story of El Salvador. If you are not convinced, read the book.

Plato said that children should be exposed from a very young age to the best of what our language has to offer them. We need to teach them the power and the beauty of language: listening to it, speaking it, reading it, and writing it with skill and truth.

 

Photo by Anna Earl, of unsplash

The week before we vote in the California primaries, I’m thinking a lot about that gigantic block of non-voting citizens in our midst: kids.

The question I’m exploring in my book and in this blog is why, when the benefits are so obvious, there is so little documentation of the rich history of the use of the arts to engage and educate children? Is it because the arts have been so embedded in instruction that nobody has thought it necessary to tease them out? Is it because the history of pedagogy itself is so incomplete and sketchy? Or is it because influencers in education and policy funding are just not focused on actual living, breathing, but disenfranchised children!?

Regarding the last of these possible reasons: Like so many of us I was devastated by the last presidential election; but what also shocked me was how little the mainstream media focused on its impact on children. So many teachers, administrators, and counselors I’ve spoken to since then have described shattering stories of sobbing, frightened students, but aside from a few back page stories, there has been almost total silence from our news stream. A Southern Poverty Law Center publication was one of the few exceptions. Was nobody interested in the fact that school districts all over the country had to gear up to get counselors into classrooms the very next day, to help terrified kids process the trauma? That signs went up in front of public schools everywhere with varying versions of the message that “All children, of all races, ethnicities, and immigrant status, are safe and welcome here”? That letters went home to parents that week in many languages advising parents of their rights and counseling them on how to address fears with their families?

And is that lack of critical media attention what emboldened the cruelty our government has displayed in our name—separating thousands of children from their parents at the border.

I have already written one screed on the misguided cultural of “accountability” in our schools based on the deceptive evidence of standardized test scores, as if our students and teachers do not already have enough to worry about facing their unsure future on our planet. I have also written plenty of posts on the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of arts education. This post is just to ask my readers to reflect on the comfort and solace offered by participation in the arts—comfort and solace our children need now more than ever.

I don’t have a certain answer to the question posed above, but I do know it is not our current president or anyone in his party.

      A Sloyd Woodworking Class

When I was in elementary school a zillion years ago, we had wood shop for one afternoon every week. ALL afternoon. An old garage on the campus was fitted out as a complete workshop, with big wooden tables and all the tools and lumber we needed. I made a boat, a book shelf, and a soapbox car for our soapbox derby. I also carved a wooden spoon that my mom used in the kitchen for the rest of her life. Entire classes at the school took on projects like building playground equipment and lunch tables and a covered wagon. I learned how to use a ruler, a tape measure, a compass and protractor, and I learned all the mathematics of measurement. I learned to use hand tools: the saws, the drills, the vise, the rasp, and the sander. I learned that you have to see a project through to the end and not do a slapdash job of it. Pretty good lessons!

         Children working at sloyd benches

My school, Antioch Elementary, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still exists. It was founded in 1923 on the educational theories being developed at the time by the education philosopher John Dewey, and today it is the longest uninterrupted Dewey-based school in America. I had always thought that the educational justification for such a luxurious use of my school time was Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing. I had absolutely no idea that it was based on a nineteenth century pedagogy from Finland.

Once when I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch, our staff took a little field trip to the LAUSD archives to visit our curator. She was preparing a trunk of artifacts to take around to schools as a local history lesson. One of the items was a second grade report card from the year 1900 on which there were grades for five subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and sloyd. We were baffled. What the heck was “sloyd,” and why was it so important that it actually had to be graded?! Back then iPhones were brand new and only one person present had one. He whipped it out and within seconds we learned that sloyd means “handicrafts,” and it was a Finnish pedagogy started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865 and refined by the Swedish educator Otto Salomon (who, like Richard Mulcaster, who trained Shakespeare’s teachers in the 16th century, worried about the fact that elementary school is too boring for children, and solved the problem by giving them something to DO!). The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was introduced in the United States in the 1890s by Meri Toppelius. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of my theatre teachers is married to a man from Finland, and she tells me that he still proudly displays embroidery he did in his sloyd class in school when he was a child.

The Antioch School is affiliated with the college, and my peers there, in the 50s, were mostly the children of professors—a fairly rarified community. Dewey’s educational philosophy was certainly studied and admired back then: it influenced education in public schools but was never fully implemented. After Sputnik and A Nation at Risk it fell out of favor almost completely and we seldom hear of it now. But sloyd pre-dated Dewey, and there in the archives of the Los Angeles schools was rock solid evidence that the project-based learning Dewey promoted was alive and well and mandatory at the turn of the century, in at least one major school district in the United States, a generation before Dewey began writing about education.

It turns out it was more than just Los Angeles. Toppelius and her sister Sigrid were invited first to Boston, where they set up training programs. Sigrid stayed in Boston while Meri went on to Chicago where she started a sloyd department in Chicago’s Agassiz school. They also trained teachers as in Bay View Michigan as part of a Chautauqua summer program. So by the end of the century, at least three major cities in the United States were employing sloyd in at least some of their schools, and there were major training programs in sloyd attracting teachers and administrators from across the country. (I’ll keep researching this. If any of my readers know anything more about it, please share!)

If you’re interested in learning more about sloyd, here is link to a PBS program called “Who Wrote the Book of Sloyd” that’s pretty entertaining. It features the very old book on the left, which was re-issued in 2013: “The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slöjd” by Otto Salomon. Sloyd is really about all of the handicrafts, including sewing, weaving, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and paper folding, all of which we learned at the Antioch School, but its most lasting impact on education in the United States was on programs that included woodworking.

John Dewey was certainly influenced by the sloyd movement, as he was by the Settlement movement I have written about in a previous post. It has always struck me how completely the arguments for arts education align with the philosophy of Dewey and of sloyd. Engaged learning. Productive learning. Project-based learning. Hands-on learning. They’re all related and they all lead to deep and enduring learning. They all incorporate the body and the mind into the cognitive process. I didn’t know at the time how incredibly lucky I was to be educated in that way, but I loved school, and for all of my years as a teacher and arts administrator I have endeavored to give my students something of the joy I experienced as a child in the wood shop.

 

 

Sam’s fiddle, from circa 1920

This old fiddle belonged to my father-in-law, Sam. He got it in about 1920, when he was a student in Boyle Heights. Sammy was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. His family initially struggled with poverty, but he and his siblings had regular music instruction in school and he learned to play the violin. EVERY child in Los Angeles had that opportunity back then! Up until the early 80s, every school in Los Angeles had full-time music and arts teachers. When I began teaching in East Los Angeles 1969, my students had a music class and a visual arts class every week and orchestral music was offered in the upper grades. Up until the early 80s, that was just the way it was done—not just in Los Angeles, but all across the state.

Today schools with hundreds of students are guaranteed only one day of vocal or (“or” not “and”) instrumental music per week, offering lessons to a fraction of the classrooms, and there are instrumental programs in fewer than one third of the elementary schools. Even that pittance was not revived until the early 90s. The Elementary Arts Program, which I am proud to have helped design 20 years ago, offers weekly visual arts, dance, and drama lessons in 9 week rotations to an even smaller fraction. Dozens of excellent community arts programs offered by the Music Center, the LA Opera, local art museums, and dance companies are available, but limited in time and scope and must be included in a school’s ever-stretched budget. Arts classes in secondary schools are electives. Despite all of our efforts, it is still perfectly possible for a child to go through thirteen years of public education in Los Angeles and never receive a single arts class!

And yet everything we have learned from brain research tells us that the arts are crucial to cognition. The arts teach us how to learn. True educators have know this for hundreds of years. To quote Plato again, “The patterns in music and the arts are the keys to learning.”

How did we forget this? What happened?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, where I try to answer that that question. It begins with my interview in 1968 for my first teaching job, in an impoverished school in Romoland, in the high desert near Riverside, where my husband was a student:

* * *

“To start with, the evening I drove out there to be interviewed by their board of education, a group of three farmers and the principal, I can recall only one question. They wanted to know if I could play the piano. They wanted their sons and daughters to sing! It was what they were used to from their own formative years, when every classroom had a piano and every teacher had to know how to play it. I told them I could not play piano, but I could play guitar, and that satisfied them. I sang with the children every day after lunch, before story time. That was the only peaceful half hour of the day.

“But once a week, two angels would arrive from the county office: a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. That was happy Tuesday. It was standard practice back then. All over Riverside County, and all over California, every child received a music lesson and a visual arts lesson every week. The teachers were fantastic. I learned all about Orff technique in the music classes—the pentatonic scale—and I learned arts strategies and activities that I used for the rest of my career.

“That was long before I dared to use drama activities in my teaching, but we did make an eight-millimeter movie one day with the help of my husband and an actor friend, and I do remember that being the most enjoyable day I ever had with them.

“I was offered a contract there for the following year, but my husband had finished at UCR and we moved to Los Angeles. There I was able to enroll in an intern program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and get a second chance at teaching, this time with some training and support. And there, too, in 1969, every elementary school in the district had full-time music and visual arts teachers, and every classroom got a lesson in each, once a week. In addition, in order to get my credential I was required by state code to take a class in elementary music instruction and one additional class in the arts, with the choices being visual arts, theatre, or dance.

“I taught for many more years, first in elementary and then in secondary, in private schools and public, and will share some of my accumulated insights in later chapters, but I’m glad I started long enough ago to have those memories. 1968 was before A Nation at Risk, before Proposition 13, and before No Child Left Behind and the romance with “accountability,” which was pretty much the nail in the coffin of arts education for every child in California.”

* * *

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was the report published in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history, but it was tragically misguided in its conclusions. A Nation at Risk was the beginning of our obsession with data and with raising test scores in a narrowly focused interpretation of literacy and numeracy. Authentic literacy (story telling, story listening, story reading, story writing) and numeracy (measurement, time, space, value) are embedded in every aspect of the art-making process. How did we miss that?

Well, we did. And from A Nation at Risk on, starting with Proposition 13, every time there has been a budget squeeze (which has somehow managed to be just about every year) the arts have been squeezed first. Time to change that, folks. Wake up.