Pleased to announce!

Now that the pandemic is subsiding and schools are reopening, I’m moving forward with the publication of my book. The working title now is Learning the Way Shakespeare Learned: Classroom Dramatics, Physical Rhetoric, and a Generation of Genius. I’m working with Susan Shankin, the publisher of Precocity Press, and the book will be illustrated by my brother. We hope to have it out by the fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to feature some of the truly amazing drama teachers I’ve worked with over the course of my career. I have a deep and abiding love for them all. They teach so much more than drama. Just as drama is an art form that incorporates all other art forms, teachers of drama incorporate everything that every student brings to the class.

To get us going, here is “Jenny, Drama Teacher” from Zadie Smith’s Intimations. The book is her profound and insightful reflection on the pandemic, definitely worth the read in its entirety, but what I want to share here is from her appendix: “Debts and Lessons.” There she credits 26 individuals with escorting her on her voyage into wisdom, with a brief and lovely homage to each one.

(I’ve loved reading Zadie Smith ever since my mom handed me a copy of White Teeth some twenty-five years ago and I read a book that exploded in my mind. I couldn’t fathom that an author so young could produce such an epic! Presumably her experience with Jenny was a spark for her genius.)

13. Jenny, Drama Teacher

A task is in front of you. It is not as glorious as you had imagined or hoped. (In this case, it is not the West End, it is not Broadway, it is a small black box stapled to an ugly comprehensive school.) But it is a task in front of you. Delight in it. The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves. Large, sensible projects require far less belief. People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders that are placed around the important world. They might see teenagers as people. They will make themselves absurd to the important world. Mistakes will be made. Appropriate measures will be pursued. The border between the important and the unimportant will be painfully reestablished. But the magic to be found in the black box will never be forgotten by any who entered it.



“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills”

I need to gush a bit about this book! It is wise and witty, and it says much of what I say in my book, but from a completely different angle. My book is from the point of view of a practitioner who has spent many years teaching children and adolescents, so it’s very hands-on, with an emphasis on the formative role of drama, dance, and music in the Elizabethan classroom. Newstok looks at thinking from a much more theoretical and academic perspective, and he does it with delightful charm, humor, and insight. I’ve already read it three times, partly because it is dense with information, but mostly because it is fun. And of course it helps that his opinions, like mine, forcefully counter the prevailing gobblety-gook of current educational theory.

Actually, this may be the first of two or three posts because Newstok covers a lot of territory in fourteen brief chapters focusing on fourteen areas of cognition. This post will look at the first three: “Of Thinking,” “Of Ends,” and “Of Craft.”

What, he asks, are the ends of education? In Shakespeare’s day it was the training of capable and critical citizens  able to function “for the benefit of the commonwealth.” Today it seems to  be test scores. He tells a poignant story about his seven-year-old daughter who, upon being asked if she had learned any new words at school responded, coldly, in a whisper, “Assessment!” He goes on to say, “The reflexive call for educational ‘targets’ in current jargon makes me feel as if we adults have become like William Tell, cruelly aiming arrows at our own children. Our means (passing the test) have overtaken our ends (human flourishing).”  That is to say that if you take the long view of current trends in education, we are, in fact, participating in child abuse.

Here is Newstok on thinking:

“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

“Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline. I stand with the contrarian view that to be a political progressive, one needs to be an educational conservative. Preserving the seeds of time enriches the present—call this heirloom education.”

And more:

“I’m not against testing as a way for teachers to gauge progress within the domain of their own classrooms. But our fixation on tests as target, as the end of education itself—that shoots an arrow right through the heart of thinking, for when the measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

And a final quote, there’s that nasty fact about the cost of testing real, substantive, intrinsic, and individualized achievement:  “Rather than measure what matters, assessment measures what’s easy to measure.”

The chapter “Of Craft” I would compare to the current theory of practice devoted to developing “habits of mind.” One develops craft through practice. There are practices, or habits, that value critical thinking, creativity, exploration, reflection, and collaboration. I want to highlight one example, for what should be obvious reasons. Newstok highlights “the scope of collective practices that suffused skilled labor in Shakespeare’s world, where craft was not merely a mechanical process, but also communal, intellectual, physical, emotional. Craft required discipline, enforced by people as well as the object itself. Its practitioners habituated themselves to ever-evolving patterns. While playmaking was never formalized as a recognized London guild, key features of the theater aligned with craft’s dynamic thinking practices.”

My take on much of the above, from my book: “Maybe I’m a bit like Erasmus. I like old ideas.” We have so much we can learn from Elizabethan pedagogy. Strip away the fact that it was only for propertied boys, that it could not be accessed without fluency in Latin, and that it was  excessively punitive (I would argue that one, but not here), and there is a wealth of knowledge about how to train better makers and thinkers.

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read a translation of “Abattis et eruditae,” a colloquy written to teach Elizabethan schoolboys conversational Latin

It was in my favorite biography of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate’s “Soul of the Age,” that I first read about the use of colloquies to teach Latin conversation in Elizabethan schools. He mentioned that those by Desiderius Erasmus were especially popular, and he noted that they were funny.

I looked on the Internet and found a couple of old translations. I ordered them both, and eventually they arrived—dusty old books, falling apart with age. I read them, and wow! They were hilarious! To me they were clearly the source of so many of Shakespeare’s clowns, gossips, bar flies, corrupt clerics, comical town folk, and, especially, his sassy women! These were the colloquials who were my favorite characters in the plays I saw growing up. Had nobody else ever noticed that they came from Erasmus!?

Colloquies were short, scripted conversations, like little plays, to be performed by school children to practice conversational Latin. You can see one here read by my brother and Susan Angelo for a workshop I did last year at the home of the Susan Cambigue Tracy, teacher trainer from the Music Center’s education division.  Shakespeare would have performed”Abattis et eruditae,” or “The Abbot and the Learned Woman,” and many others in school when he was about ten or eleven years old.

Colloquies go back hundreds of years, to a time when the lack of printed books meant that education was mostly oral. They were still very much in use in Shakespeare’s day, and there were several collections commonly used in schools. Most of them were a bit moralizing and preachy. They were supposed to be educational, after all. But the “Colloquia familiaria” by Erasmus were something else all together! They were hilarious! Erasmus was a great believer that there should be delight and laughter in education, and he made sure that he provided it in exercises he designed to teach fluency.

My dad produced the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in the fifties, at the Antioch Shakespeare Festival in Ohio. I saw them all, from the audience and from back stage, all the way through the rehearsal process to the finished performance. Lucky me! I was only a kid, and the poetry, the history, and the literary significance of the plays went right over my head—but oh! the comedy! Christopher Slye, Grumio, Gobbo, Touchstone, Feste, Peter Quince, Mistress Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff! What fantastic company I kept. And then there were the brilliant women! For me, growing up a girl in the fifties, Shakespeare’s bold, opinionated women empowered my imagination. Reading the colloquies of Erasmus, I felt like I was back with my old friends.

It was the discovery of the colloquies that set me off on the research that led to the writing of “Good Behavior and Audacity.” Realizing that as a schoolboy Shakespeare and his entire generation attended schools where elevated language, recitation of passages from the classics, and the performance of light hearted colloquies were a part of every single day in their schooling made me wonder. Is that what made them so smart? Is there something to be learned from that rusty old pedagogy? Is there something missing from schools today that we could bring back, to light up the genius of a new generation? For me the answer is obvious.

I’m back.  This pandemic shut me down for awhile.  I mean, what could be more antithetical to ‘social distancing’ in education than drama?!  On both sides of the curtain!

I haven’t stopped completely.  I’ve been reading great stuff and monkeying around with my book.  When the world shut down I was right on the brink of a possible deal with a one of couple of wonderful, small publishers.  Since then….silence.  No surprise.

But I have a several subjects for posts, so I’m going to get back to it.

But just for starters: here’s a podcast I was invited to contribute to: Jacke Wilson’s “The History of Literature.”  Jacke is a delightful interviewer and he edited a lot of my babble into quite a fun listening experience.  If you’ve been following my blog, you know my book is about the huge amount of highly skilled performance required in the classroom experience of Elizabethan schoolboys, and my belief that that contributed to the cognitive brilliance of the Age.

Click on the picture and enjoy:



Students at Westminster Elementary drama class explore a Mexican trickster story, “The Rabbit and the Coyote”

My greatest joy during the years I was with the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles schools was observing our theatre and dance teachers light up the minds of children. It drove me to distraction, to see what I saw, knowing that access to regular instruction in the performing arts is not available to every child, every day. During my tenure with the Arts Branch I went to dozens of state and national conferences and symposia on arts education where the enthusiasm among arts teachers was palpable; but in the broader field of educators, the general malaise about the performing arts in pedagogy grated on my mind. That is what compelled me to write my book.

Theatre teacher Afsaneh Boutorabi with third grade students

This is the twentieth year of the Elementary Arts Program that my colleagues and I started in 1999, adding dance, theatre, and visual arts to the existing music programs in the schools. It’s incredibly gratifying, today, that both my granddaughter and my great niece are kindergarteners in LAUSD schools that embraced the arts program early on and are receiving drama lessons from fabulous teachers that I hired twenty years ago. But that is just the luck of the draw. My delightful, expressive, creative grandchildren and their peers in other cities in other states are in fine public schools with great teachers, but they don’t get regular instruction in drama or creative movement, and that breaks my heart.

There is a massive amount of research that proves beyond any doubt that the performing arts do much to foster cognitive skills: curiosity, inquiry, and reflection. The researcher James Catterall often said he would stake his life on the bet that daily incorporation of drama into the classroom would increase verbal skills and those test scores that, sadly and misguidedly, are the holy grail of every district. (I’ve expressed my personal view of our testing culture vs. arts education in a previous post.) When used by skillful teachers they are also roads into deeper and more lasting learning in subject matter content across the curriculum.

Students planning possible solutions to the trickster story

Here’s the problem I’ve found with research: As time consuming and effortful it is to complete and publish credible research, it is even more difficult to get anyone to pay attention to it! (Unless, of course, there is a significant economic benefit to be proven. Thus the tsunami of testing that school children are experiencing now.)

Students create beginning, middle, and ending tableaux of the story

Here I’ll just summarize a couple of my favorite research stories. First, the REAP Report that came out of Harvard’s Project Zero about twenty years ago. REAP stands for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project. This study did not conduct its own investigations, but instead analyzed the results of hundreds of research studies carried out over the past half century, hoping to find irrefutable links between classroom arts and academic scores. In the executive summary the editors caution the reader, pointing out that 1.) It is difficult to establish irrefutable links because of the infinity of variables in education and 2.) It is a shallow task. It is shallow because it implies that academic achievement in the three Rs is the only reason that the arts should be taught. In fact they needed this caveat because in some ways the project was a disappointment. They were only able to find irrefutable links in two of the ten areas they had identified. However, significantly, they did find a strong link between classroom drama and verbal test scores. Again, statistically, it was an irrefutable link, and, what was even more important, the increase in achievement was transferable from subject to subject. So theatre was the winner in that particular study.

Student “sculptor” creates a frozen statue for his tableau

I’m not sure if the other report was ever published, but I’m looking into it. The brilliant linguist Shirley Brice Heath, at Stanford, became interested in arts education because of her observations of verbal development in children. Several years ago she was a speaker at a symposium on arts education that we presented at the Getty to school administrators. She described a study that was ongoing at the time. She told us that she had research assistants who went into classrooms covering subject areas across the curriculum, and that all they did was clock the seconds that students in each class made direct eye contact with the lesson—either with the instructor or with the task assigned. Obviously, eye contact is not the only indicator of attention, but it is one that is easily observable and measurable. In eye contact alone, attention in arts classes far exceeded that in any other subject. Indeed, student attention was “off the charts” in comparison. Students were attentive and engaged, and engaged learners are open to new ideas that mesh with the patterns of knowledge they already have inside of themselves. Their learning is thus enhanced and enduring.

Research in the impact of the arts in learning is limited by the fact that funders, so far at least, are mainly interested in accountability as measured by test scores. Research investigations looking for “soft data,” such as school attendance, teacher retention, and evidence of improved school morale (e.g. joy) definitely show positive results but get far less attention. Another perhaps more fertile area of research is the booming field of neuroscience and cognition, but I will save that for a later post.




Jill Holden and Dov Rudnick read from Proci et Puellae (a Lover and a Lass)

Here’s another surprising example from Erasmus’ Colloquia Familiaria.

If you have ever seen As You Like It and relished the cheeky brilliance of Rosalind and the pure silliness of the lovestruck Phebe, you may be startled, once again, to find some of their best lines presaged in this witty little play written by Erasmus forty years before Shakespeare was born! It’s actually a rather long one (with some sexy overtones and thoughts on maintaining a healthy marriage along the way) but we only recorded a few pages. They’re a lot of fun. It’s easy to see what stuck in the brain of the boy Shakespeare when he performed them in Latin at Stratford’s Latin grammar school, as part of his practice in conversation.

(Remember, Latin back then was NOT A DEAD LANGUAGE! It was the lingua franca, and required of every educated person entering any of the professions, because it allowed one to converse with any other educated person in any country throughout Europe; but casual conversation took practice. Thus, the “Colloquies.”)

The scene is a flirtatious courtship between the lover, Pamphilus, and his girlfriend, Maria. He’s trying to talk her into advancing their relationship to a new level, whatever that may be. Familiar?

Jill Holden has played the role of Phebe, and she immediately spotted echoes from this silly colloquy in her lines in response to Silvius:

Silvius: Sweet Phebe, do not scorn me; do not Phebe;

Say that you love me not but say not so in

In bitterness. The common executioner…

… first begs pardon….

Phebe: I would not be thy executioner:

I fly thee, for I would not injure thee.

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:

Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,

That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,

Should be called tyrants, butchers, murderers!

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart;

And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee:

Now counterfeit to swoon; why now fall down;

Or if thou canst not, O, for shame, for shame,

Lie not, to say mine eyes are murderers!


And Susan Angelo, also present in the audience, has played Rosalind! And SHE recognized THESE lines:

Orlando: Then, in mine own person, I die.

Rosalind: No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, in a love-cause. …….Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.


And then, a bit later in the scene:

Rosalind: There are none of my uncle’s marks upon you: he taught me how to know a man in love; in which cage of rushes I am sure you are not prisoner.

Orlando: What were his marks?

Rosalind: A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected, which you have not!

Do you hear the same teasing images in this exchange?

(Again, this translation is my adaptation of the two rather dated existing translations from the Latin. Every line is by Erasmus. I’ve just tried to make it sound more like what contemporary young people might say.)

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read Erasmus’ Colloquy, “Abattis et Eruditae”

It was the discovery of the Colloquia Familiaria written by Erasmus that got me started on my book ten years ago. I found a mention of them in a terrific biography of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age,  and found a dusty old copy on line. When I started reading, I was astonished to find early models of the colloquial characters  that I loved as a kid watching Shakespeare’s plays: the clowns, shopkeepers, thieves, schoolmasters, bar flies, prostitutes, etc. These were short scripts written forty years before Shakespeare was born, for schoolboys, to teach conversational Latin! Just about every Latin grammar school in England had copies of the texts and scheduled the Colloquia in their statutes. To me it is glaringly obvious that, as a boy, Will Shakespeare performed them at school. Characters, circumstances, even specific images and lines show up all over his early comedies. I wondered why hardly anyone had ever seemed to notice.

Something else that amazed me were all of the whip-smart women characters that Erasmus created! Shakespeare is often noted for his luminous and opinionated women, often outsmarting and out-talking the men around them. Hello!? Erasmus’ women were doing that long before Shakespeare!

Much gratitude to the lovely Susan Angelo and my kid brother John Lithgow for this delightful cold reading of “Abattis et eruditae” at a salon I did recently at the home of my friend Susan Cambique Tracey. It is one of many of Erasmus’ colloquies featuring smart, sassy women. If you know As You Like It you might recognize the origins of Jacques’, “All the world’s a stage” and Touchstone’s line: “The fool doth think his is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The second quote actually comes from Socrates, but I like to think Shakespeare read it first at school, performing the following colloquy IN LATIN when he was about twelve. I especially appreciate it that Erasmus has both wise sayings voiced by a woman.

Watch the entire colloquy here.

Remember that this colloquy was written in Latin, and it was not published in translation in Shakespeare’s lifetime. He performed it in school, in LATIN, and I like to think he played the part of Magdelena, the eruditae (well-educated woman), who was based on Sir Thomas More’s eldest daughter Meg.

(I should add that I have adapted from two very dated existing translations. I tried to make the lines sound more modern. Every line is, in fact, by Erasmus, and I’ve just made them sound as much as possible like what I think he would have wanted them to sound like in a contemporary, American dialect.  A closer translation of the first line from Latin would be, “What is all this mess?” My free adaptation, “What a Dump,” is, of course, an homage to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “Girls just want to have fun” is, well you know! A closer translation would be “A woman’s business is pleasure.”)

This past weekend I had a chance to present some of the findings of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity to an audience of friends and arts educators. My ever-generous friend from the Music Center Education Division, Susan Cambique Tracey (featured in an earlier post), and her husband Paul sponsor about four salons each year devoted to the arts and arts education, and they invited me to do one. It was wonderful fun. Susan says the salons are their way of giving back, showing gratitude for their life in arts education, and I felt that gratitude glowing around me all afternoon. The session was documented in film so I’m excited that I will be able to share bits of it in upcoming posts.

I started the program with a visual exploration of these four woodcuts picturing Elizabethan classrooms. The first two are dated 1573, the very year that William Shakespeare turned nine, so looking at them you may imagine him as one of the boys pictured.

One result of the Humanist movement in early 16th century England was a robust interest in pedagogy, with many books written on the subject. One of the most famous of those teacher/authors was Richard Mulcaster, who just happened to train Thomas Jenkins and John Cotham, two of Shakespeare’s teachers at Stratford’s Latin grammar school. Reading his two books, Positions and Elementarie, was one of the igniting revelations that got me going on my own book, because of Mulcaster’s use of the arts in his daily instruction. The title of my book is actually taken from a quote by a 17th century jurist who had been a student at the Merchant Taylors’ School while Mulcaster was the headmaster. He credited Mulcaster with offering daily instruction in both vocal and instrumental music, accompanied by dance, and with using theatre to teach “good behavior and audacity.” Mulcaster also included drawing as one of the essential teachings for young children, so all of the arts were present in his school.

So now, my readers, I would like to engage you in the same visual exploration and see if we can draw some conclusions about Elizabethan classrooms.

Examine the four woodcuts closely and look for similarities and differences.

These images are all from the internet, and there isn’t much accompanying information about any of them, so I am in the same position as you are looking at them. What we see we see, and, using visual thinking strategies, what we conclude is what we conclude. I cannot verify our conclusions, but I do have the advantage of several years of research to draw upon and so I will add information where I can.

First of all, yes, indeed, that is a dog in two of the pictures. I have no explanation for the dog. (It does bring to mind the comic presence of a dog in both Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but those were not classroom dogs!) Is the presence of a dog an indication that those two classrooms were rural? Perhaps.

Also, this last one is much busier than the others, and much more crowded (and there is no dog), so perhaps this one depicts a school in London?

Here are a few more observations:

1. In each one the headmaster appears to be holding a rather exalted position, in a throne-like chair. And he has a switch close by in case he needs it to maintain control. In fact, in this last one another adult (likely an usher, or assistant teacher), is flogging the naked bottom of a boy.

I’ve read that flogging was not uncommon. In fact there were plenty of euphemisms for it, like “marrying the schoolmaster’s daughter,” or “learning a new song today.” But most of the books on pedagogy from the time, including those by Mulcaster, explicitly state that kindness and reason were preferable to corporal punishment. I suspect that the mere presence of the switch may have been enough to keep order in most cases.

2. In the last picture we see that there is musical notation on the back wall and there appears to be a child playing a keyboard instrument like a virginal and other children singing. Most statutes from the time list regular music instruction, and at least at Merchant Taylors’ School it was included every day.

3. In each picture there is a child standing in front of the headmaster, and in the last one there are several in line waiting their turn. They are reciting their memorized lessons from the classics, and from what I’ve learned about physical rhetoric, or “rhetorical dance,” they were required to do so with appropriate gesture, expression, and emotion.

4. The other children in the room are engaged in their own activities—reading, writing, or talking to or perhaps collaborating with the students next to them. They are paying no heed to the child in front of the headmaster, an indication that there was nothing out of the ordinary about a student declaiming his lessons; it went on all day long and attracted no attention.

5. There are no desks. The children are reading from and writing in notebooks, or tables. Remember that Hamlet, in his frenzy after his encounter with his father’s ghost, says, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, / That one may smile and smile and be a villain!” He is talking about exactly what these children are holding: their own tables, which accompanied them to and from school every day. In those tables they wrote down the lines they were required to memorize. They also wrote down rhetorical figures they found in their classical readings and kept them organized in columns. At some point, they also wrote down their own invented examples of figures, often developed in collaboration with their peers.

6.  In the absence of desks, there is an open space in the center of the classroom. That open space was called a place to be heard: an auditorium. A stage!

So….setting aside the corporal punishment and the dog: focus on this thought: what does it mean for a child to go to a school where the core goal is to be seen and heard.

Arts colorBring back the arts!

(The following is a draft introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity. I’m sure it will change before the book is published, but I’d love feedback on what I’ve written so far.)

In the hippie sixties, before I became a teacher, I was one of hundreds of free spirits spending as much time as I could in San Francisco. I was there in the summer of 1968, “the summer of love.” One evening I was in a café, and at the adjoining table were three policemen who had put their caps on the hat rack above us. I couldn’t help seeing that on the inside of each of the rims was a John Birch Society pin, and when they left, along with the tip, they left a pamphlet. I didn’t know much about the Birch Society, and I was curious, so I grabbed it and read it. The first sentence, the first page, in fact the entire pamphlet was about the need to abolish public education. The salient point was that, historically and until fairly recently, parents, not taxpayers, had paid for the education of their own offspring.

Why, it asked, should people with no children pay to educate those of others?

Perhaps to some this was, on its face, a reasonable question; but I scoffed in disbelief. What about the bedrock of a democracy? What about the foundation of a civil society? They can’t be serious! I wrote it off as pure far-right-of-right-wing malarkey and tossed it in the garbage.

I wish I had kept it! Within a year I had started a long career in public education, and over the decades I have viewed every new innovation and “reform” effort with wary suspicion, examining it through the lens of my memory of that pamphlet. I’ve followed the editorializing in the media, including my own LA Times, through the same lens. I’ve watched the erosion of the popular perception of public education go from a dribble to a river to a tsunami. It was with indescribably relief ten years ago that I devoured in one sitting Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System and discovered that someone with a voice of authority was finally documenting the lies.


But so far, Diane Ravitch’s voice alone has not been enough. The entirely deluded assumption that “private” is good and “public” is bad hardly existed in 1968, and yet only very recently a commentator on MSNBC made the cavalier statement, “Of course we all agree that public education is broken.” I had to scream at the screen, “NO, WE DO NOT ALL AGREE!!! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, SAYING THAT?!!! Of course she didn’t hear me and thus took no offense. But I’ve spent my adult life as a public school educator and I have grandchildren now in public schools in three different states getting a fine education from excellent teachers, so I was shaken that nobody in the discussion challenged her.

I could go on a screed here about the Koch brothers (whose father was a Birch Society founder), the Waltons, charter school supporters, the distorted message of “school choice,” ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council), and the slow but steady effort, by whatever malevolent forces there have been out there over the past fifty years to push formerly marginalized, negative views of public education front and center in popular discourse. But that’s not the point of this book.


The point of this book is that as a result of the growing distrust in public education, there has been a push for the rather vague concept of “accountability”; and the only relatively affordable—if highly dubious—method of measuring school accountability is the use of standardized tests. The use of, and preparation for, standardized tests have resulted in the virtual decimation of something we all used to take for granted: instruction in the arts for every child at every grade level.

I don’t think this happened intentionally. Maybe no policy maker said, “Stop putting easels and blocks in kindergarten rooms. Stop scheduling time for singing and dancing. Stop funding an orchestra program. Stop teaching speech and push your drama classes into an after school program for the ‘talented’ few.” But at the same time, something had to be sacrificed to make more room for preparation in the tested subjects: literacy and numeracy. The airy-fairy arts were seen as the most disposable candidate. Nobody stopped to take a long look at the hundreds of years of pedagogy that understood the connection between engagement in the arts and the healthy development of cognition.


Let me grant first that the perceived need for accountability has resulted in some beneficial policies and has perhaps shaken a few useless old customs loose. The creation of instructional standards have had great value used as guidelines and benchmarks. But the marriage of these standards to tests used to bludgeon struggling schools and turn innocent children into data points has been catastrophic. Because of the cloud of accountability, classroom time devoted to test preparation has reached feverish heights, and the 20% of time each day devoted to the arts, recommended in most state statutes since the founding of our nation, is by now a thing of the past. And yet, test scores have scarcely budged. In fact, if you factor in other measures of schools success—school culture and morale, attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, student engagement, happiness—the picture gets gloomier and gloomier.

This book tackles the largely unexplored history of arts education: unexplored probably because it was always just a given. If we look back to Plato and then to the sixteenth century humanists, we see a thread throughout the centuries that notes the power of the arts to engage and entertain as they educate. It has been painful to watch the past few generations turn their backs on this wisdom. Universal instruction in the visual and performing arts is now history; and sure enough, as the ancients could have predicted, those revered test scores have languished. It’s time for educators to wake up.

Public education is not broken, but there are times when it seems to be on life support. It tends to be as good as the public makes it, and it could easily be revived with public commitment.


There’s a simple solution—an easy war to resuscitate the joy in universal, public education: Bring back the arts!

In response to the recent uptick in domestic violence:

Several years ago I received a call from a District Attorney, one of whose clients had been tried and convicted of a crime involving sodomy, rape, and murder. She was trying to keep him off of death row. He had been expelled from more than ten LAUSD schools, and she was trying to find a single teacher from one of those schools who could say something nice about him.

When she told me his name I vaguely remembered a small eighth grader who had briefly flitted, somewhat disruptively, through my drama class years earlier, before being expelled. At the time, I and his math teacher had voted not to expel him until he had been tested and recommended for placement in a program that could better serve his needs. The majority of the faculty just wanted to be rid of him.

“He’s not small anymore,” she said.

In preparing an argument for a life sentence instead of execution, she asked him to name a single teacher who might be able to say something good about him. He named two: me and one other. I could hardly remember him among the hundreds of kids who had passed through my classes, but he remembered me and one other teacher.

We were both theater teachers.

I am not saying theater could have changed him, could have redirected him, could even have saved him and the life of his victim; but I’m absolutely certain that was what HE was saying. And he wouldn’t be the first. You will probably never meet a theater teacher who can not claim to have “saved” a student and doesn’t have a story like mine. Most of the stories end happily. Most of mine do too. This one did not.

Students in our schools are desperate for avenues of self expression and self-definition. Experience in drama activities empowers students and gives them tools for positive and constructive communication. This has been true for hundreds of years and it will be true for hundreds more. Educators, take note.