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School Stories

Becoming Engaged Citizens and Thoughtful Leaders: Artistic Communication in the 21st Century

By Tara Neeley, Artistic Director
“What are the arts good for?” This decades-long debate offers no shortage of perspectives from philosophers to community stakeholders alike. Some might argue artistic value is found in the collective belonging, while others might cite increased intellectual capacity. Still yet is the ability to transcend our lived experience into an ethereal world of beauty. Although there are many reasons the arts are valuable to the human experience, for the Graland Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA), none is more important than the ability for artistic creativity to communicate ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

As arts educators, we do not expect every student to become a prodigy in our disciplines of music, theatre, and visual arts. Rather, increased artistic skill is the vehicle by which students are able to communicate increasingly complex stories of themselves and others. It is through these artistic stories in all of our disciplines that perspectives are altered, empathy is fostered, identities are developed, and action is engaged – this is the value of the arts. Said another way, we can develop ourselves, our communities, and the world through the lens of artistic creativity. Surrounded by a high-tech, fast-paced, and complex society, the value of arts to provide this human connection, storytelling, and compassion cannot be quantified in capitalist terms. If this all sounds like a courageous, deeply authentic, and, at times, difficult task, that’s because it is through a delicate dance of process and product.

Producer and recording artist Charlie Peacock, when discussing deeper artistic values, once stated, “It’s not just about creativity, it’s about the person you’re becoming while you’re creating.” As arts educators, we would call this “the process.” Within our VAPA team, we endeavor to create safe arts spaces where students feel comfortable taking risks as they wrestle with their own values, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions through the process of “becoming” their own unique person. In part, this requires much reflection as a first step to understanding oneself. When we better understand ourselves, we can better understand others and their experiences. Oftentimes, too, we grow as persons throughout the artistic process, and we complete many iterations of the product before we are ready to share with others.

Another important part of the inner process is learning to collaborate and receive feedback. In performing arts, our students must learn how to work with others and their ideas. Sometimes, this means having to once again do self-reflection when their own artistic ideas are in conflict with others. Students must navigate how to tell the story or communicate the idea with room for multiple artistic identities. Equally, receiving feedback on work, reconciling that with their own artistic voice, then adapting work is key to great self-development and artistic communication.

The artistic process is no small undertaking, but what about the product? One can certainly explore artistic choices for communication, collaborating with other artists, and receiving feedback via the reproduction of other artists’ work. Without a doubt, important artistic lessons are learned from studying the works of history’s greatest composers, playwrights, lyricists, painters, and sculptors. But if students were to only ever replicate Monet’s “Water Lilies,” play Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” or act in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” would they truly discover and develop themselves to the depths of which Peacock suggested? Would they ever be forced to reckon with their own beliefs and values that promote artistic identity and independence? And, would they ever create new art that asks 21st-century audiences to see other perspectives and gain empathy?

The Graland VAPA department believes that if we are to fully develop our students’ artistic identities through which they are able to communicate their voice, stories, and feelings about themselves and others, then students must have many opportunities to produce their own works of art in addition to learning from the masters’ products. The Visual Arts Team sets a beautiful example of learning skill and theory, then allowing students to create original work using their own ideas. This is widely accepted by most parents and educators as standard practice. It would be alarming if conversely, students were only copying masterpieces. Yet, somehow, this natural progression to original artistic production is not inherent in the performing arts world, where students most often perform others’ shows or music. Recognizing this disparity and holding true to what we value in the arts, the Graland VAPA Team has worked over the course of the last several years to intentionally build more student agency, choice, and product creation into our performing arts classes.
In our theatre classes, our youngest students through our eighth graders experience writing their own plays, directing, stage crew, set design, and tech theatre. Our music classes have undergone changes to hold space for traditional and contemporary music while also providing more opportunities for music creation in both forms throughout the Lower School and Middle School divisions. As music educators, it is important that what we teach is applicable and relevant to the ways students are experiencing music outside of school. Though we still employ traditional instruments, 1:1 Apple technology allows us to explore digital music production even with our Lower School students. Because band and choir are not the only ways to “be a musician,” we have reconstructed our fifth and sixth-grade music classes to offer expanded units that feature GarageBand tech, songwriting, world music, composition, percussion, dance, ukulele, and guitar. Central to each of these units is opportunities for students to create their own music, much like they do in theatre and visual arts classes, so that they can communicate their own ideas and stories. Students still have many opportunities to learn traditional band and orchestra instruments through our conservatory program, enrichments classes, and our seventh and eighth-grade elective classes.

Now, nearly a quarter into the 21st century, we should no longer be asking, “What the arts are good for?” but instead be asking, “How will students be better prepared for life in this century through the arts?” In an increasingly complex world that is flooded with information, we believe students, more than ever before, need to find their own voice and know how to connect with others through compassion, empathy, and perspective. The arts provide the process and the original product by which students become more engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders, not of tomorrow, but of today. Now is the time for the world to hear their voices, their stories, and their perspectives. 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.