My brother Charles and I played soccer and baseball growing up. It helped us stay active, and we learned how to compete and be aggressive in order to win. What sports didn’t offer us was the opportunity to develop awareness and appreciation for our cultural identity. When I was nine years old, my mother enrolled my brother and me in folklorico — a traditional cultural dance that emphasizes Mexican folk culture — at our local recreation center.
At first, I was annoyed. This activity was so different from the sports I was accustomed to, and I hadn’t quite put together why my mother thought it was necessary for our development. Soon, it became one of the most transformative experiences in my life. Eventually, my family founded our own Mexican folk dance ensemble that gave me space to grow my artistry and understanding of my cultural identities.
I was a folklorico dancer until I was 19 years old and decided to become a professional dance teacher and choreographer. At that point in my life, I knew I wanted to teach this style of dance to young people; with the right tools and experience, I knew I could help students understand and learn about their identity and culture the same way I did through Folklorico.
Today I’m a performing arts teacher at KIPP Comienza Community Prep (KCCP) in Los Angeles, where I teach kindergarten through fourth grade. Over the past decade, teaching cultural performing arts has helped me transform my classrooms into engaging, communal spaces where students become critical thinkers and culturally competent leaders.
My experience has taught me that if students do not believe their school is invested in activities and programs that reflect their community and culture, they will not feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, which will negatively impact student engagement and their ability to understand and appreciate cultural differences among one another.
Unfortunately, not every school believes the performing arts are worth the investment; if anything, the trend of school funding in the performing arts has been in sharp decline for some time. While student engagement continues to be a significant issue for classrooms across the country, I believe the performing arts can be an opportunity for schools to reimagine community engagement in schools and get students back on track.
When Schools Don’t Invest in the Arts, It Harms Students
Evidence shows that arts education builds empathy, promotes healthy social development and helps students engage with others, but unfortunately, not all students have access.
Before becoming a performing arts educator, I wore many hats in education: instructional assistant, ELL interventionist, bilingual service provider and afterschool teacher, to name a few. The various schools I worked in didn’t offer arts education, and most of them had the same reason, namely that there was not enough staff to manage the program and there were not enough interested students to justify hiring full-time performing arts teachers.
Over the years, I saw how this harmed students and families. Some lost the chance to participate in school plays and performances. Others were denied opportunities to develop their artistic self-expression and learn about different histories and cultures through art.
When I began teaching at KCCP, I decided to build a new performing arts program aligned with the California Arts Standards and focused on community experiences and the cultural identity of my students. Developing the program has been a journey, and I learned that managing a performing arts program is unsustainable without financial support and commitment from school leadership.
Although I don’t believe the performing arts will cease to exist, we all could do better to invest in school-based performing arts programs and better yet, seek to create performing arts programs that reflect the diversity of our students and their families.
What Schools and Educators Can Do About This
When I became a teacher, I believed culturally responsive teaching and community-engaged learning could only live in lesson plans. Since then, I’ve learned that these methods are merely tools to transform culture and spaces. Building this bridge between school and community culture requires participation from all stakeholders. For schools to become social and cultural pillars in their local communities, school leaders and educators should consider taking the following two important actions.
First, school leaders and educators must prioritize community partnerships. When educators and school leaders prioritize opportunities to learn about their students’ cultural backgrounds and to partner with the community to provide impactful learning experiences, it can foster empathy and a sense of belonging among students.
Second, schools must build models that support identity development. Schooling isn’t just about teaching concepts found in textbooks; students must also learn about themselves and their identity so they can navigate their lives inside and outside of the classroom. To engage in this work, educators should proactively commemorate cultural events that celebrate our students’ backgrounds and the communities they come from.
Besides the bi-weekly dance program I teach every other quarter, I also teach a social justice and social-emotional learning block one day a week to an entire grade level. During one of my social justice blocks, we dedicate a week to the Day of the Dead and its traditions. During this week, I lead a thorough exploration of how this Day of the Dead tradition coincides with family honor and the social responsibility that it carries. We discuss loss, healing and grief as healthy ways to process social and emotional learning experiences. By the end of the week, students craft a detailed papier-mâché calavera mask, build a community altar, interweave themes of social justice and engage in thoughtful discussions with their peers. In return, students are finding success in building self-confidence, which turns into healthy living habits and cultural pride.
At the beginning of the year, I identify, assess and build a learning experience that meets student needs. Using multiple forms of art to help students learn about their history and culture with others has been a key part of promoting social and emotional development among my students; the more our educational spaces synchronize with community and culture, the more students become positive products of their school environment and agents for social change in their community.
Building a Bridge to Community-Engaged Education
As the real world becomes more polarizing and challenging, particularly for students from underrepresented backgrounds, it becomes increasingly important that schools stop ignoring the data that asserts the benefits of cultural performing arts and the voices of the students that have been positively impacted by it.
Performing arts programs that are authentic to students’ social and cultural identities can help students better understand themselves and develop leadership skills in an engaging, supportive environment.