#FredTalksCLE: Arts mastery teaches kids success

"Grit is a determining factor when it comes to kids from tough backgrounds succeeding," national teaching artistry expert Eric Booth told a crowd of 150-plus people gathered at the 'Art + Kids: Growing Up Great' Fred Talk held Tuesday night at the Rainey Institute. "And nothing determines grit more than practicing one of those damn instruments!"

Booth's comment drew laughter, especially from parents in the audience who know firsthand how much sacrifice is involved when a child commits herself wholeheartedly to studying an art form. Throughout the night, parents, arts leaders, educators and community members shared stories of the impact of mastery-based arts education, which they stated could be profound and life-changing. 

Cleveland Foundation president Ronn Richard kicked off the evening by outlining the purpose of the forum and the impetus behind the discussion. Fred Talks, named after TCF founder Frederick Harris Goff, are intended to be "idea incubators," he told the audience. "Our goal is to challenge ourselves to think, listen and, like Fred, become champions for change. As the foundation begins its second century, we want Fred Talks to become a forum that impacts communities and lives."

Richard outlined the foundation's longstanding support for the arts in Cleveland, arguing that the arts have aided the city's revitalization. "We're working to make sure every Clevelander – especially the least advantaged – gets the opportunities they need to thrive," he said. "It's their voices we need to hear the most."

Eric Booth began his energetic presentation by describing Renaissance High School in L.A, an inner city, largely minority school that could have become another stereotype. Yet instead, the school is thriving -- which Booth credits in part to its mastery-based arts programs, which engage kids in and out of school. 

What's the link between arts education programs and student success? Booth explained that kids are successful learners when they're highly motivated and invested in the work. Mastery-based arts education is effective because it's "in the intrinsic motivation business," he said. "The moment you make a complete commitment to something, that's when everything changes."

In other words, there's nothing quite like the challenge of mastering an art form -- whether it's painting or poetry -- to convince kids to take big risks and "GO FOR IT!" 

In the discussion that followed Booth's presentation, Cleveland Foundation Director of Institutional Learning and Arts Initiatives Kathleen Cerveny stated that beyond the benefits of stimulating curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, mastery-based arts programs also foster healthy citizens. "The arts can be an incredibly powerful tool not only for educational attainment but for personal development as well," she said. 

Darnell Weaver, conductor of the El Sistema @ Rainey youth orchestra and a former Rainey student, said the arts instill a culture of high expectations. "In order for anyone to succeed or grow, you need struggle," he said. "If you’re doing weight training, the heavier the weight, the stronger you become. The more we can challenge the children, the more they’re attentive, the more they want to grasp onto it."

During the Q&A, an audience member asked a question about how panel members would differentiate between the impact of the arts and sports, which occupy a sort of enshrined spot in American culture. Kathleen Cerveny's response is summed up in the Tweet below. Eric Booth commented that whereas sports contests usually have a clear winner and loser, "every kids wins" in mastery-based arts programs. 
Discussion ensued about the need to strengthen access to arts programs in "arts deserts" and ways to define the characteristics of a successful teaching artist. Booth stated that not all artists are innately good teachers, yet the vast majority are "educable" and can make a difference in kids' lives if they're given the right training. The biggest problem with teaching artistry, he said, is the "gig mentality" where artists come into a classroom and leave without making a long-term commitment. The greatest impact is made when artists give personally and engage deeply. 
When the question above was posed by an audience member, Booth made an argument that the U.S. is seeing a great debate between those who consider the arts to be supplemental to the curriculum and those who consider them to be fundamental. "We will see a rising up of the other definition [that they're fundamental] because it delivers the things we want and need in terms of education," he predicted, although he believes it will take years for this to happen. 

Following the panel discussion, attendees broke out into table discussions. The questions that they responded to are listed below. The Cleveland Foundation intends to use the ideas generated in this discussion in order to shape its future arts priorities and identify needs in mastery-based arts programs. 

Q1: Think about a time when you were completely immersed in a project or a skill you were learning. What was it? #FredTalksCLE

Q2: When you think about that experience, what support systems and resources helped you along the way? #FredTalksCLE

Q2: Support systems can mean a wide range of things: parents, facilities, neighbors, transportation, inspiring teachers, etc. #FredTalksCLE

Q3: Thinking about that support, what assets do your neighborhoods currently have? 

Q3: How can those assets be used to grow programs such as these in your  neighborhoods? #FredTalksCLE

Q4: Thinking about those existing assets, what is missing? What’s the most important asset that your community needs? #FredTalksCLE

Here's a sample of a few tweets from the #FredTalksCLE Twitter discussion. Stay tuned for more on this topic in Fresh Water Cleveland! 

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.