National Arts in Education Week: What Did the Arts Teach You?

By Krysia Gabenski 

Growing up, I was running around doing tomboy things, while my older brother was drawing. Dinosaurs. Always drawing dinosaurs. He loved it. He was great at it. But he didn’t think he could have a career in it. Enter Penn State University (Let’s go state!), where he earned a degree in biology. I’m not sure he could’ve gone further from the arts in his undergraduate education.

But while he was in college learning about living organisms, he supplemented his education with figure drawing courses and other art courses to keep his creativity alive and active. And his dinosaur drawings transformed into beautiful, powerful images that made people feel things. They made me feel things. He was affecting those around him with his artwork. Enter the Columbus College of Art and Design, where he earned a second degree, this time in fine arts. Today, he’s living a fulfilling life as a Walt Disney Studios story artist who’s worked on feature animations like Moana. You might have heard of it.

It was his arts education that began in elementary school that fueled his passion. He excelled at most subjects, but he truly loved his art classes. And he’s not alone. Not even close. Art classes and music classes affect students of all ages in ways they might not realize as they’re creating that painting or playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a recorder. (Do kids these days still do that? Did I just date myself?)

According to the Americans for the Arts “Arts Education Navigator: Facts and Figures,” the arts improve school culture. They affect student motivation. They develop more positive attitudes. And they increase attendance rates. All of this leads to a domino effect of students staying in school and having a higher chance at succeeding in life and work down the line.

Let’s look a little closer. Research from the Americans for the Arts shows students who are involved in the arts are:

  • four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair,
  • three times more likely to win an award for attendance,
  • four times more likely to be recognized for an academic achievement, and
  • three times more likely to be elected to class office.

The Americans for the Arts research also showed that the arts can make students more excited about school. Why? The organization cites that arts curricula reaches students who otherwise might fall through the cracks and those who have alternative learning styles than what’s “typical” for many students. It also creates a feeling of connection and cooperation among students. 

Low-income students who are highly involved in the arts are more likely to find reliable and rewarding employment (50 percent versus 40 percent), earn an associate’s degree (44 percent versus 27 percent), and volunteer in their communities (37 percent versus 20 percent) than their peers who are less engaged in the arts.

This should come as no surprise to educators and administrators who see first-hand the outcome of arts programs in their schools. But for others, it might not be so apparent. This week, for Arts in Education Week, I encourage you to share your stories on social media using #ArtsEdWeek.

I’ll go first: The arts didn’t just mold my brother’s career. They also led me down a creative career path, too. They taught me that when it comes to art and music, there are few rules. Go ahead, color outside the lines (after you’ve mastered coloring INSIDE the lines, of course). Create your own chords on a guitar (once you’ve first learned E Minor and C Major). This idea of “learn the basics so you can grow and create from there” translated to my love of writing. It gave me confidence in my writing because there’s no right or wrong in creativity. So while my dad, the accountant, would’ve loved for me and my brother to become numbers people, we traveled different paths—ones that my mom, the elementary school teacher, is proud of and that my dad has come around to loving, too.

Read the full Americans for the Arts research results.