Testimonial #24: Susan Chase, Actress/Playwright

“Here’s the amazing thing. . . I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.”

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?
This is such a great question — and it really takes me back! I was a terribly shy child, a straight “A” student, but I was terrified whenever I had to speak in front of my peers. In 5th grade I had the distinct good fortune to be placed in Mr. Cardinal’s class. Mr. Cardinal was an unusually demanding teacher. Not only did he require the quotidian research papers and essays, but he insisted that we do in-class presentations on all our papers. He even graded us using a “performance” rubric. It is so long ago, that I don’t remember every element of the rubric. But I do recall “Has good posture” and “Makes eye contact with the audience” and “Uses a range of emotions and colors in his/her speech.”

This was all absolutely horrifying to me! I worked so hard on my papers and continued to get “A”s on my written work. But this grade would be averaged with my presentation grade — and I found myself receiving “B”s for the first time in my life. Speaking in front of others was sheer torture for me. I could only do it by staring out into space and mechanically delivering the words I had memorized.

After a month or so of accepting my fate as a “B” student, I finally determined that I would rise to the challenge and meet the requirements of the performance rubric. At first I did it artificially — I would arbitrarily select moments to raise or lower my vocal pitch; I would contrive an emotion and try to sustain it during a section of my presentation. But here’s the amazing thing: eventually this became natural! I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.

I don’t reflect on my 5th grade experience all that often. But when I do, I always find myself thinking, “I bet I never would have had the skills or confidence to go into theatre if it hadn’t been for Mr. Cardinal.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?
As an actress/playwright, I am fortunate to be a frequent “artist in residence” in my local schools. This has afforded me a unique vantage from which to witness children growing and flourishing. It is certainly challenging to select just one or two stories from the many transformative moments I have witnessed — but I will try.

Several years ago I staged a play with a group of students in a special school for children with psychiatric issues. One of my lead actors was a young adolescent who came from a tragic family background. His father had been killed in a car accident, leaving his mother so profoundly depressed that she was unable to care for her children. This boy came into the classroom very sad and very angry. But working day-by-day on a character allowed him to explore his positive emotions. He played a variety of characters, all of them strong, noble, good-hearted. His mother attended a performance. After watching her “troubled” son’s performance, she decided that he wasn’t so troubled after all and that she was ready to take him back home with her. This family re-unification was facilitated, in part, by the son’s growth through the arts and his mother’s observation of that growth.

I will share one other story — different — but equally compelling. A few years ago I taught in a locked facility for juvenile sexual perpetrators. In a class of young men aged 17-20, I was somewhat intimidated until I bonded with Nate,* the alpha male of the group, who instantly fell in love with acting. One day a group of students were improvising a scene and I could not fully understand them because they were using urban dialect — completely appropriate to the scene, but sadly inaccessible to me. Without saying a word, Nate moved himself next to me and calmly, quietly, without the slightest trace of irony or condescension, translated his friends’ dialect into standard English so I could understand and respond to it. He single-handedly blew away the barriers of age, race, and socioeconomic status! This showed remarkable awareness and sensitivity on his part. This is all the more stunning when one considers that this young man was a sexual perpetrator. One of the common assumptions about sexual perpetrators is that they “lack empathy for their victims.” Yet in this instance, Nate* recognized and empathized with my discomfort and was able to ease this discomfort by bridging the gap between me and my students.

In both these instances, in fact, in every school residency I have completed, the remark I heard constantly from the classroom teachers was, “Thank you so much for letting me see my students in a new light.” These teachers, who daily confront learning disabilities and behavioral challenges, were thrilled to have a guest in their classroom who elicited their student’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

* Name changed

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Testimonial #23: Kathleen E. LoPinto Vignolini, Retired, substitute K-8 & Art K-8; BA Art Ed K-12 Teacher

For me the old proverb, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” has always been a truism, as creativity sparks more creativity.

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

Today my motto is “Life is Art. Art is Life.” That’s because doing Art gave me life. It let me excel at something, something I loved to do. Being that I’m dyslexic and that back in the ’50s & ’60s, there wasn’t any classification, nor help, for those of us having difficulty in school. Growing up, Art was my life saving subject! It seemed my only chance to do well at something, and I wanted so much to be good at something. I loved art from the first time I scribbled on paper. Then too, my uncle was an artist in NYC and I loved and was fascinated by his work.

In school, we only had Art once a week, if we had time! Schools concentrated on the academics, the 3 R’s, along with History, Geography, and Science. Some teachers in my parochial school incorporated art within other subjects, or made sure there was time for visual art, while others did not. In my second 6th grade (I failed my first one), Sr. Marie Peter’s motto was “Observe, observe, observe!” every thing, every where, every day! She encouraged me to “be me” and that I could do more than I imagined. One “Art lesson” was to draw a tree. Sister didn’t show us how, she just told us to draw one. Everyone else did the typical round top tree, with or without fruit, some did a simple pine tree. I hesitated at first. Then, out of our window, I saw a grey sky and a leafless tree, and began to draw its dark and lighter bark. Sr. walked by and asked about my drawing. (As I had just memorized & recited Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, I thought she was concerned about my mental state.) When I showed her what I saw across the street, she smiled & said she was pleased that I observed well. Sr. also encouraged creative writing and research writing, and had us participate in class debates.
Off I went to High School. After I’d handed in a few untypical projects, my only Art teacher told me that what I lacked in talent (but can be learned), I more than compensated for in creativity. I took it wrong though, and had the emphasis on “lack of Talent” and didn’t even hear the “can be learned” part. Later I began to realize her meaning. My World History teacher, Sr Jean d’Arc, also emphasized art through out the ages. In her class we studied “history through Art” of every era, as well as the names, dates, and facts. In Glee Club Sr. Virgine added to my Arts Education. She brought NYC professionals in for our school plays. All Glee Club members were automatically in for the parts or in the chorus. Sr. also brought us to New York, to the old Met, introducing many to Opera. At my home, we cleaned our house to WQXR’s Saturday at the Opera.
Because of these and other teachers using art in their curriculum and their encouragement, I continued to doodle, and I copied those small images from Encyclopedias onto 9 x 12 paper (without graphing). I also drew all 6 of our kids faces from photos. I had hopes of going into Art Therapy, but our many military moves, and rearing our kids prevented that.

I was never trained to draw, but early on I asked for a Jon Gnagy drawing set that I saw in a TV ad. I thought that if my work was any good, I’d show them to my Uncle and ask him to teach me. But when I looked at the work in Jon Gnagy’s book, then to my own drawings, I thought mine were very poor. (I changed that opinion, when I was studying to be an Art Educator, some 40 years later.) I adored my uncle, but my awe for him and his work also kept me from asking him to teach me. After they moved to PA I’d spend a few weeks with Uncle Ferdie and Aunt Dorothy, for several summers. (Aunt Dorothy got me to memorize Poe’s Annabel Lee, just by reading it to me!) Unlike his 3 boys, I was allowed to go into his home studio to watch him paint. By this time, his work was Non-objective; just lines, shapes, and colors. Once, he told me that he “saw the whole piece before he even began to stretch his canvas.” The whole composition, every element of it, was in his mind’s eye. I didn’t believe him, so he showed me by pointing to where several drops of liquefied paint would stop on the piece he was working on. I still didn’t believe him, until years later working on my own I began to know and understood what he meant. I was doing just that! To this day I wonder, did they have me spend those summers with them, so I could ask my uncle to teach me about art? I so wish I had swallowed my fears.
At 43, I went out to start College and took an art class each semester, which in my mind, helped me get through the tougher courses. I wound up on the Deans list twice, and Graduated with a 3.5 GPA, with 2 majors: Education & Art Education. Sadly, no one wanted to hire a 50 yr. old teacher. But I became the only substitute for an Art Teacher in one school, and also substituted for K-8 in other subjects. One day I decided to finally join a local art guild. That helped me delve into other mediums, and the networking boosted my self esteem of my artwork.
My love of art and the creative process has filtered through every aspect of my life. I’ve used that creative spirit in everything, from setting up each of the 13 homes we lived in, and designing rooms to be remodeled, to making things from scratch for our kids and home, to writing memoir of my parents and grandparents. Creativity also guides me in how I handle people in various situations, and helps me continually refine my world view.
For me the old proverb, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” has always been a truism, as creativity sparks more creativity. Like when, after I’d just finished one painting, an idea came to do another in the same method. Then before I finished the second painting, another idea came to me. Each time I did a painting in that technique, another idea would come earlier and earlier in the process of working! The end result, was a series of 7 very different paintings!

Testimonial #22: Joel Kahn, Math Teacher/Graphic Artist

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

My wife is a public school art teacher who has been plugging away at it for longer than she wants me to say. It’s a tough job sometimes, but there are students who are learning and applying important ideas.

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?
It’s not just art by itself; it’s how art interacted with other subjects that I studied. That’s how I eventually was able to make math a basis for art I produced.

http://www.cafepress.com/sk/joelkahn

Testimonial #21: Cathlyn Melvin, Director Compass Creative Dramatics

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to fill an empty hour. The composition class I really wanted to take wasn’t open to 10th graders, so I dug through our course catalogue to find something that would interest me. I went to a public school that didn’t provide much beyond immediate course requirements, so I ended up taking an acting class, even though I knew, by reputation, that this was a class that kids took for an easy A. I didn’t have much faith that I would learn anything, but the government said I had to be in school for that hour, so I had to sign up for something.

I knew the teacher – I had him for freshman English when we read “Romeo & Juliet”. He was one of the strongest teachers I had (one of the reasons I wanted to take his comp class!). Unfortunately, he was swimming upstream with this slacker course, and I didn’t get much from most of the class.

At the end of the semester, we were supposed to prepare a scene. I knew I wanted to do a solo piece, but I was at a loss for what to choose. He asked me if I would consider doing Shakespeare, and he helped me cut some of Juliet’s monologues into a story arc.

This was the first time I got to work with Shakespeare’s language, outside of simply reading the text, and it was maybe the first step in leading me to study classical theatre in college. I love Shakespeare (Shakespeare and children’s theatre are my two favorite genres!) and looking back, I’m very appreciative of Mr. Heling’s willingness to take the extra measure and work on something that was up my alley – and challenging.

Ask YoYo Ma About Arts Education


Panelists will discuss why they believe arts education is important for today’s generation, and question what needs to be done in society to ensure the arts play a prominent role in the education system.

And what’s even more exciting is that you can join in on the conversation too! Anytime before the session you can tweet your questions or comments about arts education to #AskYoYo or by email to artseducation@artsusa.org with the subject line #AskYoYo.