Piper Stege Nelson
1. In what ways, if any, have the arts and creative learning impacted you - in your career, school, or life experiences?
I began singing a capella in 2nd grade and continued through college. I began performing in plays - at school, at KidsActing, at church - at age 10 and continued through graduate school. I began painting in 10th grade and continue to paint through today, even creating an Etsy shop to sell my paintings. I have played the piano, the violin, created interpretive art, attended an arts program in New Zealand, and engaged my children in countless hours of art projects. And each week my team at SAFE and I engage in a creative learning project as team building. I know the importance of music and art and creative learning on developing minds, and on the social emotional health of every human.
Perhaps two of the most salient impacts I have seen of Creative Learning come from my early career as a teacher, watching people learn a new language, and from my work at SAFE and our Expect Respect Program.
When I first started teaching, I worked with a master teacher who used hand movements and songs to teach small children how to learn Spanish. I had not seen that before - but it is common practice now. So when I began teaching Spanish to middle school children, I knew that incorporating movement, creative learning and song were imperative. To that end, we learned the parts of the body with the song, “Cabeza, hombros, rodillas, pies;” we used Mana songs to learn the subjunctive tense; and we even stimulated an Ecuadorian New Years Eve celebration to understand more about the culture of South America. When I think about my years as a teacher, these are the lessons and the impact that come to mind.
As the Chief Public Strategies Officer at SAFE, I have had the honor of working with the Expect Respect Changing Lives program, which partners with Creative Action to teach AISD kids about healthy relationships. Utilizing high school actors, the Changing Lives program travels throughout the district performing their play to elementary, middle and high school students, and then facilitating a conversation after the performance about consent, violence at home, abuse, bullying, and creating healthy relationships. It is one of the most impactful programs we have at SAFE, in no small part due to the creative component.
2. What value, if any, do you think the arts and the Creative Learning Initiative have for students and teachers in Austin ISD schools? (e.g. student engagement, academic achievement and preparing students for college, career, life and the 21st century workforce).
In addition to building more creative thinkers and learners, we know that the arts and engagement in the arts allows students to process thoughts, feelings and lessons in new ways. Not only do the arts lead to increased social emotional capacity, but also to the ability to problem solve and address a variety of problems in myriad ways. I think about my son who hums the whole time that he is doing remote learning. I think about the art project that I did in college to get over a difficult breakup. I think about the graphic designer at work who explains agency successes through visuals and images. Art allows us to process ideas in new and often more impactful ways. Art as opportunity can be particularly true for children that struggle with traditional testing mechanisms, for students that are multilingual or working to learn a second language, and for kids that process ideas in nontraditional ways.
The Creative Learning Initiative provides these arts opportunities for students across the district, especially those in the most marginalized communities. During the 2018-2019 school year, for instance, Title I schools in AISD were almost three times more likely to meet the Creative Campus standard if they were a part of the CLI Program. CLI Title I elementary and middle schools also exposed students to more hours of community arts partnerships than any other schools in the district. I believe that as we work towards a more equitable school district, creative learning is a crucial component to achieve better learning outcomes for all students.
3. In what ways, if any, will the Visual and Performing Arts and the Creative Learning Initiative be a part of your priorities as a school board trustee?
For me, school can never be just about the core academics. Math and reading and science are key. But so many children learn these subjects in ways other than just reading a text and taking a test. I love that teachers now know to incorporate art and creative learning into standard learning subjects - drawing parts of the body, learning phonics through music, creating poems and art to remember math concepts. And I love that art and music and creative learning teachers are working with core academics teachers to bring those lessons into their lessons as well. Incorporating arts and creative learning into all subjects and all classes simply ensures that all types of learners will have better access to the materials and, therefore, more chance of success. While AISD is doing incredible work, there are also key community partners that could be a part of this work, including arts organizations, equity groups, museums, performance groups, and more.
4. What would a visual and performing arts program that values diversity and is committed to inclusion look like to you?
I think of the library at our elementary school library. When I was in school, the books in the library were not that diverse; frankly, there were a few books by African American authors on hand for Black History Month. The elementary school that my kids attend, however, has a library rich with a full range of books by diverse authors. The librarian (and other teachers) brings in authors and performers of all races, genders and ages to talk with the kids. And this could and should be happening at every school - in our libraries, in our music rooms, on our drama stage, in our art classrooms.
An anti-racist visual and performing arts program, implemented throughout the district, would not just study Frida Kahlo during Hispanic Heritage Month, or Jazz in February. A program that is committed to inclusion and diversity would incorporate lessons by a wide range of artists, and ask students to create using a wide range of inspiration. It would bring in art forms and arts from around the country, and around the world. An arts program that is dedicated to equity would hire (and retain) a wide range of teachers by implicitly and explicitly telling those teachers that they are respected and a key part of our learning community.
5. Please add any additional comments on the arts and the Creative Learning Initiative.
The arts and CLI expand the learning opportunities for all students, improve students’ academic and professional success, and ensure that students are motivated to continue schooling. They are key to a healthy student and to achieving a successful school district. Plus they help our district to nurture kids to be more open, more present, more creative, and just better humans.