Equity and Social Justice

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Tien Vo, teacher at White Center Heights Elementary; photo by Stefanie Felix
Tien Vo, teacher at White Center Heights Elementary; photo by Stefanie Felix

White Center Heights Elementary is one of four Highline Public Schools participating in Arts Corps’ federally funded Highline Creative Schools Initiative. This innovative program, which launched in classrooms this fall, deepens classroom engagement by teaming teachers with Arts Corps’ teaching artists to integrate art projects into writing lessons. One White Center Heights Elementary school teacher participating in this program is Tien Vo.

Having grown up in Highline, Tien personally understands many of the challenges her students face. “My students have millions of things on their minds before they come to school. It could be their fathers being deported, financial problems, not being well fed at night. Because they come from poorer, underserved neighborhoods and speak English as a second language, their self-confidence can be really low. They often feel they are not as good or as worthy as other students. Those challenges also give my students strong character and unique insights that other students might not have. I know that because I came from this neighborhood, White Center. I was an English language learner myself, and I remember feeling lost in school a lot. But every time there was art in a classroom, I never felt I had to take a back seat.”

In fact, Tien credits her own fifth and sixth grade teachers’ use of arts and project based learning as a turning point in her own education, helping her experience success and leadership in the classroom and building her academic self-confidence. She sees it having the same effect on the children she teaches. That is why Tien believes arts education in schools is an issue of social justice.

Arts education goes way beyond painting pictures in the classroom,” she says. “It is about leveling the field for kids. Students in low income areas are the first to have art removed from their curriculum, because many adults see art as fun but not essential. So all the students who are visual or are creative thinkers lack an outlet to show what they can do and develop their skills. Math and language skills are important, but children need a variety of outlets if they are going to be able to compete and succeed as adults.”

She recalls a creative lesson she facilitated with her students. “Many of my students have limited writing skills, so writing a four or five paragraph essay would be a lot of hard work for them. So, I incorporated art into the lesson by having the students start with creating comic books instead. Once the students finished with their drawings, I asked them to write out a couple of paragraphs describing what is going on with the characters in their comic books. That is all they needed; the writing just poured out. A lot of kids were now able to express themselves and succeed because we started first with art, and art is exciting.”

And so, asked how she feels about art in her classroom as part of the Highline Creative Schools Initiative, Tien answers: “Art is going to save us. It can fire a love of learning among children tired of just being fed facts. It makes children feel they have a voice. It is a way they can share their stories, and that gives them a chance to heal. They see themselves in the paintings, poems or skits they produce. When they can see all the other amazing things they can do, they get these “aha” moments that light up their face. And their self-confidence just soars.”

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