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MSLCE Student Paige Lester Gets Insight from Arts Education Experts at Summer Leadership Retreat

By Paige Lester

I’m sitting in the back of a conference room full of people I don’t know, running on minimal sleep, and have a million thoughts racing through my mind about my tasks for the day. The group is discussing the difficulties of integrating art into their schools and curriculum, when…

“Art is the thing. It’s not a part of the thing, not on top of the thing, but the thing.”

I feel wide awake and I cannot take my eyes off of the presenter. A tenured principal in CPS and founder of a school system in Memphis, she has captured the minds and hearts of every single person in that room. From that moment on, I knew the Summer Leadership Retreat was going to be a week I would never forget.

I consider myself to be so fortunate to have grown up surrounded by the arts. My parents, though both medical professionals, are patrons of the arts of all kinds and were adamant about my brother and I having not only exposure to, but experience with all types of creative outlets. We had music classes in our public schools, but most of my training happened outside of school hours.  This was something different. Turnaround Arts uses every minute of its Summer Leadership Retreat to expose, train, and prepare teachers and principals to integrate the arts into everyday learning. Using music to learn math, theater to understand history, you name it. Often times the arts are thought of us an add-on; “if we have time, we’ll do some music”, or “if we find the money, we’ll buy some art supplies”. How refreshing, and inspiring, it was to be surrounded by 250 people that nodded quietly in agreement when they heard,

“Art is the thing. It’s not a part of the thing, not on top of the thing, but the thing.”

These teachers, working in the toughest areas and conditions our country has to offer, not only believe in the arts, but they see firsthand the effects they have on each and every one of their students. While progress looks different on everyone, these teachers are learning to get rid of the phrase “my kids can’t because,” and find creative ways to help their kids find their purpose.

We’ve all heard the phrase “do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life.” I won’t say that this summer hasn’t felt like work, but what it has felt like is important work. No matter how long the days or how small the contribution, I know that piece by piece, I am contributing to the movement that is helping set thousands of kids up for success. And if they’re singing and dancing while doing it, even better.