Posted by: drrozkaplan | January 17, 2010

Letting Our Kids Express Themselves

On Thursday evening I had the privilege of attending the Arts Evening at my daughter’s high school.  I used to dread going to school music or art events.  Even the Arts Banquet at my son’s very progressive Quaker high school depressed me.  Not because the kids aren’t talented. Not because the teachers aren’t devoted.  The work was often very good- beautiful paintings and photographs.  Excellent choir, band and orchestra concerts.  Occasionally some very inspired theatrical performances.  And the kids had clearly had fun, at least by the time the display to the parents had ended.  I’m sure the rehearsals could sometimes be grueling and painful, as rehearsals often are.

The reason I dreaded the evenings was this:  I always left feeling something was missing.  These kids did nice work, but it always seemed formulaic.  I would see variations on the same art projects year after year, and hear slightly new interpretations of the same music over and over.  Acting technique had been taught and honed and nicely polished.  I’d seen and heard nice, pretty, well-crafted work.  But I didn’t get the sense that these kids had truly expressed themselves, been themselves, found anything out about themselves in the process of creating these works of art or shaping these performances.

That’s where Thursday night differed.  My daughter, Maddy, who is 16, goes to an ‘alternative’ high school.  It’s hard for me to explain her school to anyone who has no experience with such places.  She wasn’t thriving in public school, and it didn’t seem like one of the Quaker or other mainstream private schools would address the issues that made her detest school so much.  In 9th grade, she was simply falling through the cracks because her learning style was quirky and she felt like she ‘just didn’t fit in’.  I should have known in 8th grade when she got suspended for three days for writing a poem that had the words ‘Come in, go away/I love you, I want to stab you’ in it.  The teacher took it to the principal who said that she was making terroristic threats.  Never mind that the poem was not written to anyone in particular.   I tried to argue with the principal that it was artistic expression, and that maybe we should try to find out what she was upset about instead of suspending her, but there was no changing her mind- you can’t say ‘stab’ at school.  It’s like yelling ‘bomb’ in an airport, apparently.  (Just so you know, in her alternative school, they would have LOVED the poem and encouraged more of its kind.)

We looked at the few existing alternative schools in our area, a school that has only 100 kids from grades 7 to 12.  The school is full of kids who ‘travel to the beat of their own drummers’- bright, talented, interesting, but often the kind of kids who don’t fit in  at a school that values athletic prowess and linear thinking.  These are the kids whose light would be hidden under a bushel in a standard learning environment- the kids who may have been told in some  tacit way or another by the mainstream milieu and, sadly, by other kids, that they don’t count.

The students who end up at an alternative school are the lucky ones, because for each one of them, there are dozens like them left behind in the ‘mainstream’ environment, continuing to be marginalized.  These kids will either bear the misery of high school and make it out to college where they can finally shine their light, or they will slowly unravel during high school, and become depressed or use drugs, or express their pain in some other negative way.  Maybe if they are very lucky, they will have some outside activity that will help them keep their sanity.

But the kids who get to an alternative school like Maddy’s have something very special.  Not only do they have a community of like-minded people to be with, and finally find acceptance and kindness, but, as I saw at the Arts Evening, they find a place where they are allowed to be the people they are and develop the significant talents they have.  I walked away feeling like I KNEW something about the kids whose art and performance I witnessed.

The music I heard was not choral music.  It was the rock and folk and popular music that the students relate to.  Some of it had been written by the students.  They were in various small groups, singing (sometimes solos, sometimes harmony), playing acoustic and electric guitars, ukeleles, drums, basses, keyboards- the instruments they wanted to play, and the music they had chosen.  The dancers had choreographed their own pieces, all intended as reflections of self-expression- answers to the question, “Who am I?”  The one act play we watched was not just acted by the students, but also written by the students, and was about issues important to teens.

We also explored a gym that had been turned into an art gallery, full of paintings, blown glass pieces, and multimedia pieces, including a huge wall hanging with bicycle tire tracks.  I knew exactly whose piece that was, and I could guess who had constructed a square of protruding nails that appeared to be dripping with blood.

My daughter’s claim to fame that night was a 5-minute video called ‘The Laundromat’, in which she chronicled a story of hanging out in the local laudromat with her best friend and getting caught by the owner while sitting inside the industrial size dryers.  It had fantastic special effects and photography, and starred ‘The Hulk’ as the laudromat owner.  It showed off her sense of humor, storytelling prowess, and considerable technical skills.  It was a big hit.

Incidentally, Maddy is allowed to walk around school with her video camera, filming anytime and anything she wants, as long as she gets permission from anyone she catches on camera and as long as she puts the camera away during class.  She’s been asked to edit the school’s arts video for her tech project next year, and she’s planning on making a documentary about her school as the ‘creative expressions’ portion of the portfolio she must complete to graduate.

Of course, she has had to learn Math, English, History, various sciences and a language while in high school.  And as in any school, I sometimes hear the kids complain about tests or homework, or the way a teacher handles a particular issue.  But there is also daily morning meeting, an afternoon every week devoted to community service, and a social worker available for emotional and social concerns all day every day.  Teachers are called by their first names.  And the staff knows every kid and their ‘schtick’ – strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes- and tries to honor who they are as people.

I think that most kids do fine in ‘mainstream’ schools.  Some like them.  Personally,  I remember disliking a lot of things about high school.  My high school was very heavily oriented to sports, and I was anything but athletic.  I was one of only a few Jewish kids.  Being brainy was not socially valued, especially not if you were a girl interested in science.  So I definitely didn’t fit in.  But I managed, finding theater and music to keep me occupied and friends at another school.   I think a lot of kids who don’t like their schools manage in this sort of way.  But there are those who truly need something different.  Probably a lot more kids these days need this sort of alternative approach than can get it.  A lot of people don’t even know it exists.

And then there’s my question.  What if everyone got a little of that?  I think every kid should have a chance to really express himself.  I think we’d see a lot less unhappy teens.  Not that I know how to do it, but having had a taste, it’s hard not to think there should be a lot more of it.



  1. I think you would be very interested in The Art of Profiling and Rage of the Random Actor by Dan Korem. Much of what you referrenced above is explained in depth… why a certain population of our students today need the alternative education more than ever. Dan and I would be glad to have a conference call with you if you are interested.

  2. I looked up the books and you’re right- I am interested. I’ll email you to discuss further.


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