written by Hannah Beach - December 13th, 2022
This weekend I went to the Handel’s Messiah sing-a-long and I sang my heart out for two and half hours. As I sat there, surrounded by so many voices in harmony, I was reminded of how good it feels to sing in community. I realized how long it has been since I sang with others and how the experience of being immersed in a sea of voices was both emotional as well as deeply connecting. In the intermission, in the (very) long line-up for the washroom, people were chatting warmly with those they had never met. The atmosphere was different from the washroom line up at the craft fair I attended earlier this week. There was a sense of warmth between us, even though we didn’t know one another. I was reminded of the power of art as a tool, not only for personal release, but also for connecting one another and building community.
From the very beginning of time—as we drew on cave walls, danced around fires, shared stories, sang songs, and sculpted clay—adults and children alike have been expressing themselves through the arts.
Humans are wonderfully filled with emotion. We have a deep need to express what is inside of us so that we may become known and make visible our inner worlds. This expression has served both to help us individually make sense of who we are and to bring us into the world of another. This expression is where we may feel our emotions as we listen to music that moves us. Through this expression, we often come to experience our humanity together—like the goosebumps one can get from singing side by side or the experience of sitting silently in a hushed theatre with hundreds of people as we watch a play that speaks to the intimacies of being human.
The arts are extraordinary tools that we can use to highlight our similarities and unite students in their shared humanity. They create experiences that can allow our students to see themselves in each other regardless of ability, religion, culture, race, and background. These experiences become both a container for discovery and connection and the cord that connects us to our personal and shared humanity.
There is a new awareness dawning in understanding the profound effect that the arts can have on the emotional health and well-being of our communities. A global paradigm shift is emerging from seeing the arts as “extra” to beginning to understand the extraordinary power that the arts have to connect us. It might be surprising to us, as we are now having to consciously examine what is needed to bring back emotional health to our communities. But if we stop and look at what culture has provided for us for thousands of years, we might begin to see that the rituals and practices that were woven into our lives were not coincidental.
Cultures are created over time, holding the wisdom of what is needed to sustain the emotional health of individuals and communities. This is probably why every traditional culture had rituals of singing, sharing stories, and dancing together. They all had expressive outlets that brought people together to release what needed to be released and to share in the collective reflection of what it means to be human.
This is the powerful thing about a culture when it is intact. One then doesn’t have to think about ritual and release, as the culture takes care of us. It is not on our individual shoulders¹. Only when our culture starts to unravel may we start to realize, “Oh, that’s why we had a day of rest . . .” or “Oh that’s why people have always traditionally eaten together . . .” or “Oh, that’s why people throughout history have gathered together to witness great drama through theatre as well as collectively dance, tell stories, and sing.”
We may see remnants of this in our mainstream culture in times of celebration and grieving, as these most marked times in our lives still call forth within us this need for expressive connection and a safe place to feel. But, in general, our Western culture has lost the rituals that were embedded to take care of us individually and socially. And now that this cultural wisdom is no longer holding us up and holding us together in the same way, we find ourselves needing to be more intentional, as we are not coping. We have students who are more disconnected, anxious, and shut down than ever. We have more cliques than communities.
People are beginning to look back to this old wisdom and understand the benefits of bringing these expressive, connecting outlets to our students. I have seen incredible shifts in empathy that have arisen from students engaging in these expressive outlets together. This happens when they have regular, consistent times in which they get to experience their humanity together and do so in the safety of our warm leadership.
The arts can make our classrooms the opposite of cool. They can help our classrooms to become full of warmth and feeling. When we participate in the arts through exploration mode, our senses are heightened, our minds are opened, our hearts are softer, and we can feel what it is to be fully alive. The arts can wake us up. And when we experience them together, they can wake us up to each other.
In the warmth of a safe classroom, we can use great literature, storytelling, rap, visual art, dance, drama, music, and singing to help our students get a glimpse of what being human means from a place of feeling. When we can bring our students to a place where they can feel this, they are more apt to shift internally. Traditional culture reveals that change does not come from knowing but from feeling. For example, we can know people are starving in our world, but that doesn’t mean we do anything about it. We must feel something about it. We must be moved. And art—in all its forms—has the capacity to transport us to a place of feeling and, if experienced together, to move us towards one another.
So, this holiday season I encourage you to find ways to be human together. Nothing fancy. No perfection needed. In fact, just the opposite. Keep it simple and make it easy:
Sing together: Simply sing some songs together! Even if not every child joins in and sings every song, the fact is, everyone gets to feel the joy of all the voices surrounding them.
Share stories: Read aloud stories that tug at our hearts, or listen to some together as a class. You might find it helpful to shift the mood of the environment during this special time to create a sort of bubble around it. It then feels like a separate time, somewhat magical, that sets it apart from the rest of the day. This could be anything from dimming the lights and turning a light on only where you are reading, to moving the desks to different places where everyone can be more relaxed, lying down on gym mats, or turning on strings of coloured lights. I select what mood shifters I want depending on the age and specific needs of the students. Additionally, many students find it challenging to listen and not move their bodies, so offer everyone paper and a pencil to quietly doodle while listening. This can ground the students who need to move a bit more.
Eat together: Since the dawn of time, we have come together to eat as a way to build community. Have a potluck or bring in something to share. Make the experience feel festive by putting on music (include diverse music from other cultures that celebrates a wide variety of traditions, rhythms and music.) Have the students help to build a playlist! Consider stringing up lights and/or working alongside the class to decorate for the occasion to make the experience feel special. As my mother used to say (which has now become a family in-joke we often lovingly repeat) … eating is not simply a refueling but rather a celebration of coming together.
Enjoy coming together, in whatever ways work for you.
¹You can read more about this in my book (co-authored by Tamara Strijack), Reclaiming our Students, Chapter 20 – Cultural Wisdom Lost and Found.