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Building creative capacity: Arts education in the 21st century (Part 1)

Several months ago, four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education deliberated how to advance education from a passive institution to a driving force that develops essential learning and life skills. Brought together from four countries by Harvard, the role of art in each of their personal narratives inspired them to choose art as the agent of change. They formed Creative Capacities International, using music, dance, spoken word poetry, and visual arts to teach critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity. From an idea in a classroom in Cambridge, they have recently brought the transformative power of the arts to the remote foothills of the Himalayas and dirt-floored classrooms on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is the first post in a four-part series on arts education.

By Jingqiu Guan, Ed.M. ’12

Bouncing in a hot dusty bus on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica, little did I know my life was about to change. In the intimacy of navigating a foreign country and sharing adventures and mishaps, I told a fellow student and new friend, Shua, how I had given up a fully funded MFA program in dance performance to complete a M.Ed. program in International Education Policy at Harvard, and my chagrin at giving up one passion in order to pursue the other.

Jingqiu Guan (center top) with her students.

Dancing had shaped who I was, both outwardly and inwardly. It taught me perseverance, confidence and expression as I strove to consistently improve. I practiced problem-solving through choreography and teamwork in performances. I knew how dance how changed my life, but not yet how it could be used to change others’ lives.

As our bus wove through small herds of goats and over rubble, our lives began to intertwine. Shua told me how teaching visual art in Ghana had transformed the way she viewed the potential impact of the arts. Terryl, another student, overheard our conversation and joined in, sharing how he had used literary art to give low-income urban youth in the U.S. a voice. We had all experienced the transformative power of the arts. We began to talk, to dream and eventually to take action.

Upon returning to Harvard, we were joined by a fourth student. All pursuing our Master’s in education, we’d participated in many discussions of the importance of equipping students with 21st century skills and of closing the gap between what is learned in school and the skills needed in a globalized world. The four of us began to articulate our idea—using the engaging and exciting aspects of art to teach tangible life skills.

On that same Jamaica trip, I found out my reapplication to the MFA program had been accepted and that I would have another chance to pursue a dance education. Yet without my time at Harvard, I would have never discovered how to combine my love for dance with my desire for working in international development. With the people and passion that made it possible, our idea became a reality in the founding of Creative Capacities International, where we have since been using dance and art to change the lives of students around the world.

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