Educators from across Utah gathered recently with one goal in mind: to improve student health and learning through the arts. The Learning Edge is an annual conference produced by the BYU ARTS Partnership and the BYU–Public School Partnership for elementary administrators and teachers.
With three breakout sessions and twenty classes to choose from, the 2019 conference aimed at integrating the arts into the Utah Core Standards, encouraging creativity, and prioritizing mental health. In between breakout sessions, a keynote speaker and several performers spoke to all the attendees.
The keynote speaker was Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She earned a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard University in 2005 and trained with Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in her 2018 postdoctoral work.
During her address, Immordino-Yang explained the main purpose of education shouldn’t be learning but development. She believes that education systems need to help children develop into their best selves. “If the learning that they're doing doesn't help them be more whole as a person—more skilled as a person, more thoughtful, more able to live their lives in a purposeful, ethical, agentic, and skillful way—then why are we doing it?”
Immordino-Yang said children gain the ability to innovate, create, and imagine by interacting with each other and society. “Our social interactions with one another—which at first are purely direct and physical and over time become cultural and mental and artistic and symbolic—are literally teaching our brains how to grow.” Social, emotional, and cognitive skills are all developed when children build relationships with loved ones and express themselves within society. One of the best ways for children to interact with others is through creating art together.
The first performer was Bil Lepp, who uses storytelling to help children and teachers build relationships and express themselves. As the five-time winner of the West Virginia Liar Contest, many know Lepp as a professional liar. The rest of the world knows him as a professional storyteller. During the conference, Lepp shared several of his tall tales, each of which sounded like modern-day folklore, reminiscent of the legends schoolchildren tell each other on the playground.
In the classroom, storytelling is a great way to improve public speaking skills and learn about puns, hyperbole, similes, and other literary devices. Lepp shared his formula for creating stories with attendants to help them become better storytellers. He starts each story with a relatable beginning, such as attending gym class, then ends with an outlandish climax, such as hanging from a telephone wire by his tongue with a dog and a bear.
“I think that all good storytelling is an extension of the kitchen table, or the front porch, or wherever it is that you have conversations,” said Lepp. “All good storytelling is a conversation. I'm not speaking at you. I'm speaking with you.”
The second performer was Alex Boyé, a British-American artist known for his unique infusion of pop music, dynamic visuals, and African influences. He is also the founder of the suicide prevention project Bend Not Break. Boyé is using his music to start conversations about mental illness in Utah middle schools and high schools.
Boyé performed several songs, including “Bend Not Break,” a new song on his album Coming to Amerika. Before “Bend Not Break”, he shared the process of writing it. After he finished recording his new album, Boyé received a strong impression that he had to write and record one more song. He returned to the recording studio that night, and within 30 minutes, he had written “Bend Not Break,” a song meant to encourage those struggling with mental illness.
During the conference, Boyé recalled the powerful experience he had writing that song. “From that day on, I knew that there was more to me than just music. I realized why God gave me this gift. It wasn't necessarily to entertain, but to use my platform to bring attention to certain messages, certain things that need to be addressed in ways that sometimes are uncomfortable.”
The song’s title inspired the name of the Bend Not Break project. Boyé’s goal for the project is to partner with Utah middle schools and high schools to give free concerts that talk about mental illness. Boyé wants to collaborate with principals and teachers to create opportunities that help students and start those crucial conversations. “Now all of a sudden my mission has changed,” he said. “It's not about entertainment anymore.
Several times during his performance, Boyé left the stage to interact with teachers. For his final song, he invited teachers to join him on stage to dance.
While Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Bil Lepp, and Alex Boyé all had different approaches for integrating the arts into education, they all had the same goal: to help students be the best versions of themselves. As the 2020 Learning Edge Conference approaches, each teacher can make it their mission to improve student learning and health in the classroom through the arts.
Writer: Emma Smith
Photos: Taylor Garrett
Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922