Why Our High Schools Need the Arts

“A must-read for anyone who cares about dropout prevention, Dr. Hoffmann Davis’ latest book is laid out like a map of the developing teenage psyche, leading the reader to a clear understanding of why learning in the arts is critical to adolescent development and engagement in school.”

Kristen Paglia, Executive Director, Education and Programs at P.S. ARTS

why our high schools need the arts

It’s my great pleasure to be joined today by my graduate school mentor and founder of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jessica Hoffmann Davis. For anyone lucky enough to know Jessica in person, she’s a dynamic individual with a talent for breathing life into difficult topics through her easy manner and accessible conversation points.

In her most recent book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (Teachers College Press, 2011), Jessica argues that the arts “can give high school students a reason to attend and to stay in school.” If you know anything about the growing number of high school dropouts, this is a solution worth considering.

This book is a must-read for school administrators and education policy makers, but it’s also a call-to-action for concerned parents who hold the direction of a child’s future in their hands.

Why our high schools need the arts

Thanks for joining me today! Your book is full of descriptive narratives that capture the importance an arts-rich high school education. Can you share a favorite story from the book that exemplifies this point?

The story of a student coming out in a visual arts class is a great example of how the arts enable students to give shape to emotions and ideas that may be otherwise difficult to express. A fledgling visual art teacher had a student who was hiding her drawing all through the class. It was the drawing of two young women kissing. Finally, the student “meekly asked” if the teacher would allow her to continue the drawing. He was completely taken aback and replied, “I’m really not sure why you’re asking this question. It’s two people making out. They’re kissing. It’s a beautiful moment. So you want to know what I think? You need to punch up your shading around the jawlines if you want more drama. Those shadows should be directing the viewer’s eyes to the areas of the picture YOU want them to go to. Does that answer your question?” And with a big toothy grin, she just said, “Yes.”

As the parent of two small children who will one day become teenagers (eek!), I got a lot out of this book, particularly how to frame my passion for arts education for school administrators who have the power to make change. How do you hope parents, teachers, administrators, or policy makers will use this book?

I have been working the last several years on putting into words the things that make the arts essential to our children’s education AND (and this is important) what makes arts learning different from what students learn in their other classes. In this new book, as I did in an earlier one called Why Our Schools Need the Arts (2008), I delineate concrete aspects of the arts that give way to particular learning outcomes.. I hope this framework will help arts education advocates launch focussed and effective arguments. The arts are not frills. They are necessary in our children’s development and learning. For adolescents who are struggling with the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood, this is poignantly true. The arts give these students a reason to come to school and therefore, as I say in the book, can help reduce the drop out rate in our struggling high schools.

jessica hoffman davis and her grandson
Jessica watches her grandson paint

You’re the parent of THREE creative kids (now grown up). Can you tell us a little bit about how you raised your own children and what their high school art experiences were like?

I started early and introduced my sons to many hands on arts experiences and trips to art museums before they entered first grade. Although only one of them, my youngest, grew up to be a working artist, I do believe all three have a comfort with and love for art and a strong sense of the aesthetic. They also all had meaningful (if not extensive) arts encounters in high school. My oldest son, Josh eagerly performed in high school theatrical productions and I believe those experiences informed his love for public speaking—his debating in college and law school, and the presentations he does now as a lawyer, teacher, and talk radio guy. My middle son Alex, now an investment advisor, was very engaged in high school sports, but he loved the ceramics he got to do and he shows his little boy the pieces we have around the house with affection and I think still some real pride. My youngest, Benjamin, has always adored the arts and especially theater. He went to a high school where he had the chance to engage deeply in the visual arts and in theater and I think his role as Tevya (Fiddler on the Roof) senior year helped launch his career as an actor and master class teacher in L.A.

What books or websites are inspiring you right now?

One of the things that interests me at this stage of life is getting to know better the young person that I was. Perhaps by more than coincidence, since I’ve been studying high school aged students, I’ve been revisiting some of the books that I loved as a teen ager. I’ve been reading the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tender is the Night, and the Far Side of Paradise) which I adored at that age and it’s been a very dear experience. As much as I enjoy these works in a different way now, I vividly remember falling in love with the writer, feeling I was the person for whom Fitzgerald wrote these books. I’ve also been excited and inspired by the work of some of my former graduate students. For example, Deb Putnoi has a great new book that’s just out called The Drawing Mind: Silence Your Inner Critic and Release Your Creative Spirit and Caleb Neelon’s The History of American Graffiti is wonderful as is Jim Daichendt’s Artist-Teacher: A Philosophy for Creating and Teaching

why our high schools need the arts
High School Jessica plays guitar with friends

You conclude the book with the idea that if you ask any high school graduate what they remember from high school they will “tell you of the time they played Captain Hook in the school musical or the day their poem was read aloud in assembly…” A couple of my own strongest memories are of playing flute for the musical Guys and Dolls and painting in the art studio long after class was over…so this definitely rings true for me. When you think back to your own high school memories, what has stuck with you?

I remember profoundly the production of a play that I’d written in high school through which I learned a great deal about a friend of mine whose role (which of course I played) was at the center of the story. It was thrilling to hear the words I’d written spoken by the other students who acted in my play and exciting to have created an artistic whole with so many parts. I haven’t done anything like it since except that two summers ago here in New Hampshire where I live, I wrote and directed a play about a group of women going back for their fiftieth high school reunion and the excitement I felt as the audience laughed at the lines I’d written brought me back to that moment of theatrical excitement so many years ago.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Tinkerlab is wonderful. Congratulations. I’m delighted to be featured here. Thank you Rachelle. Also, if anyone would like to be in touch with me around my writing and/or any of the issues I address, please contact me via my website: jessicahoffmanndavis.com

Thank you so much, Jessica! It’s such an honor to share you and your work with my readers and I hope you’ll come back and talk with us again soon.


One lucky reader will be randomly chosen to receive a copy of Why Our High Schools Need the Arts. To enter, please leave a comment with your own fondest High School memory/ies by Sunday, May 6 at 9 pm PST. Prize recipient must have a U.S. address. Good luck! A winner has been selected. Thanks to everyone who entered.


  1. I definitely need to get my hands on a copy of this book. (I will be teaching HS Art next school year.) My fondest memory of my HS years was working in our amazing B and W photography Darkroom. My Photography teacher was an Industrial Arts Teacher, but he had a true passion for Photography and ran his Photo classes like an “Arts Class”. What a wonderful teacher!

    • Congratulations on the new job, Melissa! The photography room was another of my strong memories. What a cool experience for a kid to have. I can’t wait to hear more about the job!

  2. a month and a half into sophomore year, we moved high schools, we moved – from one small town (140? in the graduating class) to a smaller town (108? in the graduating class). I had *finally* found my niche and had made varsity as a field hockey center/midfielder. I made the varsity squad at the old school – but the coaches kept me on the JV squad and I played almost full games – so that once I moved, I was still eligible to play that season. We moved, the coaches recc. came with me, and the new coaches wouldn’t play me until we had practiced at least once. 2-3 weeks of practices were rained out. Only games were played and I was sidelined. When I finally played, I was rusty – I didn’t know anyone’s names on the team – 90% of my position was to pass and be passed to. It was frustrating, deflating, and essentially humiliating. I did what any self-respecting teenager would do. I quit. I walked out one day and left my (beloved) stick in the locker room – the expensive one I had begged and cajoled my parents for. Drama club took me in. I wasn’t interested in getting on stage, but technical crew filled some of my free time. It was a friendly and accepting group of people and I felt included. I’m not a talented artist, but I can paint a set like the best of them. By senior year I had my stride back, I was taking on leadership roles and mentoring the *new* kids. It was a welcoming place – much more so than the field hockey team. My only regret (both now & then) was not getting my hockey stick back…

    • What a great story, Emma. And such a good example of how the arts can help a child find their place and not feel alienated in school. I’m also sorry you didn’t get your stick back (and that the hockey team was so thoughtless of your needs). Thanks so much for adding this to the conversation!

  3. My fondest memories of high school were participating in a variety of sports and extra-curricular activities — you know, back in the days when it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to participate. Each sport or activity had its own built in personalities, but there was some level of competition and cooperation in all of them. An elective I didn’t have room for in my schedule was art, though I did lots of creative activities away from school. I’m trying to make sure my 4-year old niece is well-steeped in creativity. She has her own camera and stamps/inks/stickers/papers, and loves it all. This would be a perfect book for her, her parents and me. What a great concept! Thanks for shedding some much needed light on the subject.

    • Sports and the arts are so similar in this way, aren’t they? They offer kids a chance to be themselves and learn about who they are through exploration, teamwork, conversation, friendship, etc. Your niece is lucky that you’re guiding the way, Lucy!

  4. My fondest memory of high school was hanging out in my art teacher Mrs. S’s classroom! I learned to be creative and had fun exploring a wide variety of art media. I was exposed to new music, artists and fun people. Mrs. S kept me coming back to school and wanting to learn more!

    • Thanks for sharing, Amy! My HS art classroom was also the funnest place to hang out. It was an open-exploration and we could do ceramics, painting, or photography — totally up to us and wonderful!

  5. My fondest memory of middle school was the Saturday Art class. We got to paint murals in the school and eat lunch in the teachers lounge. It was the BEST part of school. We felt like we were in control of the whole school. It was such an awesome program.

    • Ooooh, a Saturday art class. How cool is that? I wonder if schools are still doing that. Was this a private school, Sarah?

  6. Thanks, Rachelle, for featuring Jessica’s new book. It looks wonderful!
    My fondest memory from high school was being in jazz band–everything from the early morning practice sessions to the friendships forged on long bus rides to performances and competitions all over the place, including Disneyland! To this day, I’m still proud of the music we made together in that jazz band! My bass guitar and my HS diploma are two of the few physical artifacts I still have from those days 🙂

  7. Must have a copy of this book!!! Been trying for a while to relate this concept to students and parents. My fondest highschool memory wouldbe getting involved in the arts… Being in plays and going to fine arts competitions were so much fun for me!!!

  8. Your interview definitely sparked my interest in Jessica’s book. It sounds full of interesting thoughts to ponder as I raise my child. Everyone tells me public school is no longer the same and arts is one of the first programs to go. Such a same. Good for you and Jessica for bringing this subject to everyone’s attention.

  9. As a child I was in AP art at the art magnet school in Austin Texas. I also worked on the yearbook and the literary magazines. I can’t imagine high school with out these programs. Some of my best memories were made in these rooms up to my elbows in paint or newsprint. I learned how to screen print, how to work with clay, metal, oil pastels, and paint. All things I still do to this day.

  10. oh my, fondest high school memory … hmm, mine are probably all from one class. Recycled Jewelry Making … I “accidentally” skipped an entire elective during the first half of my junior year. I naively thought my free period would last all year, but come the second half of school when we switched electives there was nothing left open for me. I was placed in the recylced jewelry making class as a sort of punishment. It was a special education class just before lunch and meant I also had to eat lunch with those students. Being placed in that class and working with those amazing kids and really getting to know them and being able to communicate their point of views to other kids in the cafeteria or on the school grounds made quite the impression on me. By far, my favorite part of high school and a very happy “accident”.

  11. One of my favorite classes in high school was called “Crafts” in which we made pottery using a wheel, batik T-shirts, metal jewelry. I almost didn’t take that class because my guidance counselor said it would hurt my class rank. He suggested I take another AP class, so I would remain in the running for the top 5 percent of the class. I decided to ignore his advice, felt happy staying in the top 10 percent of the class instead, and have never regretted it!

  12. Thank you! I just picked up “The Drawing Mind” from the library! This topic is a fascinating topic to me. As a student in high school I took the typical college prep courses. I only took one art class and that was a year-long study of various art forms, from batik to ballet to rug hooking. I loved that class! Because I was a smart girl I was encouraged to go into engineering, which I did study in college. My schedule was so tight I had little room for electives. When I finally had room my senior year for one elective, I took a watercolor class. Again, that is the class I look back upon most fondly! Now I enjoy creating – mainly sewing and knitting – but I feel a deep need to create and wish I could have explored many more creative arts in my high school and college years. My own kids have been surrounded by arts, crafts and music. All of them had musical theater experiences starting in grade school. I struggle with the mandates on the high school curriculum, though. It leaves very little room for arts exploration. We push and push our kids to get into colleges….when they could grow by experiencing other kinds of classes. For this reason, I’m letting my daughter not take a 3rd year of French class so she can take an art class (in addition to orchestra.)

    • (Sorry, my comment posted before I was done)
      I loved playing in the Jazz band in high school. We had to meet early, before school started, and that 45 minutes always seemed to rush right by.

  13. High school art class was the best! I was always covered with paint. I figured my friends wouldn’t recognize me if there wasn’t paint on my hands. I was thrilled to be able to go to a special magnet school for the arts my senior year. Three class periods of pure joy! My other 3 classes were English 12, advanced writing, and humanities. My writing teacher had just gotten her PhD in English, and my humanities teacher was working on her PhD in art history. My senior year influenced me for the rest of my life, since I’m now an art historian. My daughter wants to major in art in college. High school without art would have been miserable!

  14. Jessica,
    I was a dancer and remember participating in all the high school plays and performances. Being a part of the after school dance program was a very important part of my high school memories.
    I now teach pottery to high school girls at risk.

    • Alida, How great that you discovered for your self how important arts learning can be and that now you share the gift. Am sure your students will move from risk to promise. Right on. Jessica

  15. Awesome article! Brought to mind some of my fondest memories of high school. I remember being involved in our one-act play “Dark Side of the Moon”. I was part of the crew because I was too shy to try out for a part, but I was mesmerized by the students playing their roles. Eventually, I started doing make-up and costumes. This was my way of getting on stage. I am now an art teacher at Eagle Pass High School, and I sponsor the Art Club. I get to see first hand how the Arts impact a students life, and how they can turn a troubled teen around.

  16. I definitely need to get my hands on a copy of this book too.
    I am an art teacher and also teach art educationto grade 6 to grade8.
    I established well-equipped art laboratory for first time in my school.I, as a teacher of Visual arts, focus on to display true spirit of this dynamic subject by attracting the students towards its beauty, craft, skill and lofty purpose of spreading message of peace and happiness through lines and colors I have a desire to extend art educationfrom middle to secondary and intermedate level classes of my setup. So I need a soft copy of this book.
    Abbas Ali

  17. I am an art teacher and also teach art educationto grade 6 to grade8.
    I established well-equipped art laboratory for first time in my school.I, as a teacher of Visual arts, focus on to display true spirit of this dynamic subject by attracting the students towards its beauty, craft, skill and lofty purpose of spreading message of peace and happiness through lines and colors I have a desire to extend art educationfrom middle to secondary and intermedate level classes of my setup. So I need a soft copy of this book for the promotion of are education in my country(Pakistan)too.
    Abbas Ali

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