Youth Performers Enjoy More Than Spotlight
Behold the Tiny Tims, sugarplum fairies, angels and shepherds on stages across the Triangle this month. The holiday season is a prime opportunity for youth performers to share their skills, enthusiasm and, in many cases, extraordinary talent with the world. But just as the majority of youth athletes will never snag multimillion-dollar pro sports contracts, neither will most youth performers go on to Hollywood or Broadway.
That doesn’t make their experiences — or those of students who participate in public speaking programs such as speech and debate — any less valuable. Indeed, educators in the fields of performing arts and public speaking say these disciplines confer a host of benefits on children and teens. These advantages go beyond the increase in confidence and maturity that many parents and educators observe of children who sing, play an instrument, act, dance or speak before an audience.
If you’re wondering whether to sign up your child for music lessons, or encourage her to take a theater elective in middle or high school, consider the other advantages of participating in performing arts and public speaking activities.
Experiencing Intellectual Stimulation
When Judy Dove was teaching drama at Leroy Martin Gifted and Talented Magnet Middle School in Raleigh during her 19 years there, she says she always got a kick out of hearing how well her students did on pretests in their language arts and social studies classes. She wasn’t necessarily surprised, she says, because she picked plays and musicals that related to the subjects and time periods students were studying in their core classes.
Even when arts electives aren’t integrated with the core curriculum, students can reap intellectual benefits. “Research is also part of the performing arts,” says Dove, who is now an advisory board member and office administrator for North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, and secretary of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “While they’re learning their parts, kids are also learning about the time period (of the play or show), the history surrounding it, and new vocabulary words and how to pronounce them.”
Theater, in particular, also offers tweens and teens opportunities to enhance their writing skills. Many school-based theater programs produce original plays or musicals written entirely by students. Dove recalls a year when her students wrote and performed a musical called “Caught in the Middle,” which focused on the lives of middle-schoolers during the Civil War. They did everything themselves, from research and scriptwriting to picking out the music: Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” which Ken Burns used as the theme song of his 1990 historical documentary series on PBS, “The Civil War.”
“They took ownership of the process,” Dove says, noting that the production earned a “superior” rating at that year’s North Carolina Theatre Conference competition.
The intellectual benefits of taking speech or debate classes, or of being on speech and debate teams, are perhaps more obvious. Even if a kid never grows up to give a TED Talk or spar with a fellow political candidate on stage, learning how to research and analyze a topic as part of crafting an argument or delivering a persuasive or entertaining talk will bear fruit for years to come, say speech and debate educators.
“Being on the team is revolutionary for them academically,” says Jeff Welty, head coach of Durham Academy’s high school speech and debate team. “For sure, one of the best things team members learn is to skeptically consider arguments — identifying biases, separating the wheat from the chaff.”
Durham Academy’s speech and debate team, which consists of about 50 members, meets twice a week to practice, and most of the team’s focus is getting ready for the next competition. Students choose events they want to participate in, such as podium speaking, interpretive speech, and individual or team debate.
“The time commitment is worth the payout,” Welty says, adding that many team members go on to pursue college-level speech and debate competition, and more than a few parlay their skills into careers in public service or law. A former speech and debate team member himself, Welty is a lawyer who, when not coaching debate, teaches government at the University of North Carolina School of Government in Chapel Hill and directs the North Carolina Judicial College there.
Identifying Reliable Sources
One reason English teacher Jennifer Bennett agreed to become the coach of Raleigh-based Sanderson High School’s speech and debate team is because she was dismayed by the lows to which public discourse sank during the 2016 presidential election.
Bennett encourages student debaters to be careful when researching a topic. Not only do they need to know both sides of an argument, she says, they must also use credible sources. “Otherwise, the other team will call you on the carpet,” she says.
Student debaters have an advantage over other students whose research isn’t frequently being put on the spot.
“Getting used to evaluating sources is especially important in this day and age, when kids don’t seem to have the persistence to find the best sources,” Bennett says.
Building Leadership Skills
Luke Ramee may only be 11 years old, but he’s already mentoring kids as young as 6 as a veteran member of the Raleigh Boychoir, which is open to boys in grades 1-12. Luke, a sixth-grader at Cary Academy, enjoys helping younger chorus members feel more at home.
Modeling good manners during snack time — a longtime fixture of the choir’s weekly practices — is just one way Luke is developing good leadership skills, says his mother, Heather Ramee. Luke adds that being on his best behavior while touring with the choir is also an opportunity to set a good example for younger boys.
Photo courtesy of the Raleigh Boychoir
For college-bound high-schoolers, participating in extracurricular arts- or speech-related activities for several years, especially if they serve in a leadership role, also looks good on a college application to admissions officers who prefer depth over breadth. So a student who served as an officer for her school marching band for three or four years might be more appealing on paper than an applicant who tried a little of this and that.
Feeling a Sense of Belonging
Then there’s the camaraderie, which both Luke and his mom appreciate. “One of the best benefits is making a whole lot of new friends,” Luke says of his experience with the Raleigh Boychoir.
Just as being on a sports team or in a social fraternity instills a sense of belonging, so, too does participating in an extracurricular performing arts or speech program.
Dove says watching the way some students turned their lives around by “finding their tribe” was perhaps the most rewarding part of teaching theatre for her. She remembers one young man who was on the verge of quitting school, so she encouraged him to enroll in her technical theater class, which focused on the backstage aspects of a production.
“He said, ‘Mrs. Dove, I used to think I was the kid who couldn’t do anything, but in the theater, there’s a place for everyone,’” she recalls.
Suzanne Wood is Raleigh-based writer and mother of three.