We Are All the Same: Teaching Empathy Through the Arts

As the 2013 calendar year winds down, we here at Children Mending Hearts (CMH) are preparing to wrap up our fall semester of programming. It's been a very busy semester with CMH Global Arts programs in session at six sites with 17 classes between them. In addition to the expansion of our two core classes, "Fine Arts -- Haiti" and "Photography -- Haiti," this semester also introduced two fun new art tracks: "Anime -- Japan" and "Textile Arts -- Kenya."

The CMH Global Arts after school programs utilize arts education to enhance our students' understanding of the world by pairing an art modality with an international country of focus. Through learning about children their age who live in other countries and being given the freedom to express themselves through art, the students gain a sense of empathy and global citizenship that will stay with them for a lifetime. This is what we do; this is what we believe in. And as this semester (and the year) draws to a close, we find ourselves reflecting on our work -- why we do what we do.

On a basic level, we are teaching children about another country. Our curricula spotlight the ways people in other countries are different from us -- through food, culture, and music, for example. But, more significantly, the lessons also illustrate that in the most important ways we are all the same. Then the students take a hands-on approach and really absorb the new information and perspectives by engaging in unique art projects, being creative just like kids in another country might do. This process encourages tolerance by teaching understanding. It is this understanding -- this practice of empathy -- that we are working to cultivate and advance.

Arts programs are invaluable to the future of our children, both here in the U.S. and around the world. According to The Education Fund, students involved in arts education are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and three times more likely to be awarded for school attendance. Curricular and extracurricular art studies and activities help keep high-risk dropout students in school. And research shows that not only does studying the arts improve skills in math and reading, but it also promotes creativity, social development, personality adjustment, and students' feeling of self-worth (NASBE Study Group on the The Lost Curriculum).

Think about that. Inherently, the act of creating art is transformative. It changes the way people feel about themselves and the world around them. It has even helped cancer patients mitigate pain and other treatment-related symptoms. This is nothing short of miraculous. And there is nobody on the planet more primed to learn and grow in a positive, meaningful way than a child. So by giving youth the opportunity to express themselves creatively, Children Mending Hearts aims to empower our future generation, one child at a time.

Two of our core (and very popular!) Global Arts programs are the Fine Arts and Photography tracks. In both of these courses students learn about children in Haiti -- daily life, culture, and difficulties they face due to economic circumstance and the effects of natural disaster. In the fine arts track, art learning projects include making recycled toys and papier-mache masks. In the photography track, students learn the basics of photography such as lighting and framing, as well as the importance of photojournalism. They put this learning to use with photo projects that ask them to document their lives, taking pictures of each other and the world around them.

In addition to a big program expansion, the other big news of the 2013 fall semester is the launch of two new art tracks in the CMH Global Arts program: "Textile Arts -- Kenya" and "Anime -- Japan." In the Textile Arts class, the kids get crafty learning all about Kenya and the rich textile arts landscape that country offers. Then the kids delve into unique craft projects such as designing stamps on wooden blocks to make patterned fabric and molding colorful beads out of clay.

The other new track implemented this semester is the Anime class. Japan is highlighted in this program with lessons teaching students how similar Japan is in many ways to Southern California -- the geography and prevalence of earthquakes, for example. Students also get to learn the basics of Manga illustration -- a type of drawing often featured in Japanese comic books and anime. Ultimately, students will work toward creating their own anime characters!

In learning about other cultures and youth just like them in foreign countries, the kids in the CMH Global Arts after school programs are changed in a grand way by becoming global citizens. The countries they learn about no longer seem as foreign and the students, now seeing that people around the world are truly just like them, are more outwardly focused and primed for a lifetime of the desire to understand and help others. And we can't think of anything more important to our future than giving our youth the tools to grow into ambitious and creative individuals who relate to one another in meaningful, powerful ways.

What a busy and fulfilling semester it has been. Still a few more weeks to go! We are bursting with pride and can't wait to see the hard work of the talented students and global citizens at their final exhibits. Check in with the Children Mending Hearts website and blog to learn more about the programs and see photos of the students' work.