Vermont Arts Council

Anchored in Art

Madina Arbow has a bright smile and laughs often. She has a good eye for irony and is fun to talk with. On the day we met, she wore a light sweatshirt and had a bright scarf on her head—clear green with blue dots. Her clothing represented the mix of the cultures she has lived in since she was young. Madina started in American schools when she was nine; she had just come from Kenya as a refugee. She had been to elementary school in the camps, then to the “big school,” which is something like high school. Our conversation was about school here—the good and bad of it.

Her first description of Lawrence Barnes Elementary is a soft understatement, “It was different.” As she continues, something important comes out. “Well, I didn’t understand English.” I ask her what that’s like. “You feel alone, because you can’t communicate with anybody.” Then she talks about being bullied. Not by Americans, but kids in her own culture. She didn’t want to wear her scarf. She laughs, too, because these days she does want to wear her scarf. “They would say that I’m trying to be a Christian. They would like group together, say mean things in Somali and Maay Maay. And they would be like, ‘if you ever tell anybody, we’re going to beat you up.’ I couldn’t talk to the teacher.” Madina didn’t have words to talk to the teacher. “I felt on many days alone. I would just cry.” How long did it last? “Until I learned basic English, enough to communicate with my teachers.”

This doesn’t sound like a happy story. Many parts of it aren’t. Madina’s demeanor changed with every school she described and sometimes the words came out hard. But she had an arts face, too. That face that had “relief” written all over it and was punctuated with a smile.

Itsy Bitsy SpiderBring in the Arts

“…I learned faster through the songs.” The songs she is referring to are songs she learned in the ELL classroom. “I would sing those songs even though I didn’t know what they meant.” I ask her if she had favorites. “You know that song, the Itsy Bitsy Spider?” We sing some of it. She makes the finger-to-thumb hand motion and I join in. We laugh. She doesn’t know the name of the other favorite, but sings, “I’ll walk in the rain by your side…” In the way back of my mind I’m remembering this tune, then humming along with her. We sing the chorus together. “The wind will whisper your name to me. Little birds will sing along in time…” It’s For Bobbie—a song about never being alone. She loved the sound of these songs. “And the way my teacher sang, it was just so soft and gentle. I love her!” She beams. (Kudos to you, Kathy McLean—recently retired.) Madina recalls she later performed this song at a summer camp, even though, “I still didn’t know what it meant.”

The camp she is referring to is Camp Greylock; I wasn’t familiar with it. By her description, I began to think it’s an arts camp. “They had art, music, theater, and archery.” Archery? Now I’ve discovered Camp Greylock is actually oriented toward outdoor activities. But, it’s the arts that stand out for Madina. “My favorite area was the art class. Just drawing, not so much talking. You can talk through art; it has its own way with words.”Lawrence-Barnes-Mural

Her family moved after her first year of school. She changed schools and was no longer in ELL class all day. “It was just different.” I’m beginning to see “different” doesn’t imply much that is good or happy when Madina says it. She adds, “I liked the art classes. Art was my greatest strength.” One highlight for her was building a book that was her own version of “Charlotte’s Web.” Simply stated, “Fun.” I’m certain this fun was much needed.

FACT: Studies on arts education in elementary schools find that students from low socio-economic backgrounds, English language learners, and students with special needs—often underserved in public schools—realize particularly strong benefits through arts education. In particular, research finds that the communications skills of elementary English language learners (ELL) benefit to the greatest degree from arts-integrated instruction. Especially in elementary schools, where students may encounter English-only classrooms for the first time, studies find that arts education programs provide ELL students with an environment that supports risk-taking and helps students to practice and expand their English language skills.

Middle School

"You can talk through art; it has its own way with words."Madina used the word “horrible” and there are good reasons. “I guess it was the first time I dealt with race issues. It’s the first time I noticed I was black, you know, different from. There were some kids who said pretty racist things.” Now she had become friends with the Somali girls and was being bullied by the white kids. She recounts a time the Somali girls were punished as a group for something only some of them did, and says they were blamed for threats to the school they did not make. These are some bright points from middle school: An activity through VKAT (Vermont Kids Against Tobacco) where students from different cultures shared their background and stories. She showed her prayer rug and talked about how it was used. “You can’t talk about my culture without talking about my religion.” The ELL class did a big project about coming from Africa, what it was like to settle here, and what the students’ hopes for the future were. Madina told her story through MovieMaker—a project she was asked to share with the rest of the school. What were her hopes for the future at that time? “I wanted to be a math teacher then. But not now.” She still wants to be a teacher, but not math.

Research on arts education in middle schools find that students who participate in arts education develop habits and competencies of active, independent citizens. One study, for example, found that middle school students who participated in an arts-integrated community service project developed a greater understanding of the issues in their community and their power to contribute to creative solutions as artists, designers, and architects (Krensky, 2001). In another study, students who participated in a drama program aimed at moral development became interested in global issues and participated in activities that addressed social issues that they identified as important in their lives and the world around them (Gervais, 2006).

Then, BHS…

“Every year I started there was some kid I would bump into who would just say the most nastiest things to me or my friends.” Nasty means nasty. The N word. She said boys would call her and others “smelly Africans,” and tell them to “go back to your country.” Understandably, Madina notes, “I can’t say I liked the kids at the high school.” Another high point? “I liked the art class.” She found joy in still life and free drawing.

Henna body art on two hands

She also loved English. “I love to write. I love poetry. I like just making stories.” She enjoyed “Romeo and Juliet” in her freshman year—it’s no stretch to see how the story of long-standing conflict would speak to her. “The class didn’t have to, but I just liked that book so much that I volunteered to memorize excerpts.” She can still recite the balcony scene. She loved a unit on Freedom Writers (movie, journaling, storytelling) in her sophomore year.

Where Madina Rocks Some Henna

Madina does henna body art for her friends and family for weddings and other special occasions. She also makes her designs on paper, well, almost any time a pen is in her hand. Her aunt told one of her teachers about this and signed her up for an activity at Burlington High School. She sat at a table and offered henna. There was a long line in front of Madina all day. Madina concedes it was exhausting, but elaborates, “It was fun! I never made one pattern the same way.”

Analyzing arts education in high schools shows that participation in arts learning contributes to high school students’ self-efficacy and self-confidence. Studies find, in particular, that through the arts students become more visible to adults, peers, and community members, and that this outside recognition contributes to the development of increased responsibility and leadership skills. Several studies relate participation in the arts to positive self-esteem, citing students’ feelings of fulfillment, enjoyment, and confidence.

One of Madina’s ink designs on paper


Madina is is a college student at UVM and well on her way to becoming a middle school teacher. She has included drawing and dance in activities she has done with children at the Essex Tech Center and the Sustainability Academy. She won’t be a professional dancer, singer, or filmmaker. She won’t even charge for her body art. But as she reflected on this conversation, she said, “Art is a small thing, but it’s actually a huge thing. It’s a part of my identity.”

I agree with Madina; art is a huge thing. It’s often treated like a small thing. In this story, it is the sun that dried up some of the rain, and is likely to have helped Madina form her identity. One can only wonder where this young woman might be if her curriculum had included only science, technology, engineering, and math.

-Susan McDowell