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Harness the Power of Student Voices

A photo of the rotunda of the PA state capitol

|  by Cory Wilkerson  |

Each year when we launch the DemocracyWorks Essay Competition I fondly recall the time it took my students to get me into Pennsylvania state capitol building! I must confess, at the time, I had yet to set foot in my own state capital, known for its grand beauty. And I certainly had never thought of visiting to advocate for anything.

So, it was ironic that it took my students to get me there. That was well over 15 years ago, but in my memory, it is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. I was a middle school theatre teacher in a mostly rural district when my students were asked to perform a scene from their recent production of Alice in Wonderland as a part of a giant advocacy event for arts education. Their performance would be, you guessed it, in the rotunda of the state capitol.

On the designated day, the hallways were filled with young people singing, dancing, performing, and sharing their artworks. Meanwhile, teams visited with state legislators and made the case for funding for the arts and education. Because you see, the organizers understood the importance of student voices as the most powerful advocacy tool in their toolbox.

We performed and took pictures. The students answered questions and smiled for the local news. The day itself was mostly a blur, but what did stand out was the powerful response. Our theatre program grew (we were now “famous”), but more importantly, so did our students. For perhaps the first time, they were able to see the power of their student voices.

It is a heartwarming memory for me to recall whenever we begin to plan for the March celebration of theatre in our schools and the EdTA DemocracyWorks essay contest. DemocracyWorks is a chance harness the power of student voices. A chance for them to be heard and magnified, because we here at EdTA know that youth often have the most powerful ideas.

DemocracyWorks Eligibility

DemocracyWorks combines an international essay contest with more formal advocacy training. It culminates in facilitated visits with Washington legislators on Capitol Hill. (This year virtually.) Any inducted member of the International Thespian Society (by March 1, 2022) who is enrolled in middle or high school during the 2021-22 school year may submit an essay. The winning essay will be published by and in addition to a cash prize, the winner will become one of the EdTA representatives at the National Arts Action Summit, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts.

Read more about how to enter.

The Power of Storytelling

It is no surprise in this time of upheaval, that this year’s essay question asks young people to speak about the importance of theatre education in learning to be resilient. As COVID-19 protocols continue to impact lives and disrupt education, the ability to deal with constant change has become increasingly important. Therefore, this year’s question asks: “How has theatre helped build resiliency in your personal life and academic studies?”

I know both from teaching and from personal experience, that theatre builds self-awareness, and flexibility. Research backs me up. “From elementary to secondary school classrooms to out-of-school programs, research demonstrates that the core elements of theatre education build resilience and positive self-concept.”*

By sharing their stories, students make theatre advocacy personal and there is power in that honest passion! DemocracyWorks is issuing a challenge to Thespians everywhere to take this opportunity to be real and share your story. Let those who make the policy, rules, and regulations which impact education hear powerful messages of hope and resilience that have been made possible by theatre in our schools. Let’s go to the capitol!

*Theatre Counts: How Theatre Education Transforms Students’ Lives published in 2021 by the Arts Education Partnership in partnership with EdTA and the American Alliance for Theatre in Education.  ♦

Lead Photo: Bestbudbrian, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Picture of Cory Wilkerson
Cory Wilkerson

is a former theatre educator from the Hershey, PA area, currently employed by the Educational Theatre Association as Education Director. In her work with EdTA Ms. Wilkerson is responsible for facilitating professional learning for theatre educators and curating and developing the EdTA online Learning Center. Ms. Wilkerson is the proud recipient of a legislative certificate of achievement for her work in youth theatre and the 2020 EdTA Founder’s Award for her career-long impact on theatre education.


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