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Arts & Culture Seen Thought Leader

4th ANNUAL EDUCATION LUNCHEON: Advancing Literacy through the Arts

Interview between Event Co-Chair Ann Cramer and Honoree Comer Yates

Be sure to read part 2 of this interview here
Ann Cramer: Comer, you were recently honored at The Woodruff Arts Center’s Education Luncheon. Tell us how you feel the arts advance literacy, either at the Atlanta Speech School or in a larger context.
Comer Yates: We’ve been in the business 80 years at the speech school helping children discover their voices. When we originally started, it was about helping a child who was deaf become able to talk. Voice, for us today, is defined around the child being able to decide his own future and make the greatest difference in the lives of other people. We are certainly influenced by being in the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—thinking about a voice not being something that just allows me to navigate my own life, but to affect change for others. A lot of our children are struggling around acquiring that voice. We have children with speech and language delays. So, while they haven’t reached their full potential relative to expression of thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs around who they are with words, the arts create a singular platform for them to express themselves in a different way. To find words that discover feelings, reflect feelings through music and the different elements of the arts that we have on campus. They may not be able to put pen to paper yet, they can express themselves through those ways.
Ann Cramer: What’s a specific example of an arts media you utilize?
Comer Yates: We just had our spring music productions, where kids who are dyslexic and struggling readers were on stage going through different periods of American jazz. They were not only singing but doing dances from the early 1900s up through today. These are kids who may be very anxious if asked to read aloud because their reading isn’t fluent yet, but they are fluent dancers, fluent singers. So, we created a setting where they can get up and take risks that build muscles for taking further risks back in the classroom. There was one girl, a fifth grader who really had struggled in her academic career, and I asked her about the most memorable moment she’s had this year. And she said, “Singing my solo at the musical.” For her, getting up and having the courage to do that was like going to the moon.  The music and movement all tie together back to language and having a voice.
Ann Cramer: You and your family have had an extraordinary relationship with The Woodruff Arts Center. Tell us a little more about that and how it might have influenced you and the Atlanta Speech School.
Comer Yates: Well, two things I can remember from the early sixties are being with my parents when they heard about the Orly plane crash—just their reaction to the loss of their friends. They were always so conscious of us as children, and when I realized years later just the depth of their grief in the moment I think about, how stoic they were around us because they were the parents. Now, I look back on this as a parent in awe of their understanding that what mattered in the moment was their children and what they needed to model, regardless of how devastated they had to be. The other thing that I remember is being at Lenox Square, when it was an open-air mall, hearing Henry Sopkin and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra playing there. And then of course Dad was President of the Symphony, and ultimately head of The Woodruff Arts Center
Ann Cramer: How old were you then?
Comer Yates: He was volunteer president of the Symphony in 1966. I was 14.  
Ann Cramer: So you hung out here a lot?
Comer Yates: Oh my gosh yes. And spent a lot of time with his friends who were on the buildings and ground staff. We used to go visit them because they had all this interesting equipment, or would just hang out in Dad’s office, typing a paper on his typewriter and what have you. He just had this incredible love for and belief in the Arts Center for many years, so it was a real privilege for him.
Ann Cramer: Do you have a favorite personal arts experience or story? A time when you expressed your own voice?
Comer Yates: I’m not sure if that counts. As a school teacher I played the ballet master in You Can’t Take it with You. I loved being in that play. I can still remember my lines from the Russian ballet master. As a spectator, I think I was very much influenced by the Robert Shaw Christmas programs with the Morehouse Glee Club. If I think of going with my dad and siblings, that was always a defining highlight of our year.
Ann Cramer: So if you look at all this—considering yourself and the children at this school—what are the habits you learn from the multiple levels of art that really can create that sustainable child who has a voice?
Comer Yates: It’s creating an atmosphere for children to take risks that are safe. And I think the arts are so powerful to do that. You don’t wait for the audience applause to judge how well you performed or for somebody to interpret your piece of art; children find their own purpose in whatever they drew, whatever they molded, whatever they danced. We’re all about limiting praise, which may sound harsh, but the exact opposite thing we want for children is to be driven by extrinsic forces in their lives. When they’re making decisions, the voice they need to hear is the one that’s coming from within. And of course, the arts are a powerful place to get some of that.
Ann Cramer: Because they’ve also developed the discipline—they’re prepared.
Comer Yates: Yeah, absolutely. They have discipline in order to be prepared, so that when it’s time you’re ready and are unfettered by trying to just get through the other side of it. It’s funny—when kids go for interviews to be considered at other schools, I always say, “Here’s what I want you to really remember: just be yourself. It’s been good enough for us the last three years—more than good enough. Just let them see you.” And I think that’s what the arts do. You’re revealing yourself and you’re saying, I have something meaningful to say.  
Ann Cramer: We all know there’s a concern there’s never enough resources for art in schools. How would you define the critical support needed to create a culture for the arts as part of an education?
Comer Yates: You’ve got to have this fertile soil where every experience the child has sets her up for taking that risk of singing the solo. You can talk all you want about a schedule that allows for the arts and everything else, but it’s really got to be a culture that says we’re about empowering children’s voices in their own path.
Ann Cramer: What I love is that yes, we need support and resources, but it’s also the interaction of both the adults and the children in the building that create the culture for expression. How would additional dollars, or things like musical instruments, a stage—any of those things that are often considered the critical components in addition to the culture—make a difference?
Comer Yates: Well, we are investing in building an outdoor playground stage for our young children: two year-olds through five year-olds. We’re not having them do Hamlet, but they’re able to do their own dramatic play outside. We want children to be able to create collectively what we would call novel problems for themselves and then, as a collective, find resolutions to those problems. And of course, dramatic play is a great place to do that. It’s not like we’re going to have Shakespeare in the park out there, but the children can carry the stories. Language really attaches then, because they’ve got a construct beyond the story being read toward them, and instead it’s something they’re living.

Read Part 2 of this interview now:


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