By Laura Bird | Photography by Hillary Schave
As a self-professed “artist academic,” arts educator, author and podcast host Erica Halverson says two tenets guide her work. “First, we need more arts education in schools,” Halverson says. “There are kids who are judged and punished for needing to use their bodies, but artmaking of any kind — whether it’s acting, sculpture, dance or painting — requires the use of your body.” She explains that this embodied way of learning is highly effective for children, especially those who might be labeled as struggling academically.
And second, Halverson says the way that arts are taught can be “a conduit for better teaching and learning across all disciplines.”
These principles permeate everything Halverson touches. Indeed, she notes: “I want to create public enthusiasm and dialogue around the power of arts education to change peoples’ lives.”
Born and raised in New York City, Halverson trained to be a professional actor at Northwestern University, but when she was a senior, her focus shifted from acting to educating others about acting.
Soon after earning her PhD in Learning Sciences at Northwestern, Halverson moved to Madison, where she has fashioned a dynamic career. As department chair of curriculum and instruction at UW-Madison, she manages the academic department in the School of Education, which runs teacher certification programs and supports a bustling faculty and staff. (She’s also a professor.) And, she’s co-director of the UW-Community Arts Collaboratory, which coordinates numerous artist-in-residence programs throughout Dane County that serve thousands of local students.
But her work doesn’t stop here. In 2021 she published her own book — “How the Arts Can Save Education” — which provides a roadmap for how arts-based teaching and learning practices can transform our struggling public education system. She launched a podcast in 2022 called “Arts Educators Save the World.” She’s interviewed notable guests including Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and star of “Hamilton”), Robert Lopez (co-creator of “The Book of Mormon” and co-writer of the songs in “Frozen”) and Josh Radnor (star of “How I Met Your Mother”).
Delightfully, she’s also the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Whoopensocker.” Halverson oversees this community arts program designed to engage kids in creative expression through writing, improv and performance. This year, it’s in nine different schools in Madison and Verona.
Whoopensocker education director Amanda Farrar says about Halverson, “When Erica creates a thing or mentors a human, the ripple effect seems to go on infinitely.”
As Halverson kicks off 2023, her ripple effect will continue. New research of hers that highlights the power of arts education in kids’ lives will be published in two of the most prominent education publications. She’ll complete the second season of her podcast, with potential guests John Legend, Rachel Dratch and Bowen Yang. And this spring, she’ll graduate her first cohort of teaching artists in her UW undergraduate program, “The Arts of Teaching.”
Simply put, teaching the arts isn’t optional, says Halverson — it’s crucial.
“The arts are essential to humans flourishing, but they’re always the first to go when schools have to make budget cuts. Everything I do is about uplifting the arts, which is a core part of the human experience.”