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How Arts Education Can Change the World

Jessica Peña-Manalo teaches music at Concord International Elementary School in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. They love their job, their students, and most of all, watching how music makes a difference for the kids in their classroom.

"I believe the arts are uniquely positioned to provide us more insight into who we are, to broaden our context for the world, to learn about others and to learn about ourselves."--Jessica Peña-Manalo

Those lessons may be even more important in a neighborhood that's more diverse than most of the city, with a large immigrant population. Vivian and Marcie talked to Jessica about their work, their educational philosophy, and most of all, about Peña-Manalo's commitment to making change through making music.

A female Hispanic teacher with short brown hair sits on a chair reading a book aloud to a classroom of students sitting on the floor
Music teacher Jessica Peña-Manalo reads to first graders at Seattle's Concord International School in South Park



Jessica Peña-Manalo (they/them) is a classically trained musician who has taught music at Concord International Elementary School, located in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, for the past six years.




Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips


And I'm Marcie Sillman. And, and this is double




DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plumb the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


On this episode, music teacher, Jessica Peña-Manalo on the power of arts education.


Hey, Marcie.


Vivian is so great to see you again.


Always. And we actually got a chance to see each other, not for a very long time, but kind of in passing as we were both enjoying one of our favorite shows, as we're talking about the diversity and the power of the arts, we just got a chance to see Hamilton, uh, last week, I think.


It was last week as we speak today, uh, was that The Paramount Theatre, another tour. And I have to say, I admire Lin-Manuel Miranda so much for creating this, not just because it's a beautiful piece of theater, which it is, not just cuz it has great music, but because he really, Miranda, made history sing and live and dance and just mean something.


Right. And there is, there's a lot of criticism that I've seen over the years since Hamilton, uh, made its Broadway debut. And I agree with some of the criticism, but one of the things that holds fast for me is that this is a great piece of theater. It is all of the things you want theater to do. You know, people are in relationship with each other. People are sharing something in common and there's resonance kind of across the board, regardless to whether it's, you know, history that none of us were alive to witness, thank God, but just the ways in which it brings history to our doorstep, if you will. And I think that part of what we are experiencing in these conversations, in this conversation specifically that's coming up, has to do with keeping history alive and keeping the culture of a people alive through the arts.


In particular, not this version of Hamilton, this touring production, but the one that I saw prior at The Paramount, in the before times before COVID, there were a lot of young people in the audience. And I, I think what is so brilliant about this is that the show engages youth by the joy of the art that it is, but also engages them in the story. That is a true story. And we're talking to an art teacher from the South Park elementary school, Concord Elementary. Their name is Jessica Peña-Manalo. Jessica teaches music at Concord, but I think Jessica teaches a whole lot more than music in those classes.


I think you're absolutely right. They exemplifies everything that I think an incredible teacher period, not just in our teacher, but she recognizes that there is inherently in young people, this desire to be sparked. And I think that they talk about all of that in this interview in a much more eloquent way than I could ever.


So let's just get on with the interview with Jessica Peña-Manalo. Jessica let's just start with, what is your position at Concord Elementary School and how long have you been there?


I teach kindergarten through fifth grade music at Concord. I teach two thirds of my classes in Spanish, which is one of my favorite parts of my job. I get to work in a dual language school and I'm integrated, um, into that program as well. And I have been lucky enough to be there for the last six years.


We understand that the public school's first priority is obviously to provide every single child with a good education. So how do you feel the arts contributes to the overall educational process?


When we're talking about educating our youth, really often, we, we see students at this, this kind of deficit place where they are empty wells to be filled with knowledge, but that's not the reality of the situation. Students have these wonderful rich experiences. They have such cultural wealth that the arts are really primed for being able to include. So, um, when we talk about students being educated in the schools, a lot of that has to do with tapping into the knowledge that they hold themselves and really helping to grow and foster those things and music and dance and theater and visual art, all of those things also, um, really help students to be their whole selves in the classroom and really to, to, to show those parts of themselves in a way that's a little bit less threatening than writing an essay about something with themselves. They're able to share bits of themselves and have that investment and share their voice in a unique way.


I had the great fortune to visit your classroom. So I've seen some of the kids in action, but are there any specific stories, any students that you really saw the value of art and, and how art can help foster a wider sense of self and a wider openness to learning?


One of the things that has been the most powerful to witness at our school, we, um, have committed to having ethnic studies in every single classroom. So students are having conversations about their cultural identities, their selves, um, in these various different contexts. So they have a really strong vocabulary around this, which I continue to work on in music. So we were talking about, um, the Duwamish River, as you know, South Park, um, and Georgetown are both within the Duwamish River valley and there's been a lot of movement, um, talking about how we can protect our river, how we can protect our land. So one of the most powerful things I've seen is one of my fourth-grade classes. We've been talking a lot about, um, the way that music can be activism, you know, how it can help call attention to these things that we see in our lives, um, how it can share that message, how it can help to move forward movements because we see that historically, right?


So we're able to look at lots of different examples of this. And then we moved into this songwriting unit. One of the things that's been really cool to see is the students creating their own songs and then leading them at protests <laugh>. So I had a group of fourth graders in particular. They they're the ones who are just like, yes, we're gonna sing this song in public. We're gonna make it known. But the, the song, the lyrics of the song were, [Singing in Spanish] or (translated), water teaches us that nothing can stop it, not a stone, not a waterfall. We are the water and nothing can stop us. [Audio of students singing the song plays].


So this kind of idea does this perseverance that you can get at through music and to see the students take on that project, to see them have that music live through the world. Cause that's, that's one of the other things about music. We very often see it relegated to symphony performances and I'm, I'm a classically trained musician myself. I really enjoy that realm of music as well, but that's not how we encounter music in our everyday lives to see the students say, Hey, here's music that I created. I want to see it live in the world. I want to see it make a change because performance in so many different venues, it it's a variety of different spaces that music can live in. It's not just one.


When you're talking. It just, I, I just got this, uh, uh, melody in my head from Hamilton, “Immigrants, get the job done,” right? And then, um, we're, we're actually having this conversation right after Juneteenth and I was blown away by how much arts and entertainment was centered in Juneteenth, uh, celebrations around the world or around the country specifically. And just thinking about the diversity of how diverse neighborhoods, communities come together to really celebrate with one another South Park is one of our most diverse neighborhoods in all of Seattle with a number of different immigrant groups, uh, and a very large Latino population. How exactly do you see that diverse culture reflected in Concord's classrooms?


Our school is an international school. It has, as you mentioned, a very large Latino population, we come from so many different places. I think that one of the things for me as a Filipino educator, to be able to connect with my students in that meaningful way to share parts of our culture and parts of ourselves, um, is really powerful for me because I didn't have that growing up. I think when we talk about exploring culture in the arts really often, we think about what different folk melodies we have. So, and, and, you know, I will say too, um, I sing Filipino folk songs to my nephew. When I see him, I sing “Paruparong Bukid” because I want to remember those melodies that are an integral part of who I am. And those are the kinds of things that traditionally we've seen in the music classroom as well.


We go back to these older folk songs as a means to learn about a different culture. And that's absolutely valuable. One of the things that I think is really important is that we don't see these cultures represented simply as something of the past. So one of the things that I think is critical in arts education is that we continue to celebrate these parts of our identity, these parts of our roots that have typically been there, but we see them celebrated into the future. So if I'm learning about, um, civil rights movements with Vihara in Chile, I'm also going to continue to look at more modern examples of people making that music now, because our kids are surrounded by music all the time. They're surrounded by modern artists. And if there's this disconnect between, okay, so I see this world music and it's just all folk songs and dances from decades or centuries ago, really that were collected during these other times.


I don't see it living and thriving now. Um, so one of the things I, things I think is really critical in the music classroom is to see it visioned into the future, to see modern artists creating and representing their culture as their own. Um, I had this project that I did with my students. We were learning about Chicha music from Peru and we got to do some wonderful celebrations and dances, but then we also looked at more modern artists and the reflective sentence that we had there was I choose how to share my culture with the world. No one else gets to define for me, you are not Filipino enough. You are too Filipino, oh, this person speaks the language, oh, this person does all of these cultural activities. I get to choose what pieces of myself, make me feel Filipino, make me feel Filipino enough or whatever that, um, that connection to a culture is as well.


You mentioned a bit earlier that at Concord ethnic studies are now incorporated into every classroom. And I'm curious how that is different than what you're talking about, or does that augment the kind of work that you're you are talking about?


For ethnic studies to thrive and to exist, it can't simply be in one area, right? It can't just be here's my ethnic studies class. I check this box, right? It is more so about seeing the wisdom, the wealth, the beauty in all of who students are and how they show up and augmenting that. I like that word augmenting it in every area. So, I would say that this is, this is in line with that. This is a part of that it's seeing ourselves into the future and celebrating that, um, because it needs to be present within every curricular area to, to succeed.


You know, listening to you talk about how important it is for folk culture, if you will, to be carried out throughout a lifetime and not to just be relegated to the past. It makes me wonder then, to what extent do you feel like the ethnicity of America has been educationalized out of the education system? And you're trying to put it back in, in there and make it prominent.


I love the arts. I wouldn't be in this profession if I didn't love the arts and I didn't feel passionately about it. I wouldn't be in education if I didn't love education and believe in its mission. But the reality that we have to reckon with is that both arts and culture and education have been used as tools of white supremacy. They, they truly have, as a way to strip us of our culture. And you can see this study throughout time, right? The way that I can educate someone else to be more assimilated, to be more similar to the dominant culture, it's pervasive throughout the way that we've structured our education system, through the way that we've structured a lot of our arts institutions. So that's why it is so incredibly powerful to see arts organizations, finding ways to unlearn that, to undo that harm, that's been there at the foundation of the system. Because when we say that to sing this way, you must do X, Y, and Z. And this is the way of performance.


You know, it's all of these subtle ways in which we think that there's this hierarchy of arts performance. We think that it's, it's somehow, um, better to be up on a stage with a silent audience versus, you know, I think about the Folklife Festival that we recently had, right? Music is not just something that's on a stage, it's something that's participatory. And that beauty of people, dancing of people, calling out of people, moving to and from, and organically experiencing and creating music that is music too. There's not something wrong with these areas of fine arts. They're absolutely beautiful. It's an incredible art form to celebrate as well. But if we put that up on a platform and we create these false hierarchies, that's how we continue to reinforce that system. And it's on us now to figure out how can we celebrate the beautiful things that these different forms of art have created, but also undo this idea of education is just this one thing or arts are just this one thing. How can we make sure that, um, all the depth and breadth of who we are, as shown through the arts, is celebrated.


Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON, Cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes. Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.

Vivian and I so loved listening to Jessica Peña-Manalo talk about both the work that she does in the classroom, but more than that, the way that she thinks about arts and culture on the real high up level, you know, she's looking down and she, her analysis is fantastic.


She truly understands the ways in which art has been stratified to keep it as an elite form, no matter what we're talking about, visual performing otherwise, and how important it is for folks like her to start breaking down those hierarchies and allowing young people to use their creative talents, those inherent pieces of creativity, to see the world through their own eyes, as opposed to being forced to do everything a particular way. And I just so appreciated the ways in which she also talks about in this next segment, how the art of negotiation, the art of collaboration is all a part of the creation and making art, their own act of activism is so beautiful.


You talked a little bit earlier about songwriting, essentially that your students are doing to create these protest songs or, well, okay. I'll leave it at that protest songs essentially. <laugh> so, uh, talk a little bit about how working together on a musical project affects the way kids interact with one another and speak to how they build bonds through that.


I think that music is so much more than notes on a page. I very often tell other folks, music is social, emotional learning. It's learning how to negotiate ideas and the way that those are generated. And how do I work with one of my classmates when they want to do this, and I want to do this? That's problem-solving. I think that there are times where, you know, I tried to do smaller group work and we recently had, this was a kind of fun end of the year process, um, where students were learning about foley work. Um, so they had to make like a small little skit. We used classroom instruments to, um, like act out this little idea, also important for students to see artists living and thriving on their professions so we can stop, um, perpetuating this idea of the starving artists, because people make their livings doing this.


It's, it's, it's incredible. There's so many opportunities for young people to make music, but as they're, as they're trying to figure out these ideas, maybe one student is like, oh, I really think that we should have like a ukulele introduction, you know, and there's a student that disagrees with that. I think particularly with the pandemic, it's been hard for us as human beings, but we see this a lot with our youth, to figure out how do we disagree with people? How do we disagree with people in a way that we can continue to move forward with that? So, in that part, a student was like, okay, I don't wanna play the ukulele cuz it hurts my fingers when I do it, that was their rationale. Um, but what they decided is there was going to be an introduction where all of the different characters would parade across the screen and they would do that as like their introducing all of the characters and then they moved into the other parts. So, it's figuring out how do I let you do what it is that you want to do, while also figuring out a space for myself. And that's incredibly challenging as adults let alone with kids. So I think the...


Art of negotiation, oh


My gosh,


It's also really powerful when you realize that you can collaborate and maybe compromise and move past the impasses that we see all around us at, at very high levels of American society. One of the things that I loved when I came down to spend the day at Concord Elementary was the permeability of the school building. In other words, there wasn't just a school in a neighborhood. The school was part of the neighborhood and it seemed like there was a lot of, of support from both the families that were participating, but also the broader community. So I'm wondering how that manifests itself when you have school events or, or performances or things like that. How do you see the interaction between school and South Park?


Yeah, I think that one of the things, because I mentioned ethnic studies before ethnic studies teaches us that we are on this land and it's not by accident. We are connected to the land that we are on. We are connected to the neighborhood that we are in. So even if, even if we could remove ourselves from the community, we would not want to. Um, we are a part of this community. We are connected to the people that we share this space with as well. So, when we see the opening of a museum like the SeaMAR museum of Chicano, Chicano, Latino, Latina culture in our neighborhood, that's something that resonates deeply for our community, for our students. I think that it's really powerful to see stories told by members of the community, about members of the community. So, a group of my fifth graders were able to perform at the opening of that museum and they were able to perform an original song. When they were able to share that song in such a, a very formal event with the governor standing right in front of us, they were able to see, like, what we do matters in a very real and tangible way.


It's connected to what we want to see our community be like. And we can be a part of realizing that vision. So, when you're able to occupy those spaces, if you're able to connect with different arts organizations, whether it's that museum or whether it's having a small group of students who have been learning how to jam with each other, we learn how to jam, um, Resistencia Coffee Shop. You know, there are real-life ways that students can perform in the world and be connected to each other.


We were gonna ask you about what impact do you think arts and culture play in building community. And I think you already answered that. So, the follow on question I wanna ask is what significant you think it has for a child's growth development and having this, this place of importance in their lives early on from an arts and cultural perspective, and how that then plays out throughout their growth development to making them feel a real significant piece part of community?


Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think that the goal of general music classrooms, right, because I teach at an elementary school, isn't that every single one of my young people are going to decide, I would like to, to go for the rest of my life. I would like to be a musician. I would like to use music to change the world. That sounds beautiful. I would support it. I would applaud it. I would be at every single concert, but I know that the reality of that is that's not the medium that they'll use for the rest of their lives. However, the longer lasting messages of knowing that I can express myself, or I can celebrate this different genre of music that excites me, having that sense of belonging will continue through their lives. The sense of I belong here, this is my world. And I'm going to make something of it.


This idea that students are going to use their voice, whether it's music, whether it's, you know, speaking out against things, whether it's becoming a lawyer, I'm not sure what their futures will hold, but whatever mechanism or whatever medium they use to share their voice, that they know that it matters. They know that it deserves to be heard. And they have these experiences from a young age where they were able to conceptualize what that feels like and decide, I wanna carry this forward. Um, so whether it's in my classroom or one of the other classrooms in our school where we have incredible educators fostering that student voice, I want them to be able to carry that forward. And I think that through the arts, there are so many rich opportunities to follow that through. Cause we're all, we're all immersed in music, whether we're musicians, we're artists by profession or not. We surround ourselves by music everywhere we go. If it's birds singing, if you're passing by your neighbor who has their garage door open and is having a giant karaoke party like I did the other day, you know, we, we have music as a foundation of our lives. You know?


Jessica, those students at Concord are so lucky to have you. I hope they know that.


I'm so lucky to have them. <laugh> I don't mean to give it as a cliche answer, but truly I, it is truly my dream job. Working with these young people. They teach me so much every day and push me to be a better person.


Jessica, is there anything, um, that you would want to leave our listeners with around arts education in school and community, arts and community? Any of those things?


I believe that the arts are uniquely positioned to provide us more insight into who we are to broaden our sonic context for the world, to learn about others, but to learn about ourselves as well. I think that regardless of how you consume art or create art, um, there's so much opportunity for introspection. There's so much opportunity to learn about others, and to negotiate wants and desires and, um, ideas, and to figure out how to create those in harmony with one another. I would just encourage folks to wherever you are, find something that feels right to you and find something that pushes you through music. So that way you have the opportunity to learn about others.


Jessica Peña Manalo, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciated talking to you.


Thank you so much.


Vivian, one of the things I so enjoyed about talking with Jessica was hearing in her voice and in her stories, how thoroughly she believes in the power of art to amplify voices and to, to really change the world. It's, it's like the drops of water on the stone that wear the groove into it. She is, is helping create that.


Absolutely. You know, when she says, this is her dream job, I love that, because you want teachers to be in a position where they feel like they're actually fulfilling their dream. Right? The unfortunate thing is that we don't treat teachers as if they are absolutely dedicating their whole selves to the act of education. And that makes me a little bit sad. You know, when I hear someone like her and I think about, yeah, unfortunately, you know, we don't treat it that way. And then you hear <laugh>, I'm gonna get petty here, petty alert <laugh> when you hear about sports figures, signing bonuses, not just the salary, but signing bonuses that are in the multimillion-dollar ranges and teachers are so woefully, underpaid and not respected in the way that we really should be respecting them.


It's also really interesting at a school like Concord Elementary. I spent a day there a full day, one day, and it's a school with a lot of Title One students. These are students whose families don't have a lot of money. They qualify for both subsidized breakfasts and subsidized lunches. So there's not PTA like you might find in a wealthier neighborhood raising lots and lots of money for arts. So, this school was one of the first in the Seattle Public School district to have the Creative Advantage plan rolled out, which is a, a plan that really aims at providing equal access to an arts education. Something that a lot of wealthier schools might take for granted. And so, when we see the work that Ms. Peña-Manalo is doing at Concord, and you hear her commitment and the stories about whether it's the kids are performing their own song for a museum opening that Governor Jay Inslee is attending, or whether they're negotiating well, I don't wanna play the ukulele cuz I get a blister on my finger. And so they problem solve, you know, you see all that power of art in the daily lives of people.


One of the things that I think is very similar to other schools with powerful PTSA’s is the school is an integral part of the community. And, and I know that, you know, when, no matter where you go schools have become these assets to the neighborhoods, whether they have a, you know, really beautiful performing arts center or they have annual neighborhood art fairs, it's really kind of common. I just wish that there was a little bit more support balance so that all kids had access to the same level of arts access.


I have nothing to say except amen to that. Amen. Thanks for listening. We'll be back.


Thank you.


DoubleXposure Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman,


And me Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Engstrom and Calandra Childers.


Support for doubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications.


And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media's Black Arts Legacies project, highlighting the role of Black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.


If you like what you're hearing on this episode of doubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website,

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