Imagine a classroom where math is taught through the works of Matisse and reading is learned through a dramatic skit instead of a textbook.
That's the scenario at several Anne Arundel County public schools that use the practice of arts integration.
"Arts integration strategy gets students to work with creativity. It gives them a chance to work with critical thinking," said Suzanne Owens, a visual arts coordinator for AACPS, where administrators believe a fusion of arts and core objectives gives students a better — and longer-lasting — learning experience.
Arts integration came to Anne Arundel in 2007 through a federal Department of Education grant.
Wiley H. Bates Middle School in Annapolis piloted the program, and now seven more schools have followed suit.
"We have received a tremendous response from teachers, in that it makes them revitalized," said Susan Riley, curriculum innovation and resource development specialist.
"It allows them to go back to the craft of teaching," she said. "It allows them to be creative in the classroom with students and provides them with energy, because they're watching their kids be successful."
For Amber Foster, a fifth-grade teacher at Riviera Beach Elementary School in Pasadena, arts integration means getting students out of their seats and interacting with one another.
For example, to teach the story of Paul Revere's midnight ride before the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, Foster relies not only on a textbook, but also on poetry and painting.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in class, she pointed to Grant Wood's painting, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and asked students three questions: How do the townspeople feel on this night? What do these people know or believe? What do they care about?
"I'm really activating a lot of their thinking skills," she said. "I don't want them sitting in their seats two hours straight reading out of a book."
To find the answers, students read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "Paul Revere's Ride," and perform skits of the event while Foster reminded them to work on locomotion and facial expressions.
"It's a huge method to increase student engagement and performance," Foster said. She said her class consists of visual learners, shy students and energetic participants — and she believes arts integration can reach them all.
"I have students who will not talk in class, but when I do visual arts or drama, they participate, so I can get a glimpse into what they're learning," Foster said. "I have kids who need to move or need to see something in a visual way first. So for those students who, in a traditional classroom, may be left behind, here they are right there with everyone else, if not succeeding more."
Next door in Chris Graulich's fifth-grade classroom, students learn math concepts through artwork by looking for parallel lines and angles. It's easier for these concepts to sink in with students when they can visualize them, Graulich said.
"Using artful thinking gets them thinking ... whether it's a drawing or acting," he said.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University believe arts integration may also help students retain what they learn.
Preliminary results of a not-yet-published randomized trial have shown promising results, said Mariale Hardiman, director of the Neuro-Education Initiative in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. The study was carried out across four classes of fifth-graders in a Baltimore City school over six months.
"At post-study testing, we found that students equally learned the same amount of information," Hardiman said. "We probably thought that would be the case. However, 12 weeks later, the kids who had learned it through the arts remembered it better."
Manipulating an art form is a more memorable way to learn than just sitting down with a pencil and paper, she said.
Hardiman's study also suggests that arts integration can be helpful to teachers who have difficulty engaging their students. The results show that student-engagement scores went up for weaker teachers who applied arts integration, making them comparable to their stronger peers.
Teachers often feel pressed for time when integrating arts, but advocates say it doesn't need to be elaborate to work. The process of embedding arts into instruction is what counts.
Hardiman formerly served as principal at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, where she introduced arts integration, so she is familiar with its challenges.
"If you want to embed the arts, it takes a bit of thinking and creativity on your part," Hardiman said.
Some arts integration teachers in Anne Arundel County are working toward arts integration certification through Towson University. For other teachers, training is provided and resources, including lesson-plan ideas, are made available.
But Hardiman stresses that it's important that teachers don't mistake just any craft activity as art integration — it has to deliver subject content.
"All arts activities aren't arts integration. It's in how the activity delivers content. If it does," she said, "you're good to go."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun