In Cathy Collins' kindergarten class at Laurel Elementary School, students learn vocabulary by dancing and singing, and by writing creatively and drawing pictures.
On a recent Friday morning, the class illustrated letters they wrote to their parents about gardening, drawing flower pots and yellow, smiling suns.
"What are we planting?" Collins asked.
"Seeds," the student shouted back.
Every so often the class took a break to sing and dance to a song with lyrics about the weather, or the alphabet.
"You want to sing our vowel song?" asked Collins.
"They're A, E, I, O, U, they stick the words together," the class sang, along with choreographed movements. "They're very icky, very sticky, icky-sticky letters!"
Laurel Elementary School is one of more than three dozen schools in Prince George's County that is helping students learn math, science and reading through the arts – through music, visual arts, dancing and drama – thanks to the county's growing arts integration program.
"You're always looking for hands-on, creative teaching: that's what gets students enthusiastic about learning," said Laurel Elementary Principal Melinda Lee. "And so I think that by students doing, and doing hands-on activities, whether it's dancing, it's singing, it's drawing, all of that, that's just something to help students learn."
In an arts-integrated classroom, students demonstrate their understanding of core subject matter through an art form – for instance, by writing song lyrics about space, or by creating comic books about the rain cycle —not by sitting and reading a book or filling out a worksheet.
County school's Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell introduced the arts integration program to 15 schools in the 2014 to 2015 school year, and expanded it to 41 elementary, middle and high schools, including Laurel Elementary, at the start of the 2015 to 2016 school year.
"We're probably the only county in the United States, that we saw, that has an arts integration office," said John Ceschini, who heads Prince George's County's program. He formerly served as executive director of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance.
Maxwell has a reputation for being an arts education advocate, and had introduced arts integration on a smaller scale in his previous job as superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools.
"He believes strongly that teaching through the arts is important for all learning, because of the way it helps students learn," Ceschini said. "It's fun: we make learning fun and exciting, plus it also teaches skills such as communication, problem-solving, collaboration and cross-cultural understanding."
Educator Amy Duma, who has been working in the field of arts integration at the Kennedy Center for 28 years, said she does not know of any other school district in the state that has taken as systematic an approach to the teaching method as Prince George's County.
"Maryland has always been very supportive of the arts, and there's a lot of interest in arts integration here," she said. "But Prince George's County is kind of blazing the way in Maryland."
Principals initiate the decision to turn their schools into arts integration schools, Ceschini said, and they have to agree to train their staff and to designate an arts lead teacher. In exchange, the school system provides teaching artists and arts integration training for school staff through its partnerships with regional arts organizations, including the Kennedy Center and the Prince George's Arts and Humanities Council.
Professional development is key to the success of arts integration, Duma said, because the method emphasizes student collaboration and project-based learning over traditional lecturing and teaching out of a textbook.
"Teachers have to be aware that it's different standing up in front of class and talking to students or asking students to answer questions, than setting up learning experiences where they're going to have students working together in small groups to create a dance, write a poem or lyrics to a song," she said. "Teachers give up some of that authority and serve as facilitators of learning."
'Engaging in their learning'
In a social studies and language arts classroom at Vansville Elementary School in Beltsville, which started on the arts integration track this year, fourth-graders recently worked in small groups to create and act out dramas that incorporated songs about the lives of slaves in America.
Student Kailyn Rapp said she preferred creating her group's project, which took the shape of a scripted television news interview, over learning about the material in traditional ways.
"I feel like you could remember the lesson and what it's about more, if you do the interview or the drama," she said. "Because instead of reading through the textbook, then you see it for a couple of days, then it's gone the next day — when you keep on practicing and practicing the interview, the information kind of sinks into your brain."
The project was fun, she added.
"I liked that we could work in groups and share ideas about what we did," Kailyn said. "So we fit all of our ideas into what we were doing so everyone had a say in what we were doing."
The term arts integration has been around since the 1990s, Duma said, but it has picked up steam in recent years because teachers are looking for ways to better engage students and nurture active, collaborative learning.
"If they aren't engaging in their learning then they're not going to be learning," she said. "They're going to check out, basically."
The Kennedy Center hosts an arts integration conference that has grown in registration every year since it began in 2011, Duma said, with teachers attending from all over the country and the world.
"It's not just learning through listening or reading; students are using their whole bodies along with their mind," she said about arts integration. "And then there's the social collaborative learning aspect, where students are doing a lot more work with each other to learn and to solve problems, and that helps a lot of the kids that need that social interaction to learn."
A growing body of research demonstrates that arts integration positively impacts student learning and academic achievement. At schools in New Jersey in which teachers used drama to help students learn language arts, researchers found that students who participated in this arts-integrated approach were absent fewer days and were 77 percent more likely to pass the state test than students who were not in an arts-integrated classroom.
Ceschini said that Prince George's County hopes to expand its arts integration program in the 2016 to 2017 school year.
"If the budget comes through the way we hope, we hope to add 20 to 30 more schools," he said.
The Board of Education will likely adopt its budget at the end of June.
In the meantime, students at Laurel Elementary and Vansville Elementary are learning about African-American history, space and reading through drama, dance and music. And they're having fun doing it.