Arts integration makes learning physical, fun

The Baltimore Sun

Sabrina Hooper knelt on one knee, holding her arms out like wings. Two of her classmates squatted on the floor and looked up at her. They stayed frozen in a tableau - a dramatic concept the sixth-graders at Wiley H. Bates Middle School in Annapolis are learning about in language arts class.

"Scene!" said Patricia Watkins, giving the students the cue to drop their poses.

Watkins asked the class earlier this week to guess which scene the three students were depicting from the book Wings, by Christopher Myers. It took a few guesses, but the class figured out that Sabrina portrayed Ikarus Jackson, a boy with wings who had flown to the top of a roof to avoid his taunting classmates. The two other students acted as the pigeons on the roof.

"Group 3 recognized that even if you're not a person, you still have a role," Watkins said.

Watkins said getting the students to form tableaux - frozen pictures - is a way to teach two concepts at the same time. Bates is the only school in Anne Arundel County that is testing an arts integration program in which the visual and dramatic arts are woven into every subject. The federal government is funding similar initiatives in schools in Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. School officials from all four counties will get together in April to discuss their progress.

Studies have shown that students pay more attention in class if they are doing something active, said Maureen McMahon, director of advanced studies for the county school system. The county received a $666,000 federal grant over four years to do the program at Bates. Officials also want to roll it out at Arnold, Crofton Meadows and Riviera Beach elementary schools next year.

The county school system chose Bates because it is scheduled to become a performing and visual arts magnet school next fall. The school is behind the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts and was believed to be the best place in the southern part of the county to start a magnet program, said Lori Snyder, the project director at Bates. School system officials have not yet selected an arts magnet school for the northern end of the county, she said.

Part of the federal money will go toward field trips and having three different artists-in-residence at Bates to help with teaching. Some of the money was used during the summer to train 70 teachers on how to develop new lessons. Three weeks ago, a history teacher taught eighth-graders about forms of democracy and had students display it by painting historical architecture, from the Parthenon in Greece to the U.S. Capitol.

"It's where there's a natural fit in the curriculum," said Snyder, who also is an advanced studies and program resource teacher for the county. "You're not forcing the arts."

School officials will grade the pilot program by looking closely at state test scores and comparing them with schools without arts integration programs, Snyder said. They also will be surveying students and teachers to see if students have changed their outlook on learning - another goal of the program.

This week, the sixth- and eighth-graders worked on the tableau lesson. Watkins said the lesson got her students to stop talking and get more involved with the lessons.

"It was really wonderful to see kids who always want to talk stay quiet," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

The students had to identify the key events and characters to act out and then broke into groups to figure out what faces and positions to take. Eventually they had to write and perform their own dialogue.

Sabrina, 11, of Annapolis, said class is better when there's more to do.

"It makes it more fun," she said. "It's like a privilege."

Brooke Benton, 11, of Glen Burnie, said students normally sit at their desks and talk about the stories they read.

"It was a nice change," Brooke said. "This was more interesting."

The sixth-graders made wildflowers out of construction paper to illustrate a story about what pioneer children saw on their way out West. Watkins said she is hoping to do more tableaux and is looking for puppets to use in another lesson.

"The kids love it," Watkins said. "It's something that they really seem to want to do."

Arts integration

Arts integration programs infuse music, dance, drama or the visual arts into every school subject from math to history. For example, students in math class can study geometric shapes and then use those shapes to draw nature scenes.

The philosophy of arts integration is that teaching through the arts gives students another opportunity to connect to subject matter they might find hard to understand or that does not capture their interest. Arts integration helps motivate students by engaging them and shows how two different subjects can interconnect, said Lori Snyder, an advanced studies and program resource teacher for Anne Arundel County.

Arts integration programs are gaining steam in the educational field. So far, 15 county teachers are planning to earn an arts integration teaching certificate from Towson University's Arts Integration Institute in partnership with the University of Maryland campuses at College Park and Baltimore County, and the Johns Hopkins University.

Susan Gvozdas

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