Arts integration specialist bolsters initiative at Anne Arundel schools

In the hopes of eventually applying its arts initiative throughout the school system, Anne Arundel County has hired what officials say is one of the first arts integration specialists in the state.

The approach, which applies arts-related teaching to all subjects, is in its third year.

Susan Riley, who launched the program at Thunder Hill Elementary School in Howard County, became the arts integration specialist this school year. She said that this year, Anne Arundel County's five elementary schools that offer arts integration — Arnold, Crofton Woods, Germantown, Lake Shore and Riviera Beach — will focus heavily on its math component. Brooklyn Park and Bates middle schools also have arts integration instruction.

School officials have promoted arts integration as a way to encourage student engagement and to use art to not only promote different approaches to learning but to get students to understand how disciplines are interrelated.

Riley said she hopes the initiative will build from the elementary schools, then into the middle schools and ultimately to the high schools.

She works with teachers to create and implement arts integration lessons and to foster connections between county school leaders and the local arts community. She is also providing online courses for teachers and administrators, and is exploring launching a spring conference on teaching initiatives for arts integration.

"All of our teachers are aware of arts integration strategies; one of my goals this year is to get everyone on the same page as much as we can," said Riley, who launched the initiative at Thunder Hill in Columbia during an internship as she was earning her degree at McDaniel College.

She said the challenges to implementing arts integration throughout Anne Arundel County schools include the need to ensure that professional development concerns are met while the system implements its other initiatives. However, she said, "if arts integration works and helps with the achievement gap then we should all have equal access to it."

Riley said this year, fifth-graders are using arts integration to understand the concept of remainders in division. She said that among the lessons she conducted recently was showing students how to use elements of drama and stage to visualize remainders.

"They learn things that all actors learn and use those tools to learn about division," said Riley. "The data so far that has been coming back has been positive." She said students who have taken part in such exercises have demonstrated clear understanding of remainders during math exams.

"This program brings back student excitement for learning and engagement, while deepening their critical thinking skills," Riley said. "It is human nature to make natural connections between subjects in the world around us. Arts integration allows us to bring that into the classroom and provide opportunities for our students to bring their previous knowledge, new skills and unique learning abilities together under one umbrella of learning."

Suzanne Owens, Anne Arundel schools coordinator of art, said that soon the school system will begin to gauge the countywide impact of arts integration from elementary and middle-school students who have taken part in the initiative for several years.

"It isn't something that's brand-new, but teachers have been hungry for … new strategies and ways of getting information and teaching to their students, so they can enrich and enhance their lessons," said Owens.

"That's why Susan is here," Owens added. "We have done well with [arts integration] awareness. Now our teachers want someone to come to their schools and work directly with them and their students. This was the right next step to do so we can really bring arts integration right to the schools for teachers and for students."

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