Have you ever wondered how some schools achieve arts integration success and others continue to struggle? If you think about the popular show, Project Runway, much of that process is reflected in arts integration efforts.
Tim Gunn often tells the designers on that show to “Make it Work”. Yet, as I watched the designers pondering their creations, how do they make it work? What if they thought their current design was the right path? How are they supposed to magically think outside the box and pull together a look that has all the right pieces and just “works”?
As I watched their frustrated faces I realized that as educators and educational leaders, we have the same challenges. We are charged with taking raw materials such as children, their previous knowledge, best practices, our own educational espoused platforms and the current political laws into context, pulling them together and making education “work” for our students.
All this and a time challenge too! We need to make sure not only that education works for our students, but show that it works during the annual assessment season. Indeed, I have seen many administrators’ faces during that assessment season and they look similar to those of the fashion contestants on that TV show: frustrated, anxious and hopeful all at the same time. So Mr. Gunn, how do we “make it work”?
The Beginnings of a Journey
I have been fortunate to be a part of a growing program that is indeed working for our students. In 2008, our school implemented an arts integration pilot program. There has been much research done to tout the benefits and successes of arts integration and while that interested us, we wanted to know if it would work for our students and how to implement it at our school. The process was what we were looking for and when we discovered it, the results were incredible. My goal here is not to tell you that arts integration works for students and staff because that has already been proven. Instead, my goal is to share with you the process for implementing it in any school and to provide examples of our success so that you can use this program to “make it work” for your own school communities.
Arts integration is a scary concept. While it has been researched and implemented in many schools, arts integration has not become part of the school culture in this country. It’s not a part of the way we do things, partially because of its fear factor. You see, a successful arts integration program is one where the content and the arts are taught at the same time, with objectives from both areas being assessed and with the value of both areas being the same. It is not about the art teacher coming into the classroom and teaching a lesson. It is not about singing a song to teach a history lesson. It is about classroom teachers actively partnering with the arts specialists in their building to collaboratively create lessons that will teach the content of the classroom THROUGH an artistic measure, while teaching objectives from both areas and assessing both areas equally. That is a lot of pressure for classroom teachers, especially when most do not feel comfortable in artistic means of expression. Most commonly, teachers will say things like “I can’t draw”, or “I can’t sing” and will shut down the minute that you suggest arts integration. So an authoritative “you will do this” introduction will not work. Instead, start out looking at the previous year’s data and discuss areas for improvement. Note the successes you’ve already had, but acknowledge that something else needs to happen for those students that are still not making progress. Then, suggest arts integration.
Answer the why
But why arts integration? This is the question most frequently asked next. And the answer is simple: because it works. Arts integration allows students to move, act, create and learn content more deeply than simple rote teaching. Because they are moving their bodies or creating an artistic piece from the time period or working with drums, they are connecting the material that is being taught to an activity that they enjoy. The brain will then process the information more quickly, store it more effectively and connect the information to other contexts allowing students to think through the next problem, rather than just relying on a process to figure it out. Once teachers understand the power behind arts integration, they are more willing to give it a chance.
Use a pilot program
Dictating a new program at the beginning of the school year doesn’t work because it seems as though it’s just the next trick in a bag of tricks. This needs to be something that your own school has tried and has been successful at before going school-wide. Start small to see the big results. Set small goals and professional development plans for a small group of teachers and then ask those teachers you think would be most interested in the program to participate. You want people who are willing to take a chance on something new and commit to it so that the program can be successful. Explain to this small group what you want to try and why. Have a clear goal in mind that is not overly ambitious and ask for teacher input. Then, discuss what professional development they will receive and expectations for the program.
Have you ever just been thrown into the proverbial shark tank and been asked to swim? Sure you have. You’re an educational leader. However, from that experience, we all know that it is not the best way to accomplish something. Instead, there needs to be a professional development piece to make teachers more willing to try this new program.
Do some research and select a book to explain arts integration and to provide some examples. Then offer a book club and have a clear agenda each meeting to discuss thoughts and questions. In addition, use technology to enhance your meetings by offering a podcast so that teachers can listen to information at will. Also, offering a blog is another important way to communicate those questions and comments on the program. Not only does it serve as a way to document the pilot, it offers teachers a way to instantaneously talk with each other and share their experiences and suggestions on a daily basis. This became very helpful for our group when designing the book club meeting agendas. I simply went to the blog and saw what most people were discussing or struggling with and we saved a portion of our meeting to talk about it as a group. This type of communication allowed us to have open and honest conversations about things like the value of assessing the arts during a content lesson, how to find the objectives for both areas, and what methods we were using to implement the program. This is invaluable to making teachers feel as though they are not alone and that this is a process.
In addition to a book club, we also had outside facilitators come into our building to show us techniques for including the arts and their objectives in our lessons. This important step gave teachers many ideas that they could then translate into their own classrooms. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we visited two different schools that were already using the program effectively. This became the pivotal point in the journey for our teachers because they could see actual lessons being done, how students really responded, and that the lessons could be small and still important. After those visits, we took time to immediately reconvene together and discuss what we saw, what questions we had and how we could start using this program for our own students. Teachers were excited by what they had seen and began trying the program themselves. Suddenly, our teachers were collaborating and writing lessons and students were getting excited about learning again.
A big component to the success of this program is allotting the time for arts specialists and classroom teachers to meet together and plan. There are many different ways to do this with schedules and as an educational leader, it is your job to find the method that will work best for your school. Our school took the initiative to find a grant to allow four full days of planning and providing substitutes for those teachers. While these were not the only times our teachers met, it became the starting point for the teachers to plan lessons together, to find objectives that would work for the lessons and for explanations about artistic means of expression. From there, teachers began to find time on their own to collaborate and assess their own work. However, the administration and arts integration lead teacher’s commitment to finding the time was essential for staff to plan and implement the program.
Once the lesson plans are written and everyone in the pilot group has started to implement their lessons, it is important to have some feedback. That feedback will be best received if it comes from peers, as people feel safer to take chances around a peer than an administrator. Ask that the peer reviews be attached to the lesson plans and submitted to the administrator in charge of the program during the pilot so that an administrator can get an idea of what is happening. Once teachers have had a chance to be observed by a peer, they will be much more comfortable with an administrative leader watching them and their students.
Finally, after the lesson plans have been implemented and submitted and the pilot program has run its course for the year, take time to celebrate your group. Throughout the year, they will have bonded and a new culture will emerge. Teachers will be excited by what their students produced and feel a renewed energy in their own teaching. It is important to celebrate these accomplishments and plan for the next step in their journey.
The next part of this journey is two-fold. First, it is important to analyze the data from the year to see if this program is “working” for your students. During our pilot program in 2008, data was collected from students who were in the pilot program. Reading and math scores from the state assessments were compared from the previous year and revealed that students who took part in arts integration lessons did, in fact, perform better on those tests. Specifically, the arts integration pilot seemed to have a big impact on the scores of minority, special education and male students. Now we know that arts integration works for the population, what next?
After the data has been collected and analyzed, it’s time to introduce this to the rest of the staff. Start the year with an introduction to the program and share the data that was collected so that everyone can see that this is something that works for the school. Then let the pilot teachers take the lead! Encourage them to become the mentor teachers for others on their teams. Continue to provide professional development for teachers, expand the blog, and train teachers how to provide an effective peer review.
Get it Done
Tim Gunn’s second most popular catch phrase on Project Runway is “get it done!” which pushes the contestants to be as efficient as possible. We are charged with the same mantra. Arts integration has been a key process and program for our school. It has affected our school culture, teacher morale, parent involvement and most importantly student learning. While the program is the essential element, the process is the key to unlocking the treasure this program has to offer. Put the process in motion and make it work for you and your school community.