Dyan Branstetter | January 2016

The Power of a Teaching Artist

A Teaching Artist

This month, my school has the wonderful opportunity to host a teaching artist in residence. This is our third year hosting an artist, and, thanks to my principal, each year the experience has grown. Before a teaching artist works with our students, we have a meeting to work out the logistics and details. During that meeting, I like to listen to everything the artist can tell me about his or her art form and the plans he or she has for working with our students.

I take notes on any ideas that connect to our academic and arts standards and then develop those notes into academic connections for teachers in my building. I provide common vocabulary and background information to pre-teach or review, as well as optional lesson ideas. An isolated artist in residence experience is great, but to maximize the effectiveness of the program, it is helpful to make connections to what students are learning, or at the very least for teachers to lead students in a reflection of the experience.

Steven Courtney

Steven is the local singer-songwriter leading our students in four sessions and an assembly this month. After a whole school kick-off, he spent the first session with each class teaching a lesson on how to craft lyrics. It was amazing to watch. I knew from my introductory meeting with him that we would have a lot of connections to our ELA standards, but the amount of them, in just one session, blew me away. The students noticed, too. Mr. Courtney started his lesson giving the students the topic of New York City. He asked them to brainstorm things they would see in New York. After they chimed in with a number of ideas, he explained that topics like that make a good song because they have lots of “ingredients” that fall under the chosen category.

One of our students volunteered, saying, “It’s just like main ideas and details!” Why yes, yes it is! From there, we worked on the structure of our song, which related to our recent lessons on text structure, syllables, and rhyming patterns. They were also engaged because their teacher was quite a performer, and because they were learning to write a song from a real songwriter! Authenticity at it’s finest.

Watching the students make these connections was so exciting. But as teachers commented to me about how they were also enjoying the experience and taking ideas back to their classrooms, it dawned on me– it had also been great professional development for us. Many times, teachers shy away from integrating the arts because they don’t have a background in the arts. Here, we have the chance to observe a teaching artist teaching his craft for four weeks. What better way to become more comfortable at teaching than observing model lessons? Think of how much we could gain if we could accompany our students to art or music class.

In addition, we’re working with our community when we bring teaching artists to our schools. For our culminating activity with our artist this year, students will be writing a song related to our school character traits, which we will record and perform. Not only will the students have a great deal of ownership in this project, but it will be on iTunes. This is a big deal for kids. Are you looking for student engagement and motivation? Knowing that work will be on display for the community (or world!) to see will take your student work to the next level in any subject area.

Get Your School Involved!

If your school doesn’t already have an annual artist in residence experience, it is well worth the time it takes to plan and secure funding. It can be a challenge to find a true “teaching artist” though. Jeff Mather is board president for The Atlanta Partnership for Arts in Learning (www.artsinlearning.com). He wisely said, “Just because an artist does beautiful work does not mean that they are adept at sharing their art form with diverse groups. Then again, you could get lucky and find an artist who seems to have some innate ability doing this. But even artists who work with art centers or museums may not have the skill set or wherewithal to succeed in a school setting.”

If you’re beginning the search, start by networking with local artists, museums, and colleges or universities. Some cities and states are lucky to have listings of teaching artists, such as the ones listed in this document:  TeachingArtistDirectory.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.