EPISODE 20: THE STORY OF

Advocating for
Arts Integration

with Michelle Simmons

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For me, it brings the creativity back into teaching. It allows me to take control of the kids learning. And what I find is that the students often through these arts integrated lessons end up teaching me a lot more than I ever could teach them.

Jamie
Are you new to arts integration and looking for ways to advocate for it at your school, along with classroom ideas and examples? Then this is the episode for you. I’m Jamie Hipp and this is Teaching trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On today’s episode, we spend time with Michelle Simmons, a nine year educator with a specialist degree in curriculum and instruction, who enjoys and embodies all things arts integration. She loves designing instruction so that her fifth graders gain unique experiences they may not get otherwise. Welcome, Michelle. We are over the moon about having you on the show.

Michelle
Well, I’m really excited to be with you, Jamie!

Jamie
We have been dying to have you on for months now because of your wealth of arts integration knowledge. So let’s jump right in. What drew you to arts integration initially.

Michelle
So I think that I’ve always been a creative person. And I’ve always used the arts personally as an outlet. And when I was introduced to this idea of pulling them and blending them into the classroom setting, I really felt like that was a way for me to bring part of myself into the classroom as well. And I was able to show my creativity to my students and share that with them. And what I found was that the students really had a need to have those creative outlets and to be able to show their understanding in different ways than just the ABCD that is oftentimes forced on the kids.

Jamie
And when you said bringing a little bit of yourself into the classroom prior to integrating the arts in a classroom setting, were you dancing? Were you singing? Did you love going to paint parties on the weekend? Tell us your background in the arts.

Michelle
So I’m really, I’m pretty much a self taught artist. I do have a small side business that deals with ceramics. So that’s what I do kind of in my spare time. It’s really funny that you asked that about singing and dancing because because I had a teacher one time ask me, it was this year, she said, “I heard she used to be on Broadway or something.” I died and I said, “No, that’s not true. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.” But I tell my students that I missed my calling as a Broadway singer and dancer only. I can’t sing and dance. But because I am always singing and dancing in the classroom, even though it’s not very good,

Jamie
Girl, fake it till you make it. It’s all, it’s all good. I bet it’s fantastic and I bet that brings a lot of joy not only to your students, but to you as a teacher, do you find that now that you’re integrating the arts and since you’ve started arts integration and this journey that you’re on with your classes of fifth graders, do you find more joy and passion in teaching?

Michelle
I do. With standardized testing, there’s so much pressure and there’s so much that we have to fit in such a short amount of time that any sort of outlet for me and my students, for me it brings the creativity back into teaching. It allows me to take control of the kids learning. And what I find is that the students often through these arts integrated lessons ended up teaching me a lot more than I ever could teach them. Their creativity and their out of the box thinking really shines through when they’re given that freedom to explore.

Jamie
Can you give us some classroom examples of arts integrated learning that you’re facilitating with fifth grade?

Michelle
One of my favorite lessons that I did and I always love to do every four years when the Olympics roll around, I love to pull in the culture and to immerse my students and that culture through the arts because I believe that that is the true you know, tell of a culture is through their art. You really can learn so much about a place. And a couple of years ago when the Olympics were in Brazil, we would turn on music and we would paint to it and the kids had never heard you know, that style of music. They had never really experienced and it’s such a freeing music and sound that Brazilian culture has, you know, the party, the carnival, and a lot of them had seen Rio. So they had a little bit of background. But when I really said no, this is, you know, this is their culture, this is their life, they were able to paint some really awesome abstract pieces, through feeling that music and that beat and that soul that comes through when you listen to Brazilian music. And then when in 2018, when the Winter Olympics was in South Korea, my kids were really not familiar with South Korean culture. And I used this as an opportunity through the arts to bring the culture of South Korea into my classroom. And South Korea has a very vibrant culture, we were able to look at drums. They have a very vibrant drumming and it involves dance and theatrics. It’s a beautiful ceremony and the art of South Korea. And you know, I loved doing this because the students were able to experience a culture that they may never be able to experience through art. And it was extremely relevant because we were keeping up with the Olympics at the same time through the sports and my boys jumped on board with that. And it was, we were able to celebrate those differences of culture and learn something completely new, that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.

Jamie
Well said. So when I’m thinking about walking past your classroom and hearing Brazilian music and and smelling this great South Korean food. Do you have any pushback from other teachers or maybe school leaders or even district personnel who might be visiting your school on a regular basis about “that looks like to me much fun, real learning isn’t going on.” Do you have any pushback from teachers or leaders?

Michelle
Well, it’s funny you said the great smelling South Korean food. We actually made kimchi and it does not smell wonderful. It’s a no and, and I had several teachers in the building, they’re like, what are you doing and when will the smell go away? And

Jamie
So maybe some pushback there!

Michelle
But, you know, when I was in Mississippi, and that was actually when I did the Brazilian lesson, I was at an arts integrated school. And so, arts integration was really uh, pushed, it was celebrated. And the kids really knew that that’s what was happening in every classroom. And so when I moved to Florida, it was, to me the magnet schools were very great arts integrated schools, but the normal schools were not and I was in a normal school. And this is something that I really wanted to bring in. And it’s not so much that I’ve gotten pushback. It’s finding I’ve had to be more creative finding the resources for myself. So when I was in an arts integrated school, me going and asking for the materials, the paint and the things like that was not unusual. That was something that was the norm. And now that I’m in a school where a lot of the teachers don’t know what arts integration is, and don’t know how to incorporate in their classroom, when I start doing things and asking for asking help, they kind of sometimes look at me a little bit weird, but they’ve let me – I’ve been very blessed. My administration has kind of let me go on with what I want to do. And I think, you know, not everybody is that lucky and it’s really getting a feel of your administration and your building and what you know, where does arts integration fit in to your school? Because every school is going to look a little different,

Jamie
For sure. And it’s so great that they were so supportive and continue to be so supportive even in a non arts integrated focused school or arts integration magnet school, as you spoke about before. Is art… is advocating for arts integration something that teachers who want to try this approach or try this strategy. The advocacy side does that come August, September once the school year has already started? Or are there steps that teachers can take, possibly even as soon as this summer, if they’re thinking about using the arts and arts integration or even STEAM in a in a regular routine sort of way in their classroom?

Michelle
My suggestion is to start small and let the success show out of your classroom. When you start seeing success in your class, other teachers will want to do the same. I had a professor in college once tell me that teachers were the best thieves he knew, because they were always stealing wonderful ideas. And that’s actually a huge compliment. If somebody steals your ideas, let them go. And we’re in the business of helping kids and that’s how I run my classroom is, if I’m doing something that’s helping my kids, you, by all means, do it to help yours. And one of the things that I would say is plan, is start small plan one or two lessons in nine weeks. You don’t have to have a arts integrated lesson every week. Most certainly don’t have to have one every lesson, but start small one or two in nine weeks. What does that look like in your classroom. If you have other teachers that are on board with it, plan together, there are powers in numbers. If you don’t have the funds, look for grants. A lot of grant money starts coming out in the summer time. And you can get a head start on looking at those deadlines and what kind of data they’re looking for. Looking into a grant is actually a great way to start. And that’s actually where I started bringing in an arts integration residency into my school. This past year, our district always have- our district has a foundation, and they allow for one large grant per school. And I had seen the company Hip Hop Fundamentals on one of my friend’s pages, Facebook pages, and they were in Philadelphia, and I really thought that it was something that our students needed and would connect with. And so I sat down with my principal, and I said, “Look, this is what I’m looking into, would you mind if I took on the job of writing the grant for the school?” And I have found that if you’re willing to do the work, they’re a lot more likely to say yes!

Jamie
I bet!

Michelle
So, she gave the go ahead. And we worked very hard and was awarded this grant to bring in Hip Hop Fundamentals. And they are an amazing organization that incorporates content with hip hop and breakdancing specifically, and we worked through the details. And, you know, it was such a positive experience for not only the students but for the staff. I was a little bit concerned of how the staff was going to react because it’s one thing doing this in your classroom, when your students are the only people that are judging you, and they’re pretty easy. Once you get them up and get them moving, they’re pretty much sold on whatever you’re doing. But to take a bunch of adults, some who had never done this before, and we did a PD with them. And I was very nervous, I was sweating the day of our professional development, because I was just so worried of how it was going to be received. And I wanted this to be something that our school found important and useful and beneficial, because I knew that that was the doorway that was going to open up to more opportunity, and it blew me away. The guys from Hip Hop Fundamentals are incredible educators, probably some of the best educators I’ve ever worked with. And they know not only, you know, young adult learning techniques, but also adult learning styles. And, you know, I had so many teachers… we had to do do a survey for the grant. And I had so many teachers say what a wonderful experience it was, and that they would want more information on how to do more things like this in their classroom. And I really felt like it was… the door was open now, and we could do more of this.

Jamie
Sounds fantastic. What an amazing opportunity. And how great that you know, it’s something right now that some of the states that are still quarantined, we can do in quarantine and in self isolation, we can put eyes on these grants and these these call calls for proposals and spend the time like you did to potentially get an amazing residency or arts integration experience at the school level that is just fabulous. So because we have you on the podcast, I think I would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about using podcasts as authentic assessments which I know is your conference presentation at the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM’s summer connectivity conference. So you do not want to miss this session. Michelle, will you give us a teaser of your session and maybe some special details about what we’re going to see this summer?

Michelle
Yes, I was so excited to put together this session for the conference. This was another great opportunity in my classroom that I got through a grant of Donor’s Choose. So once again, go out there and find that money. There are people that are willing to give you money, take it! Using podcasts in classrooms was one of the most comprehensive ways I have ever assessed my students. And it brought in so much more than just recording a podcast. We talked about mixing and editing. We were able to to talk about theme what was the theme of our podcast and we picked songs based on that theme for our intro and outro. And the kids ate it up. And a lot of them have never heard themselves on a microphone through headphones and their faces when they first put it on, and I just let them play with it for a minute and just, you know, record silly things and play around. It was truly magical. It’s the, it’s the face that you strive for when you’re teaching: that moment where they’re in awe of learning. And, you know, one thing I love about podcasts is that there is no subject area, you cannot include. The sky is the limit. It is limitless in what you can do and it’s also extremely easy. My fifth graders can do it. I truly believe any level can do it.

Jamie
We cannot wait for your session this summer. For more conference information visit www.artsintegrationconference.com. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. And I’ve been your host Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.