Step by Step: The Power of the Arts

Written by Barbara Krebs,
Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member

As a pair of dancers performed, a group of elementary school children sat, crisscross applesauce, watching their every move. Valerie Branch, a dancer and choreographer with Young Audiences had been working with the Belle Grove Elementary students in an artist residency made possible through the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative (AEMI). When the last notes faded away, Valerie asked the children what they had observed.

“They love each other,” one child offered.

“They share,” another chimed in.

Valerie Branch and a student from Belle Grove Elementary School demonstrating a “weight bearing” dance technique for the audience.

Then she asked the kids to explain what dancing techniques they had witnessed. “Negative space,” “weight sharing,” and “weight bearing” were some of the answers shouted out.

Next, she gathered a group of her second-grade students to pair off with each other to demonstrate some of those concepts. Once the children had done so, half of the students were instructed to use a frozen pose in a high, medium, or low position. The rest were to react to whatever their partner had created. With the new poses in place, she asked the other children in the assembly to discuss what they saw and how the partners had related to one another.

And, in true arts integration form, this exercise was not just about learning dance terminology and positions, but was tied to lessons at the school. This particular one was used in conjunction with a poetry-writing assignment in which the children described themselves through the creation of “I am” poems. Later, choreography was added to illustrate their autobiographical poetry.

Such was the back-and-forth learning that observers witnessed at the Arts Empowered Minds Announcement Event and Celebration on Friday, March 8. The group of educators, politicians, state and local arts administrators, and volunteers gathered at the school was celebrating a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which will be used to expand arts integration and teacher professional development in Northern Anne Arundel County.

Pictured counter-clockwise from top left: YA President & CEO Stacie Sanders Evans, Matt Barinholtz of FutureMakers, AEMI Teacher Liaison Betsy Brininger, and Lacey Sheppard, AACPS Arts Integration Teacher Specialist

This is the third time that the NEA has awarded Young Audiences, the program’s managing partner, a grant for AEMI. This collaborative partnership between a wide array of arts and education organizations throughout Anne Arundel County seeks to “address the disparity in arts access–and associated gaps in student achievement–between students in Northern Anne Arundel County and the rest of the county.”

Arts Integration Teacher Mika Nakano (left) and Brittany Roger (right)

Now in its third year, AEMI has already racked up an impressive set of statistics. But even better than the numbers are the inspiring stories that teachers and administrators had to share during the event. Brittany Roger, a teaching artist with a scientific illustration background, spoke of bringing exotic animals (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, iguanas, corn snakes) to the classroom and allowing children to explore the creatures through sight, sound, touch, and smell. Afterward, the students draw and sketch the animals based on their observations.

Amy Goodman, who heads the math department at North County High School, told of her department’s initial skepticism about linking arts and math together. But as the teachers learned arts integration techniques and applied them in the classroom, they began to see students who had been turned off or struggling with math begin to make connections that helped them grasp the concepts they needed to learn.

Dr. Maureen McMahon,  Deputy Superintendent for Academics & Strategic Initiatives for Anne Arundel County Public Schools

And so, step by step, AEMI partners create opportunities for children to learn through the arts. Step by step, the Initiative changes minds about the importance of integrating the arts with reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. And, step by step, it makes converts of those who witness how the arts engage young minds and help them stay, not only focused on their education, but truly inspired to learn.

Learn more about the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative, its collective impact partners and the community it serves by visiting artsempoweredminds.org.

Spreading the Word

Teaching a subject through a new art form feels less daunting after not only seeing a successful idea modeled in a classroom setting, but actually participating in the learning as a student. At Community Arts: Connecting Neighborhoods and Classrooms, the 13th Annual Arts Integration Conference at UMBC, academic teachers were given the opportunity to see and do in a number of classrooms on campus.

Workshop participants learned, for example, the art storytelling with Laura Wexler of  The Stoop Storytelling Series, how to connect ELA and STEAM with designing and building kinetic sculptures with FutureMakers, and ways to integrate theatre standards with language arts standards.

Participants in one class learned how to teach mathematics through wring poetry. Teachers of grade levels ranging from Pre-K through adult learners convened to learn from North County High School (NCHS) Algebra teacher Ashley Russell and Young Audiences roster artist and spoken word poet Femi the Drifish. Their workshop Right On, Then Say Word: Poetic Mathematics was developed through a lesson they have been successfully co-teaching since the 2017-18 school year.

The pair shared their collective experience working with students and showed examples of student work and performances. Femi (his students address him as Mr. Fish) gave the teachers a small taste of his signature style and shared other arts-integrated lessons he’s taught over the years, encouraging them to think about the intersection of language and math in word problems and popular mnemonic devices like PEMDAS (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally).

At the end of the hour, the teachers had not only enjoyed their time, they learned to create, revise, and perform their own spoken word poetry using mathematical terms. They felt confident that they could use poetry to teach material in their own classrooms. And their students will most certainly enjoy the challenge, pride, creative thinking, and accomplishment that comes from learning through this art form.

You can read more about their partnership in the classroom and how students learn Algebra through the practice of writing and performing slam poetry here.

In 2017, North County High School Math Department Chair Amy Goodman began working to bring arts integration to all of the school’s 9th grade Algebra 1 classes. Thanks to the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative, these students have studied with a variety of professional teaching artists. In addition to Femi the DriFish, Algebra 1 students have worked with TAHIRA, Skher Brown, and Kevin MartinSince beginning this effort, the school’s Algebra I PARCC scores have shown double-digit gains (not to mention, students nurtured their creative sides exploring storytelling, learning to play steel drums, expressing themselves through poetry, and practicing the art of Capoeira Angola).

Arts Empowered Minds Initiative

Arts Empowered Minds Initiative: Prioritizing Children and Learning

Written by Barbara Krebs,
Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member

It’s all about priorities. There are only 24 hours in a day, and as a busy person, you have to prioritize the most important things. I could tell that this principal really wanted to talk about the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative (AEMI), Young Audiences, and how arts-based learning was impacting his school. That’s because, despite the week-long game of telephone and email tag we played just before the start of the new school year, he kept contacting me to set up the next potential interview time. Happily, I finally connected with Rodney Walker, principal of Brooklyn Park Elementary School in Northern Anne Arundel County.

But first–what is AEMI? According to its website, it is “a collective impact initiative that utilizes the arts to improve school achievement, parent involvement, and student engagement and empathy in Northern Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS).” That collective involves more than a half dozen organizations selected for, among other things, their “expertise in the arts, education, or both.”

Detail of a science mural students in Northern Anne Arundel County created as part of a residency made possible through the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative.

So when I spoke to Principal Walker, I was curious as to how his school had become involved, how the partnership worked in his school, and what his observations of its impact were. Brooklyn Park Elementary had become an AEMI school about three years ago when he received info about the group from AACPS’ Central Office. When he met with AEMI staff and learned of their mission and partnerships, he knew that it would be a “natural fit” for his school. He liked the idea that it “gives kids different opportunities to expand their learning. It exposes them to different art genres and focuses on creative ways to teach core subjects.”

Over the summer, Principal Walker attended one of Young Audiences’ tours of Summer Arts & Learning Academy (SALA), which was specifically geared towards introducing principals to the program. Having toured SALA earlier in the summer myself, I wondered how his experience as an educator differed from mine.

In one arts-integrated Algebra residency, students created poems using math terms.

Like me, he was impressed with the fourth-grade classroom he observed using a rap song to learn math concepts. We both noticed how much fun the kids were having while they were learning, a crucial element in creating positive learning experiences.

But as a long-term educator, he noticed something that I had missed. “Sometimes our kids have difficulty in learning the math vocabulary. Here, they’re connecting because they’re having fun. But in the process, the kids are becoming leaders. They’re holding themselves accountable.” In other words, it was the children who were helping to create a positive classroom culture. Of course, the teachers were guiding it, but by empowering their students, the kids took ownership and were self-motivated.

As part of the Arts Empowered Minds initiative, teachers and artists partner to design arts-integrated lessons under the guidance of master teachers and teaching artists.

Principal Walker’s assessment of the learning techniques he witnessed was “phenomenal,” but how will this translate back on the ground at Brooklyn Park Elementary? With AEMI’s focus on arts-based learning and its links to other arts/education groups, Principal Walker sees a continued focus on “creating a safe space for learning and exploration.”

“We will continue to work with AEMI, Young Audiences, and its partners to add professional development for our teachers, and incorporate new and creative ways to add arts-based learning into our writing and math classes.”

AEMI’s priority is to “increase access to high-quality, arts-integrated learning opportunities…” Though it’s not always easy to quantify any particular program’s impact, there is one thing that Principal Walker is absolutely certain of. That’s the “happy faces” he sees during assemblies with an arts orientation.

As Principal Walker’s enthusiasm for AEMI and its partners show, I suspect that arts-focused education will continue to be a priority at Brooklyn Park Elementary School.

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).

Storytelling Visualized Assigning Functions to a Narrative

Storytelling Visualized: Assigning Functions to a Narrative

You can feel a good story in your core- the sadness, the suspense, the bitterness, and the beauty. We are good at registering and reacting to all of the characters, events, and plot twists a story throws at us, but have you ever tried to look at one through the eyes of a mathematician? What would a story look like without words, without pictures, its content plotted on a graph?

YA teaching artist and storyteller TAHIRA and Amy Goodman, Math Department Chair at North County High School (NCHS), collaborated in the development of a unique residency through the Teaching Artist Institute (TAI) to show just that. NCHS is one of 12 in Northern Anne Arundel County benefiting from professional development like TAI, in-school arts integration, and out-of-school arts programming as part of the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative (AEMI), a partnership aimed at ensuring equitable access to the arts for Northern Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

The Algebra 1 NCHS students studied different function families and the elements of storytelling, listened to a variety of stories, then tried to determine which algebraic function best described each one.

TAHIRA: What happened that surprised you?

Student: As you were telling the story, the story was compared to math- because events were escalating like in a graph. And then when events took a downfall in the story, the graph started decreasing.

TAHIRA: Then the class had to describe what function the story plotted out, right?

Student: Exponential.

TAHIRA: Yeah, it was exponential. And you had a reaction to all that. What did you say? Do you remember what you said?

Student: I was surprised at how the story could be compared to math.

Each student was asked to illustrate why they chose a particular function over another to describe the characteristics of the story. Could there be more than one answer? Two students each shared their understanding of how a story unfolded by taking turns plotting it out on the same graph, compared and contrasted their unique perspectives, then decided if both functions made sense or if one more accurately described the story than the other.

TAHIRA: Did it make you look at storytelling differently? Or math differently- or help you understand the math?

Student: Yeah, it helped me understand how the graph can be compared to anything such as… in the story, when everything goes wrong, the graph decreases and it shows how it takes a negative effect.

TAHIRA: Exactly. And then?

Student: And then everything comes back together and that creates a positive effect.

TAHIRA: And we talked about the parts of a story: There’s a beginning…

Student: A middle and an end… when there’s a conflict, the two forces, the positive and the negative collide and whoever wins- that’s how the story plays out.

TAHIRA: Exactly, how it plays out- that’s right, it’s called a resolution.

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).

Algebra in the Drum Shop: Plotting the Rate of Change with Kevin Martin

“Will I ever use this in real life?” A teacher could rattle off the professional fields that a mathematician could enter after pursuing a degree when students challenge, “Why do we have to learn this?” Or, they could show them what they can do now with the skills they are practicing. The arts are good for that, and YA roster artist Kevin Martin is an expert at teaching students how to employ their new mathematical knowledge in a very cool and tangible, real-world way.

Kevin Martin teaching students to play steel drums

Kevin has been building and playing steel drums, also called steel pans, for more than 20 years. Through his company Rockcreek Steel Drums, the artist has built thousands of steel drum instruments for clients across the world, and now, he is sharing this knowledge through a residency with students at North County High School (NCHS) in Anne Arundel County. “A steel pan is really a musical sculpture,” says Kevin. These sculptures are tuned instruments that have been methodically hammered into a very specific shape and thickness from the flat base of a steel barrel.

Algebra students at work.

This residency came to NCHS thanks to professional development for teachers in arts integration as part of The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative. Through the initiative, schools are learning to use arts integration as a strategy for boosting student achievement and engagement. Classroom teachers and school administrators are building sustainable partnerships with teaching artists and arts organizations that inspire students and use the creative process to make meaningful, real-world connections to the curriculum.

Kevin worked with 9th grade algebra teacher Sarah Dobry to teach students how steel drum design and fabrication requires the same mathematical concepts explained in their textbooks.

Using careful measurements and the same tools and algebraic formulas that Kevin uses in his shop, the students learn to graph a drum’s rate of change to see how the sides of the pan slope inwards at different rates. Because they’re not just learning, but applying the strategies and formulas they’ve learned, students appreciate the instrument’s transformation from flat to concave and the depth and location of each depression.

Of course, the class also learned to play the instruments. Pairs of students learned where to hit specific notes on the pan and how to control their drumsticks to achieve different effects, rolling them over a note to extend a sound, or striking it purposefully.

As the students gained confidence, they took turns demonstrating their ability. Ms. Dobry was impressed by her class’ excitement and eagerness to participate, “The kids who are usually silent in math have been volunteering to be the example this week.”

“As a math guy, I enjoy the challenge of learning the notes and shaping the metal,” Kevin told Trumpf Express, a professional magazine published for the sheet metal processing trade. “As a musician, I try to recreate the essence of sound.” The artist gave Ms. Dobry’s ninth graders an introduction to what’s possible when you combine an academic skill with the art form you love. And perhaps some of them even discovered a new talent.

Algebra teacher Sarah Dobry

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).

North County High School: Creating Learning Opportunities Through the Arts

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative (AEMI) is aimed at ensuring equitable access to the arts for Northern Anne Arundel County Public Schools through in-school arts integration, out-of-school arts programming, and professional development for teachers. Now in its second year, the initiative has been expanded to include all twelve schools in the region thanks to generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts!

North County High School

Notable among the additional schools is the North County High School (NCHS). All students in every other school impacted by AEMI are zoned to complete their secondary education at this high school. North County High School’s new designation as an AEMI school will enable local students to continue their learning through arts integration throughout their school years. This creates a unique opportunity for the school to serve as a beacon for arts engagement, not just for high school students, but for the whole Northern Anne Arundel County community.

NCHS is already home to a variety of performing band and orchestra ensembles, and offers students the opportunity to become involved in a number of in-school and after-school arts activities. “The medium of music is a fantastic way to teach some wonderful life lessons as part of the comprehensive program at North County,” wrote NCHS Music Director Theresa Bange on the school’s extensive music program’s webpage. The school climate encourages a culture of respect for the arts in its many forms. NCHS has also shown a commitment to innovation, offering special programs including the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) Magnet Program, the IT3 (International Trade, Transportation, and Tourism) Program, and the Early College Access program.

This year, the high school will participate in several arts-integrated opportunities where artists will professionally deliver instruction through the arts. Math Department chair Amy Goodman is leading the charge of integrating the arts at North County High. She is currently coordinating a residency developed by YA artist and spoken word poet Femi the DriFish in collaboration with the school’s Algebra 1 team as well as collaborating with theatre artist, storyteller, and YA roster artist TAHIRA to develop a residency through the Teaching Artist Institute (TAI). Also through TAI, 9th grade algebra teacher Sarah Dobry is collaborating with steel drummer, Kevin Martin, integrating music with the curriculum!

“It’s all about creating opportunities,” said Mrs. Goodman. She recalled her experience working with teaching artist Carolyn Koerber in the previous school year. “There was one student who struggled all year, but finally felt success working with Carolyn. Bringing artists into the classroom is an amazing opportunity for not only our students, but for faculty as well.”

We are looking forward to sharing the collaborative work of YA artists and educators in arts integration at North County High School over the next few months and for years to come.

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).

The National Endowment for the Arts: a Sound Investment

Co-authored by Barbara Krebs, a Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member.

We grow up in the United States hearing that we get what we pay for. Such is the case with investments in the greater good. That’s one of the many reasons we’re so passionate about teaching in and through the arts. From our country’s youngest students to our aging seniors, the entire population benefits in both the short- and long-term from the arts, whether it be emotionally, socially, or intellectually.

Non-profit arts organizations like us work hard to both generate sustainable programming and seek support from private and corporate funders so that we may fulfill our mission to positively impact the greatest number of Maryland children with the highest quality arts-integrated educational programming. Federal funding may only be a piece of our funding picture, but it is an important one.

We are excited and proud that the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Young Audiences of Maryland $90,000– one of only seven total Collective Impact Grants awarded nationwide– for the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative (AEMI) in Northern Anne Arundel County! The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative utilizes arts integration programming to boost achievement, parental involvement, student engagement, and empathy. Programming includes in-school arts integration, out-of-school arts programming, and professional development for teachers. In addition, the program will partner with community organizations to create family engagement opportunities, such as providing family passes to the new Maker Space at Chesapeake Arts Center.

The program is the culmination of the work of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC). Together, we have already provided professional development to over 100 teachers, and delivered high-quality arts-in-education programs to nearly 2,500 students at six schools.

“This second grant from the NEA will allow us to both deepen and expand our reach and maximize existing resources to ultimately bring the impact of arts integration to almost every student in Northern Anne Arundel County,” Stacie Sanders Evans, Executive Director of Young Audiences explained. The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative will expand from six schools to all 12 public schools in Northern Anne Arundel County and impact more than 7,000 students in grades pre-k through 12.

To be clear, it’s not the NEA’s budget that is proposed to be cut; it’s the NEA itself that is on the line. It’s important to think about this as it impacts local communities and groups. And, should the NEA be eliminated, it will impact our community. When vital, far-reaching, and life-altering programs are at risk, we must speak up. And it’s surprisingly simple and quick to let your voice be heard.  Identify your legislators. Email your senator. Call your representative. Write a letter.

Take 2 minutes now to contact your members of Congress and join the #SAVEtheNEA campaign. Involved citizens can and do make a difference.  Please, join us in the fight to keep the arts alive and accessible in our nation, state, and community. We get what we pay for. And, when we invest wisely, what we get is more than we could have ever even hoped for.