Art Inspires Math Inspires Art: The Ripple Effect of Arts Integration

What does learning look like in June? It’s hot, kids are getting restless, and classes don’t typically get any easier academically. Quite the opposite, in fact, for Algebra 1 students and teachers at North County High School in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) who, in their final weeks of 9th grade, worked on teaching and understanding one of the class’ most difficult concepts: Graphing Piecewise Functions.

In the past, through the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative, the Math department at North County High has enlisted a slam poet, a storyteller, and a steel drum musician to help teach Algebra 1 concepts. This year, they invited YA roster artist Christina Delgado to guide the 9th-grade students and teachers through the art of photography to produce images that symbolize points on a Piecewise Graph.

Piecewise functions have multiple equations that define different sections of a graph. One section may look like a straight line, the adjoining section may look like a parabola. Rather than having one equation that defines the graph, there are multiple equations that define the function for specific sections.

To bring this concept to life, Christina and the mathematics team took the complex math idea and made it personal. Students were asked to tell the story of their freshman year of high school and translate that story to a graph with the X-axis representing time and the Y-axis, happiness. As with life itself, happiness over time does not always look like a straight line or a steady curve—sometimes there are sharp turns and big ups and downs in short periods of time. Students started with the story they wanted to tellthe story of their school year, then worked backward to graph these stories over time and layered them over a photograph of their creation and choosing.

The students took the art form very seriously and paid close attention to Christina’s advice and direction—and because the teachers participated along beside them, they were able to experience the pleasure and resonance of learning through photography. They were able to relay this experience while leading a professional development course for the rest of the math department, giving them a small taste of how integrating the arts not only helps students grasp difficult concepts in math, but helps build community and understanding in the classroom.

“It’s a great way to learn how your students learn,” Christina told the teachers. Mr. Kellermann and Ms. Russell recounted how much their students enjoyed working on the projects—projects that were meaningful to them. “I learned a lot about the kids I didn’t know—it was cool sitting and talking with them and talking about their stories.” In preplanning sessions, students wrote stories about their lives, highlighting events that had an impact on them. Teachers helped students identify symbols that could represent critical points in these stories.

The Algebra 1 teachers walked the rest of the math department faculty through the same initial exercises their students completed on the first day of the residency. Just like their students, the teachers learned to operate and care for their tools and to use them respectfully. After reviewing some of the children’s final projects, talking about the choices their students made, and what elements were included to make their photographs visually interesting, the teachers set off on a scavenger hunt of sorts. They were to collect three images on their digital cameras: One of a colorful circle, one of a triangle, and the last one, showing pattern.

One North County High School student chose to focus her story on her parents’ separation—using the school building as the background for a marriage certificate torn in two and enlisting a friend to help stage the photo. In addition to the graph, students were encouraged to be creative with adding line, color, and embellishment to their photos to help tell the story.

When their students were first handed cameras, they immediately wanted to take pictures of themselves and their friends. They quickly shifted their focus to the environment around them, however. They became observant and attentive. Now faculty members were able to see that being behind the lens requires them to look around and take note of what they are seeingto be purposeful of what they are capturing in the frame. “I was trying to take a picture of this flower,” one teacher commented, “but a person blocked the way. It was like we partnered on it. It was kind of cool.”

That kind of partnership is something Christina fosters in her classroom residencies. “Actually, one of our rules is to cooperate,” the artist told educators. You have to share equipment, so students have to remind each other of how to handle cameras safely and carefully, but they will also share ideas and photo-taking techniques like perspective.

The faculty returned to the classroom to share their images. Their excitement and level of anticipation while waiting for the photos to upload matched their young students. One teacher, upon seeing a colleague’s photo of a circle, exclaimed, “It looks like Saturn!” As they clicked through the images together, Ms. Russell reminded them that in the classroom, reviewing the work does not signal the end of the lesson. This, too, was an opportunity to engage. “Alright guys, this is a great picture. Now how can we make it better?”

Day One: Camera Basics and Color, Line, and Pattern
The classes learned to operate and care for their tools and to use them respectfully. They then learned to identify visual art elements through the lens of a digital camera. After reviewing examples of Christina’s own work, talking about the choices an artist makes in capturing images, and what makes a photograph visually interesting, students and teachers set off on a scavenger hunt of sorts. They were to collect three images: One of a colorful circle, one of a triangle, and the last one, showing pattern.

Days Two and Three: Composition, Symbolism, and a Final Image
Christina arrived with bags overflowing with curious objects, colorful mementos, magazines, and flags. Everyone was excited to sort through the treasures to find the perfect piece to symbolize a moment in their story. Their task on this day was to put that object into a specific environment and use their cameras to capture it from a point of view that would support its meaning. “People were really mindful about how they were holding their cameras and the colors they used,” said the artist about students’ final photos. 

Day Four: Visual Stories—Graphed
Students and teachers plotted timelines using a piecewise graph, then transferred the graph directly onto their final images. From yet another bag of goodies, the class added multimedia collage elements—stickers, multicolored transparency film, pipe cleaners, yarn—the works! “I encouraged the students to try and be creative about how they wanted to draw their line or how they wanted to tell their story a little bit deeper—maybe add some words and some embellishments to make their pictures stand out a little bit more.” They were able to create some really interesting and compelling multimedia pieces. “You’re seeing the graph, but you’re also seeing the visual representation of the graph or the story.”

North County High School Algebra 1 teacher Mrs. Stephanos learned right along with her students in the photography residency with Young Audiences roster artist Christina Delgado.

Looking to the Future
Is it any wonder that positive energy and the excitement of big ideas in teaching will ripple through a school community and spark even more minds and imaginations? The math teachers at North County High School (NCHS) brainstormed many additional concepts they’d like to teach through digital photography. And the art department was so excited to see the Algebra 1 students’ finished pieces that they plan to replicate this exact lesson for their art students.

As even further evidence of their commitment to arts integration, NCHS just received a $40,000 STEM + Arts Integration grant from the National Office of Young Audiences Arts for Learning to support a year-long arts integration program with their 9th-grade Algebra students and YAMD teaching artists. Christina Delgado will be traveling to Kansas City, MO this August with Lacey Sheppard, AACPS Arts Integration Teacher Specialist, and Hana Morford, YAMD Education Director of Statewide Initiatives, to take part in a Professional Learning Institute to develop the program’s curriculum. We cannot wait to see the lesson plans that will emerge.

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).

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).

The Flavor of Math: Understanding Algebraic Terms

What do you call a collection of two or more equations using the same set of unknowns? Can you identify the variables and constants in a mathematic expression? Why would a person ever use the Method of Matrices? If you were an Algebra student, you’d be committing these definitions, methods, and terms to memory, filling your lexicon with the language of math.

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Any veteran language learner will tell you that old adage. Being challenged to use their new vocabulary in a different context is one way to help students become (and remain) fluent. To encourage this, Amy Goodman, Math Department Chair of North County High School (NCHS) in Northern Anne Arundel County, coordinated an artist residency developed by YA artist and spoken word poet Femi the DriFish in collaboration with the school’s Algebra 1 team. Artist residencies, like this one, came to the school thanks to the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative.

Through the initiative, schools in Northern Anne Arundel County 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.

“Mr. Fish!” NCHS students announced Femi the DriFish’s arrival. The artist is a master of illustrating the meaning of words through poetry and, through literary guidance, builds a strong rapport with the young scholars. For this residency, Femi worked with students to write poems within small groups on the topic where I’m from.

The 9th graders brainstormed over how to use the algebraic vocabulary words scribed onto the backs of index cards to convey their thoughts: function, common difference, output, relation. The language usually reserved for Algebra class became double entendres in lyrics carrying messages of citizenship, diversity, and pride. “If you use the terms correctly,” Femi said, “you remember the definition. You retain it and can access it later.”

“Like parallel lines, some soulmates never meet,” one student revealed in his group’s performance. Some soloists represented their classmates. “Word pairs are like the relation to life, we are all like terms so we don’t have to fight.”

NCHS Algebra teacher Mrs. Russell was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of creativity. “I’m seeing different things and personalities from kids that I don’t normally see,” the teacher said. “They’re a lot more excited than I thought they’d be!”

As they industriously crafted metaphors and similes, cleverly using their new vocabulary as figurative language, debate arose over whether or not the verses should rhyme. “It never has to rhyme,” Femi advised. “It’s how you perform it that gives it flavor.” He taught the children to confidently use body language by analyzing performing techniques and discussing what is needed to relay a message. “It’s all about how to effectively communicate with your audience,” Femi said. Scholars rehearsed the delivery of their collaborative poetry to truly express their emotions, communicate their history, and challenge the audience to walk in their shoes.

The students did not disappoint. “Like parallel lines, some soulmates never meet,” one student revealed in his group’s performance. Most groups selected just a few students to deliver their words in the culminating performance. Some soloists represented their classmates. “Word pairs are like the relation to life, we are all like terms so we don’t have to fight.” Performers garnered many cheers and rousing support from the teachers and peers populating the auditorium. And everyone involved in the residency left with a much stronger understanding of algebraic vocabulary and a knowledge of terms they won’t soon forget.

So, what do you call a collection of two or more equations with the same set of unknowns? A system. You call it a system.

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).