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).