Breaking down barriers with the arts

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By Kwame Opare, High Point High School Dance Teacher and Young Audiences teaching artist

I have had the privilege to work with a diverse group of learners in the Prince George’s County school system so far this school year. As ​a​ dance teacher for all grades at High Point High School, I have been faced with a challenge not yet experienced throughout my years of bringing my craft to the classroom as a teaching artist. High Point’s population is largely immigrant and first-generation American young people and English is often not the first language (or even second language in some cases) for many of my students. This has compelled me to modify, and even synthesize new instructional methods, to ensure the transfer of knowledge.

What I’ve noticed in this short but meaningful time is that no matter where you are on Earth, young people want to learn, they crave information. They will test you as the adult to see if you really care whether or not they get it, or if they even show up. I care, and in this short time, I believe that I have convinced my students of this. Now that I “got ’em,” the onus is on me to make sure they know that they have the right to learn and that they must take the process of learning into their own hands. Creating an environment where students feel confident and enabled to take ownership of their learning is essential to their growth as students and beyond. We as educators must only provide a framework of knowledge and wisdom that comes from study and experience in a safe environment so that the true capacity for brilliance can be nurtured in our young people.

What do the arts have to do with all of this? After all, it’s just dance. Through dance, I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of my students and have used them both to fortify my instructional methods. The brilliance of all my students is evident, but is often locked away beneath external and internal distractions​, ​such as s​elf-doubt​, embarrassment, worries about​ what peers w​ill think, ​or ​problems at home. Through dance, we can successfully weed through these distractions. Some of my students at High Point tell me their stories and in response I just ask them to please keep coming to class because they are a part of something now. Their growth from the first day of class to today has been a joy to observe and I feel so fortunate to bear witness.

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At first they came in scared, terrified, some not knowing the English language, and nearly none of them knowing the language of dance. Though the proficiency levels vary, the feelings of frustration from the challenge is shared. Yet, we are starting to build a community of support and understanding with confident souls that know they CAN! Some of those who stood in the back of the class at first are finding their way to the front and are becoming leaders, helping others and welcoming newcomers.

In dance, the process often begins with what I refer to as the ugly duckling syndrome. “Feeling ‘stupid’ and looking ‘stupid’ is OK,” I tell my students. I remind them that we all looked “stupid” when we were learning to walk as babies but the alternative was to never run and we wouldn’t have that! The process is what makes art making so fulfilling and ultimately what makes a teaching artist so effective. Artists know and respect the strength of the process because we are immersed in it daily. Effectively bringing the idea of process into the classroom has a positive and lasting impact on students.

It is through these processes that students are engaged where they may otherwise be distracted or lack interest. The process instills in young people the ability to effectively gather resources, question, problem-solve, and persevere to see something through to the end, whatever challenges they may face in academy and beyond.

Working to bring the arts to every student

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By Dr. Sherrie Norwitz, Instrumental String Music Teacher, Thomas Jefferson Elementary Middle

Art and aesthetics are crucial to the foundation of society. Arts education provides children the opportunity to be exposed to–and develop their own–appreciation of beauty in their world. Art is a way to transmit the values of the society. Through the arts, children learn about their community, helping to provide them with a context for their lives within their communities, and become active participants in helping to create their communities. Arts experiences open doors to children, allowing them to say, “I am touched by this. I am a part of this beauty. I created this. I shared my creation. This has meaning to me.”

Sequential education in the arts is a crucial component in a child’s education. Learning about and through the arts gives students ownership of skills and knowledge to become active participants in society through creative expression and communication.

It is important to me for students to experience the integration of the arts across the curriculum and the varying natural connections that are inherent between the arts and their core curriculum subjects. This arts integration approach supports the learning of core curriculum subjects, reaches a wide-range of learners, provides authentic real world experiences that directly involve students in the act of creating, provides opportunities for collaboration, and supports the development of 21st Century Skills through the Common Core and Career Ready Standards.

Through our partnerships with Arts Every Day and Young Audiences, our school community is finding its way in creating a comprehensive arts integration program. With the support of our principal, Ms. Henry, we feel that we have a very strong foundation for our program’s growth and development.

This year we began by extending the arts-integrated approach to learning beyond the artist-in-residence program which we had previously brought to our students. Working with Young Audiences, we created a Resident Teaching Artist position for the year to allow for the continued presence of a teaching artist within our school. Our Resident Teaching Artist, Young Audiences artist Kwame Opare, performed with his ensemble, DishiBem G.R.O.W. during school-wide assemblies, and provided workshops to fifth- through eighth-grade students. Kwame also provided our teachers professional development in arts integration to help answer their questions, provide guidance, calm apprehensions, and worked with teachers during collaborative teaching days to bring arts integration directly to the students in their classrooms.

Partnering with Young Audiences to provide such a variety of programs throughout the year ensured that we incorporated arts integration best practices and included all of our grade levels–preschool to grade 8–in these art experiences. Being an International Baccalaureate School (IB) also helped support our way forward in the interdisciplinary learning of arts integration.

Arts integration and arts-enhanced learning is happening in many ways in different classes. Among our activities, students have drawn Grecian vases as part of their Ancient Civilizations unit, they have dramatized stories through dance, applied music notation to learning fractions, used music to help understand number columns, made connections between literature and music while dancing “The Nutcracker,” and created a paper Freedom Quilt.

We have developed a rhythm of arts integration at Thomas Jefferson. We are working to create an environment where everywhere you look, the arts are happening, where the arts are for everyone at the school and where connections with the arts can be made throughout a student’s day. Having a sense of continuity of arts experiences helps create a feeling of expectation of such experiences for both students and teachers. There is a developing sense school-wide that the arts and arts integration “is what we do.” We look to have the arts not as “special” but as a continuing presence in our daily school life, where learning can take place through the arts. There is something for everyone–for students in all grades covering a variety of subjects, and for teachers to feel supported with our teaching artists and our partnerships with Arts Every Day and Young Audiences.

Artistic energy invigorates the school environment, developing our professional skills as teachers and invigorating learning for students.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary Middle School is an IB World School, an Arts Every Day School, and a Maryland Green School. Learn more online here.