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).

YA Forges New Arts Integration Partnership

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

A teacher from Oxon Hill Middle School personally thanked Young Audiences during a post-event gathering for bringing the Literature to Life program to Prince George’s schools. After a performance of “Black Boy,” a verbatim adaptation and stage performance of the classic American literary work by Richard Wright, he said he saw one of his students carrying around the Richard Wright book. When he asked the student about it, the student said he decided to read it after seeing the performance.  The teacher noted that he didn’t read that book until college and said, “This is what Young Audiences does for our students.”

On November 17, Young Audiences of Maryland and Dr. Kevin Maxwell, CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), announced the launch of a new arts integration partnership at a press conference held at Oxon Hill Middle School.

This new initiative will benefit more than 15,000 Prince George’s County Public School students in the 2015-2016 school year and dramatically increase student student access to the arts.

Dozens of teachers, principals, and PTA members were in attendance, along with school board members and PGCPS district office personnel. The event attracted the attention of local media outlets, including WUSA, a CBS news affiliate station in Washington, D.C., who ran a segment on the new partnership during their morning news coverage on November 17.

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In the true spirit of Young Audiences, this was not your typical “black-tie” press conference. The room was filled with music, dance, laughter, and inspiring stories. Student performances from Oxon Hill Middle School’s Performing Arts Academy opened the event, showcasing the talents of the school’s students through music and dance performances. Young Audiences’ teaching artist Ssuuna engaged the audience in an interactive, call-and-response performance of music from his native Uganda with authentic African instruments.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

With media cameras rolling, Dr. Maxwell spoke passionately about the importance of partnering with Young Audiences to bring high-quality arts programs to more PGCPS students. Integrating the arts into classrooms is not only critical to increasing student achievement and engagement; it is an essential component of every student’s education and maximizes the talents of all students.  Dr. Maxwell’s belief in the importance of the arts-in-education—and the exceptional teaching artists and arts-in-education programs that Young Audiences provides—will ensure that all students have the opportunity to experience this critical part of their education.

Stacie Evans, Young Audiences’ Executive Director, echoed Dr. Maxwell’s remarks, saying:

We believe that artists are catalysts in our schools. Through their art form they develop new approaches to teaching the curriculum. They inspire children. They help reach the most reluctant and struggling learners. From the beginning, Dr. Maxwell made it clear that the arts are a priority and he welcomed community partners to be part of the solution to ensure that our kids receive a complete education.  As a result, 15,000 more students are benefiting from Young Audiences programs this school year alone.

Additional speakers included Mr. Wendell Coleman, Oxon Hill Middle School Principal; John Ceschini, Arts Integration Officer for PGCPS; and Tracey Cooper, Oxon Hill Middle School science teacher.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

Young Audiences’ teaching artist Kevin Martin closed out the event with a steel drum ensemble of Oxon Hill Middle School students.  These students—who jumped on stage to perform just hours after learning to play the steel drums—soon became the teachers. The steel drum performance culminated with Kevin inviting audience members, including Dr. Maxwell, to join a student at their drum and follow the student’s lead in learning the song.

A teacher from Oxon Hill Middle School personally thanked Young Audiences during a post-event gathering for bringing the Literature to Life program to Prince George’s schools. After a performance of “Black Boy,” a verbatim adaptation and stage performance of the classic American literary work by Richard Wright, he said he saw one of his students carrying around the Richard Wright book. When he asked the student about it, the student said he decided to read it after seeing the performance.  The teacher noted that he didn’t read that book until college and said, “This is what Young Audiences does for our students.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

From theatrical productions that bring American literary masterpieces to life, to artist residencies for kindergarten students that inspire environmental citizenship, this new partnership with Prince George’s County Schools significantly increases access to arts learning for thousands of PGCPS students and leverages the talent of 20 teaching artists, the resources of six private and public funders, and advances the goals of PGCPS and YA to transform the lives and education of all students through the arts.

Research shows a direct connection between participation in the arts and student achievement. Research also shows having the arts in schools contributes to positive school culture and builds the creative and critical thinking skills that our workforce needs. Despite these benefits, student access to the arts as part of their education has declined. Young Audiences is honored to partner with Dr. Kevin Maxwell, named a Champion of Change by President Obama for his dedication to the arts, because he is committed to ensuring that PGPCS students are not denied the arts as part of a complete education.

Powering Arts Integration with Innovative Programming
Young Audiences’ programming for PGCPS will combine arts learning with traditional subjects such as science, math, and reading, expand in-school opportunities for professional teaching artists, and include further arts integration advancement through strengthening teacher preparation and professional development. Program areas to include:

GROWING UP GREEN
A Kindergarten-level environmental literacy program that supports a thematic approach and addresses the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum Standards. Curriculum will be developed collaboratively among partner organizations and, following a successful pilot of the program, will later be infused into the kindergarten science and social studies core content areas. Financial support provided by BGE, Chesapeake Bay Trust and Maryland State Arts Council Artist in Residence Program.

LITERATURE TO LIFE
Through our unique combination of interactive theater, literature, and education, Literature to Life brings American literary masterpieces to life —giving voice to words and inspiring young people to find their own voice. Financial support provided by Laura Handman and Harold Ickes, Lisa and Porter Dawson, and other generous supporters.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
A series of professional development workshops designed for schools in their first year of joining the “Arts Integration” initiative. Educators will define and discuss the benefits of arts integrated teaching. After experiencing a sample drama and language arts lesson, teachers will brainstorm and apply creative challenges in their specific curriculum area. Program facilitated by Teaching Artist Institute.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

Valerie Branch at Holabird Academy 1

Creative Movement: Movimiento Creativo

Valerie Branch at Holabird Academy 1

By Valerie Branch, Young Audiences and Maryland Wolf Trap teaching artist

Empowering youth through my art form is something that I’m very passionate about. As a dance teaching artist, my role in the classroom is to enhance students’ development in decision-making, communication, and self-confidence through individual and shared movement explorations and experiences. Students learn how to control their impulses and self-manage when it is time to be silly and when it is time to stop and focus.

I recently completed a year-long Maryland Wolf Trap residency at Holabird Academy with teacher partner Ms. Katie Fincke and her pre-kindergarten class of students ages three to six. Our residency specialized in Language Arts with a focus on narratives and storytelling, so Ms. Fincke and I found ways to integrate movement experiences into the curriculum.

We accomplished our major teaching goal by using the elements of dance to help children convey meaning. We did this through a series of six different books that Ms. Fincke read with her students throughout the year. Ms. Fincke and I guided the children through the process of generating imaginative ideas about how to portray and connect to moments in the story through movement. Ms. Fincke’s class had many students whose first language was not English, so our goals uniquely overlapped with language development and vocabulary enhancement.

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Ms. Fincke and I wanted the children to define and understand the meaning of creative movement. Our dancing activities did not follow the typical routine of me modeling a movement and students mimicking me. It was more about finding a way for me, Ms. Fincke, and the students, to have the experience together. Ms. Fincke and I didn’t want to robotically lead the children by saying, “Arm up, arm up, down, turn, turn!” Instead, it was the children leading us. We would hear, “No, let’s do our arms like this!” or “Let’s move like this! Let’s go here!” Students were given the chance to be creative and collaborate with their teachers and their peers. They were empowered to speak up and share their ideas because dance has no wrong answers. We encouraged our students to improvise without fear because we wanted them to know that their thoughts and ideas were valued. It’s a scary thing to express yourself with your body in front of a crowd. We wanted them to find a comfort level that would allow them to express themselves without limitations.

When I first walked into Holabird Academy, many of the students struggled with understanding personal space, body impulses, and self-confidence in creating and sharing ideas. Ms. Fincke and I have seen so many students flourish during the course of our partnership, but one student who made tremendous strides in social development and leadership was Oscar. We have watched Oscar become a leader and set a great example for his peers. He was never afraid to demonstrate his ideas through dance. He encouraged his peers to make strong independent choices. His classmates have been able to take risks and explore their creativity because they saw Oscar doing just that. Oscar demonstrated his leadership through an activity called the “mirror game,” which required students to slow down their energy and express themselves through dance in a calm and channeling way.

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During the mirror game, one student at a time would face the class from the front of the room and then create slow movements with their body. The goal was to get the rest of the class to slowly repeat the leader’s movements as if they were the reflection in a mirror. Oscar really took interest in this activity and whenever he was up at the front of the room, he made sure that his movements were clear for his classmates to follow. Because he took the activity so seriously, there were times when other students would poke fun at him, but he didn’t let it bother him. A great leader is not somebody that forces their own ideas on people, but explores how people can share ideas together. Oscar led this activity with the intention to work with everyone as a team and that trait was very admirable.

What I loved most about working with this group was that I was not only able to teach them, but they were always teaching me. During the first few sessions, we would sing a greeting song in English, but by the third class, I had introduced the song in Spanish, a language I knew most of Ms. Fincke’s class was familiar with. Suddenly, the looks on their faces changed and they realized they knew the words. The kids lit up with excitement when they felt that sense of home and comfort in the classroom. Ms. Fincke and I always took time for the Spanish language and that was important to her students. It was also crucial for Ms. Fincke to take time to do translations and have the kids work together through their language differences.

It was important that we did not tell them to always speak English. Yes, we were in an environment where English was the primary language, but we also wanted them to hold strong to their heritage. Seeing them take ownership of their language was inspiring. We often let them sing and dance in Spanish and those were truly their moments to shine and demonstrate how far they were excelling in the knowledge and understanding of the skills we were sharing with them.

It’s been amazing to watch these students grow, interact with one another, and also feel better about themselves. It’s important to get them thinking about these things at an earlier age because I think that we often forget that children can have problems and stresses, too. We think that they don’t have any issues because they’re young, but our youth go through so much. They are witnesses to everything. They may be young, but they are just as much a part of our world as we are. Using dance and movement to build our youth into better citizens is something that empowers me as an artist.

Learn more about Valerie Branch and her dance programs for schools.

Learn more about Maryland Wolf Trap.