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.

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.