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.”
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.
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.
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).
Over the summer, Baltimore City Public School principals convened for the third time to attend a professional development course unlike any other. The first session was held in May at the Baltimore Museum of Industry where they explored the many ways arts and creativity intertwine with local industry of both the past and the future. The second, at Creative Alliance, where the group attended a workshop and lunch with Artesanas Mexicanas, a group of talented Mexican women, now residents of Southeast Baltimore, who share their rich cultures and folkloric traditions through art.
On this third session, principals gathered on a stage where so many critically acclaimed actors and singers have stood before. Looking out into the house of the Hippodrome Theatre, one could only imagine the thrill a performer might feel standing before a crowd of fans.
But how does an actor get to the stage? And what needs to happen for a show to go on? What can Baltimore City Public Schools do to prepare students for careers in theatre? These are some of the questions local principals explored in Creative Collaborations for School Improvement, a leadership course designed for principals to experience first-hand the many facets of Baltimore arts and cultural organizations, as well as how innovative partnerships with area cultural resources can help schools prepare their students for careers in fields related to the industry.
Throughout the course, principals have the opportunity to build strong relationships with not only engaged cultural organizations, but with expert teaching artists, like YA roster artists Matt Barinholtz of FutureMakers and internationally acclaimed slam poet Gayle Danley, as well as guest speakers including arts integration advocates.
“I do think that in my 31 years in City Schools that the Creative Collaborations for School Improvement course is among the most beneficial professional developments in which I have participated,” said Sinclair Lane Elementary School principal Roxanne Thorn-Lumpkins.
The principals were briefed on the history of the renowned theatre, then were led on a tech tour of the space by assistant electrician Danyela Marks. High above the stage is home to the control center of all of a production’s moving parts: the fly system. Thick, strong ropes, levers, weights and counterweights are all strung taut, connected precisely and purposefully, reminiscent of the inside of a piano. Any movement on the set during a production: a wall sliding, scenes changing, or an actor flying, is made from here. To work on this side of the curtain, they discover, a person needs a solid foundation in math and physics.
The group descended from the tech booth to the dressing rooms, located one level beneath the stage. Here, among the bright lights and mirrors, they learned about the Hippodrome Foundation (HFI), its mission & educational outreach programs, and how their schools can take advantage of them. They spoke with Olive Waxter, Director of the Hippodrome Foundation and Ron Legler, President of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center about their institutions’ commitment to providing opportunity in the community.
Former long-time Baltimore Sun critic and current WYPR theatre critic Judy Wynn Rousuck met principals for a fun written exercise. Part of Judy’s work with HFI centers on enhancing written communication skills with young people. On this day, she challenged the educators to write a short descriptive piece using just one of their fives senses to illustrate their subject. It is easy to imagine the excitement young people must feel in Judy’s classes when they see their words come alive and work together to paint a vivid picture.
Of course, no visit to the theatre is complete without getting a taste of the performers’ experience. So here, on the Hippodrome Stage, principals stepped into students’ shoes to work with co-director of the Hippodrome Foundation’s summer theatre camp, Becky Mossing, education director Barb Wirsing, and Markia Smith, a former camper, now a counselor to learn a number from the musical 70, Girls, 70. At the piano, they worked on vocals. The group then moved on to blocking (the movements and positions actors are assigned on stage), and after some practice, revealed their grand performance of “Coffee (In a Cardboard Cup).” And they did a pretty great job.
The next Creative Collaborations for School Improvement course will be held at Center Stage on October 7, 2017. Principals and assistant principals who would like to register for the course should contact Valeriya Nakshun for more information.