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Right Brain sparks teacher innovation

October 5th, 2015 by Kelsey Gray

Last spring, we interviewed teachers about Right Brain’s impact on their work. Some of our initial findings were published in the following article, currently featured on the front page of this fall’s Art Notes, the newsletter for the Regional Arts and Culture Center. Scroll down to read the full story, and stay tuned for more teacher interviews in our 2015 progress report, to be released next month.

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Ask any educator, and they will tell you that teaching elementary school is one of the sweetest and most noble career paths. And, it’s not for the faint of heart. Marna Stalcup, Director of Arts Education at RACC says: “Teachers come in with a passion for learning and children. But often the list of things they have to attend to gets in the way.”

So, as a bright new school year launches, Marna and her team at The Right Brain Initiative prepare to help 25,000 students in the Portland metro area think creatively and critically through the arts. Central to the success of this work is serving the students’ 1,300 K-8 teachers.

“In one way or another, everything we do is professional development for teachers,” says Stalcup. Between workshops and collaborations with professional teaching artists, Right Brain gives educators tools to bring creativity into their classrooms every day.

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Veronica Tarshis, Kindergarten teacher, East Gresham Elementary

Veronica Tarshis, a Kindergarten teacher at East Gresham Elementary, describes it this way: “In education, we always compartmentalize things. Right Brain shows how you can take creativity, like music, visual arts, movement, and incorporate that with everything. When you look at art, you can see geometry.”

East Gresham became a Right Brain partner school in 2011. Tarshis radiates with enthusiasm when she talks about the learning to integrate the arts: “When I went to a Right Brain professional development session for the first time, I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can teach again! I feel amazing. All teaching should look like this.’”

From Right Brain’s workshop facilitators, she learned how to create a safe space for students to contribute ideas and take risks without fear of judgment. As a result, her students have become very brave about sharing their writing, for one.

Meaningful collaborations with Right Brain teaching artists only increased her ability to make long-term changes to her teaching practice.

During her Right Brain artist residency in the spring of 2015, Tarshis worked with Northwest Children’s Theater and School (NWCTS) to examine storytelling through theatre in her classroom. From a NWCTS artist, she learned a deceptively simple song called Magic Rocks that became, as she calls it, “a game-changer.” The song begins with students curled up on the carpet: “Magic rocks, magic rocks, what can you be? Can you be a silly monkey swinging from a tree?” Then students quickly stand and adopt a monkey’s stance. And it goes on from there. Next, they might be invited to transform into a bird, or a baby.

“It was brilliant,” she said. The kids were spellbound by this easy activity, and with it Tarshis achieved 100% participation from her students—a feat she had never been able to accomplish before.

She began incorporating this very quick movement practice into her daily routine, and she saw dramatic shifts in her classroom.

In particular, three of her most restless students had a difficult time focusing in class, to the point that she worked up a behavior sheet for each one of them—a platform to check in regularly on the students’ conduct and to communicate with their parents about it.

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Educators at a Right Brain workshop, 2015. Photo by Cecily Caceu.

Her most active students began to request Magic Rocks, and suddenly—miraculously—they began to better control their actions and follow instructions. The behavior sheets for all three students became filled with positive comments. “These three boys really progressed. They just needed movement,” Tarshis beamed. She cites her Right Brain artist residency as the turning point for these kids.

“Before Right Brain, I felt so much pressure to get through the material and fight against what kids naturally do,” she says. “Now, when I plan lessons, I try to think, ‘Is there any way I can incorporate the arts with this?’”

Learn more about Right Brain, meet staff and teaching artists, at Portland Art Spark on Thursday October 15, 2015, 5:30-7:30pm at the Canton Grill, 2610 SE 82nd Avenue.

   

Kelsey Gray