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When teachers and artists collaborate, students win

July 8th, 2013 by Liam McGranahan

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit in on The Right Brain Initiative’s Spring Reflection Colloquium. I’m not an educator, or an artist, or a parent. In fact, before the Colloquium I hadn’t given much thought to art and K-8 education. Watching the presentations of teachers, artists, and school administrators, I was amazed at the positive impact that integrating art into the curriculum had on everyone involved.

Right Brain programs take place at schools across the Portland metro area and involve a wide range of different arts and subjects. Students get the benefit of working hands on with a particular art form, and learning classroom curriculum in a creative and innovative way. In the panels I witnessed, one group of students learned about weather patterns through ballet, another class turned their study of American Indian history into a play, and another incorporated photography into learning about their neighborhood and community.

The Spring Reflection Colloquium is an opportunity for educators who have taken part in Right Brain programs to come together and share their experiences, and for all partners involved to evaluate how things are going after a school year full of professional development and artist residencies. Panels consisting of the classroom teacher, teaching artist, and school principal present their residency experiences to a room full of educators and artists from other Right Brain affiliated schools, and a Right Brain coach facilitates the entire process.

At the Colloquium, teachers, administrators and artists share their reflections, challenges and revelations after a year of arts integration. Photo by Kendra Yao.

The presentations, or “protocols,” are designed to allow each school’s team a chance to explain their school’s demographics, the goals for the residency, classroom priorities, and how integrating a particular art form met those goals and priorities. There is time allotted for the audience to ask questions, then examples of student artwork are presented, and finally the panel and the rest of the group join together for a discussion of the residency. Over the course of the two-day colloquium I observed six presentations and noticed two consistent themes: the challenge presented by trying to achieve curriculum goals through incorporating the arts, and the importance of the classroom teacher being an active participant in the residency.

There is clearly a value in exposing school children to different forms of expression and art, but how do you teach aspects of the curriculum through this exposure? I was struck by how intelligently and creatively all the parties involved in Right Brain residencies addressed this question. From more direct examples, like using theatre to tell a historical narrative, to the more abstract—using ballet to teach meteorology and weather patterns—it was incredible how a group of artists and educators could come together to integrate the teaching artists into classroom learning goals.The most successful presentations were those in which the classroom teacher was fully engaged with the teaching artist and participating before, during, and after the residency. Time, space, and funding constraints mean that residencies can’t go on indefinitely. Classroom teachers who spent class time in advance of the residency preparing their students, and continued using their Right Brain training to integrate the arts into their daily practice after the residency had ended, clearly saw the most benefit in terms of students’ mastery of the curriculum.

Quatama Elementary students work with Oregon Ballet Theatre to learn the water cycle through dance. Photo by Jimena Cabello.

All the presenters shared wonderful and profound moments from their Right Brain experiences. One example that was particularly striking concerned a student who was having difficulty meeting grade level academic standards. The classroom teacher described how the student’s pace—slow, meticulous, deliberate—was a challenge academically. However, those same attributes were a tremendous asset during the Right Brain residency. The student worked very carefully and methodically on her project, and her deliberate pace and meticulous work resulted in a beautiful piece of art. Seeing the student excel in this context, the classroom teacher was determined to find a way to use the student’s pace as a strength academically as well.

As an outsider, the Spring Reflection Colloquium was a terrific introduction to what The Right Brain Initiative does, and the power of fully integrating the arts into the classroom. The Colloquium also represents Right Brain’s admirable commitment to monitoring, assessing, and adjusting their programs to meet the needs of students, teachers, and the community. Finally, it was inspiring to see the level of commitment, dedication, and pride displayed by all the educators, artists, and facilitators involved with Right Brain and working in Right Brain schools.

 

A Northeast Portland native, Liam McGranahan spent his entire K-12 education in Portland Public Schools where he perfected his cursive italic. He now works in digital marketing at a local advertising agency where no one can read his handwriting.

   

Liam McGranahan