Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School

Arts Integration Aids Students' Grasp of Academics

By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 13, 2008

Teacher Karen McKiernan's science class at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School seemed more like a lesson in art appreciation than the laws of physics as students focused on a poster of an abstract painting propped against the blackboard.

The room buzzed with questions as the fifth-graders at the Silver Spring school queried each other about the piece, "People and Dog in the Sun," by Joan MirĂ³.

"What would this painting look like if it was not abstract?" 10-year-old Annesha Goswami asked her classmates.

"Why do you think there are so many dark colors and only one bright color?" asked Elizabeth Iduma, 10.

The students, participants in the school's talented and gifted magnet program, were practicing a thinking routine called "creative questions" which was designed to help them "think outside the box," McKiernan said. For the class's next meeting, McKiernan said, she planned to have students relate their thoughts about the artwork to the concepts of force, motion and energy that the fifth-graders had been studying.

The use of artwork is one way that Drew teachers try to stimulate and strengthen students' thinking and problem-solving skills. As one of three Montgomery County schools designated an arts integration model school, Drew employs visual arts, music, drama and dance to teach students of all abilities and learning styles, said Shelley Johnson, arts integration lead teacher.

Drew recently became one of five U.S. schools chosen to be National Schools of Distinction in Arts Education by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. County school officials said the designation was based on Drew's efforts to involve parents, provide "imaginative learning environments" and promote connections within the community and with other cultures.

Five years ago, the Montgomery school system selected Drew, Potomac Elementary and Kensington Parkwood as arts integration model schools. The three have shared a three-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant helped fund staff and training in arts integration, Drew Principal Gail Scott-Parizer said.

Although the grant funding has ended, Scott-Parizer said, Drew has continued the arts integration mission with funding from its PTA and other sources. About 75 percent of Drew's teachers use arts integration in the classroom, and the goal is to reach 100 percent, Johnson said. Drew also has partnerships with the Kennedy Center and Towson University to provide training and direction in arts integration.

Although quantifying the impact of arts integration on achievement is difficult, Scott-Parizer said, the program helps address different learning styles within the student population, which includes many minorities and special-needs students in a community-based program.

"When kids are more actively engaged, they're more likely to see the relevance" of what they're learning, she said. "We've been perfecting the ability to engage children in these unusual ways."

The thinking routine used in McKiernan's class is one of several that Drew teachers employ through the "artful thinking program," which incorporates visual arts into the curriculum. Teachers determine when it is appropriate to use artful thinking, developed at Harvard University, as well as other forms of the arts, Johnson said.

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