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.

"If you know your kids struggled last year with a concept, it might be a perfect place for arts integration," she said.

Johnson said that using artwork provides a nonjudgmental way to teach students about critical thinking. "You always start with art as a kind of neutral territory for kids," she said.

Students don't worry about making mistakes because there are no incorrect answers, Johnson said. Then they apply the same thinking and analyzing skills to academic subjects.

Kim Leichtling, a math teacher in the school's talented and gifted program, said that analyzing the artwork helps her students become more disciplined thinkers and more comfortable tackling difficult math problems.

"Sometimes they see problems when they're doing math, and they get irrational and panic," Leichtling said. Strengthening their observational skills through artful thinking helps reduce the fear, she said.

On any school day at Drew, teachers employ some aspect of the arts in many classrooms. In the all-purpose room, first- and second-graders spent part of a recent morning learning about the various jobs involved in putting on an opera. The students will spend the school year writing, composing and producing an opera, which they will perform in May.

At a station where students learned about being electricians, building services worker Bennie Smith showed a group how to rotate knobs quickly to turn on a small bank of light bulbs. The experiment allowed students to get a feel for how the lights need to work when the stage curtains are opened and closed, he said.

"One, two, three, you've got to rotate faster. You've got to rotate faster," he teased first-grader Diana Figueroa, 6, as she turned one knob more slowly than the other.

In another room, music teacher Shelly Kline and Helen Weisel, the school's community-based teacher, taught about musical terms using puppets, songs and a computer program that incorporated photos of the students. Johnson noted that, in addition to enhancing learning skills, the program also fosters a better understanding of the arts.

"Kids need to be exposed to the arts," she said. "It gives them an appreciation of the arts."

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