Arts Integration at Oklahoma School Provides Multiple Paths for Learning
Today's classrooms require more than the conventional paper-and-pencil approach to instruction, believes Principal Susan Combs. "We're teaching an era of children who are growing up at a fast-pace on flashy TV, video games, and things of that nature. Then we want them to come to school and sit at their desks for eight hours and focus."
Combs heads an elementary school in Oklahoma City that has adopted an arts integration program that she says has charged the senses of both students and staff. "We're more conscious when we're planning, [asking], 'Am I teaching to the different children? Am I addressing all of the skills each day? Am I making sure that it's interesting and fun?' ... If we really want children to retain what they're learning, we have to think about how we're teaching them."
Since the program's 2002 start at Linwood Elementary School—where the majority of students qualify for federally subsidized meals and half of the children are English language learners—the school repeatedly has made adequate yearly progress (AYP). In fact, in almost every year it has exceeded the state's targets by at least a 40-percentage-point margin.
This achievement has earned Linwood the Oklahoma Title I Academic Achievement Award this year for the second time, and, in 2006, an honor from the National Center for Urban School Transformation as one of just five schools presented with the Excellence in Education Award.
On average, 80 percent of fifth-graders at Linwood have proven consistently proficient or above in reading and math. Furthermore, when third- and fourth-graders were tested in 2006, proficiency rates for grades 3-5 also outpaced those of Oklahoma City Public Schools, with the most impressive results in grade 4: in reading, 92 percent, compared to the city's 74 percent; in math, 85 percent, compared to the city's 66 percent.
"Through those things that people may think are 'extra,'" said Combs, "we are teaching our state's Priority Academic Student Skills, which are the minimum criteria that children should learn. So the arts are giving us the opportunity to expand that basic knowledge even further."
That is because the arts program is moving students beyond the rudimentary practices of memorization and recitation by providing a myriad of creative channels for learning the same subject matter, explains teacher Susan Brewer. "We have found ways to go deeper—with application, evaluation and synthesis [of the material]. Those are the real thinking skills."
For instance, to learn about various literary genres, fourth-graders wrote a rap song about different books they have read, from fairy tales to biographies. They then designed costumes and props representing the books' characters to accompany their presentation at the monthly "Informance," a school assembly blending academic information and artistic performance that allows students to showcase their knowledge and talents.
As another example, the younger children studying fractions created a collage of birds and flowers from simple shapes measuring one-half, one-fourth and one-eighth inch to see how math has implications in everyday life.
This fusion of the visual and performing arts with other subjects had been a common instructional strategy among teachers prior to the program's arrival, said Brewer, "but we wanted to improve what we were doing, the things that we've already implemented in our own disorganized way."
The arts curriculum is really part of a larger framework called Oklahoma A+ Schools.
The concept was conceived as a research model in North Carolina to promote comprehensive, whole-school reform based on a commitment to eight key components:
3) multiple intelligences;
4) experiential learning;
5) enriched assessment;
7) infrastructure; and
Results from the initial four-year evaluation of the program in 23 schools were so compelling that A+ schools began expanding beyond North Carolina, attracting the attention of education reform-minded officials in search of a model with sound arts integration and a promise for improving student learning across the board.
Jean Hendrickson was a member of the research team that brought the model to Oklahoma. "As a principal in Oklahoma City schools for 17 years, I had pretty much spent my life looking for a framework that would sustain best practices in many areas. ... We know that schools have to support all of the children all of the time in all of the areas, or they run the risk of not sustaining an excellent educational environment. ... So we were looking for a system of sustainability that had within it all of the things that we should commit to in schools. And, certainly, arts instruction and the significant use of the arts should be one of those things."
Six years later, following the program's groundbreaking success in Oklahoma, the initial consortium of 15 schools, which included Linwood Elementary, has evolved into a network of 39 schools in 20 districts, with an additional seven schools slated to join this fall. Initially a project of the DaVinci Institute, a nonprofit think tank, it is currently administered by the University of Central Oklahoma.
Now the executive director of Oklahoma A+ Schools, Hendrickson was impressed immediately by the professional development provided through the model. Rather than having newly trained teachers shoulder the task of implementing a complex program with no future support—a scenario she says she has seen too many times—the A+ model provides ongoing training by a cadre of seasoned educators, professional artists and other experts. Teachers learn to work collaboratively, using research-based practices to map the curriculum so that interdisciplinary themes emerge that foster integration across classes and the use of various learning styles. Student learning, consequently, becomes process-oriented as it draws on more advanced thinking skills.
For the instructional staff, discovering how to appeal to the different ways children learn has been the program's greatest gift. While the three learning styles—visual, auditory and kinesthetic—have long been familiar pedagogical terms, teachers were introduced to a wider spectrum of "multiple intelligences" that identify eight potential pathways to learning: from logical-mathematical to naturalistic.
"We've all been pushed out of our comfort zones so that we can find ways to reach children who don't learn the same way we do," said Brewer, a self-described "linguistic" learner.
Providing multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their strengths, she adds, has been especially successful with their Hispanic students learning English. "When you work with different ways to experience those concepts, [the students] understand them much better."
— By Nicole Ashby