Karinne Sollers worked with three other first-grade classmates to design a straw house that wouldn’t get blown away by the Big Bad Wolf, portrayed by a small fan.
On the opposite side of Marlton Elementary School, Aaliyah Jones and her fifth-grade classmates held a respectful but passionate debate on the importance of homework.
This structure of active learning takes places weekly inside the Upper Marlboro building.
“Fifth-grade is so fun because we do a lot of hands-on activities,” said Aaliyah, 10, who sported a principal’s honor roll pin on her sweater. “I remember more stuff than just writing it down.”
Jones’ teacher, Tara Johnson, said the students chose the debate format. In essence, the students learn oratory skills, vocabulary words and teamwork.
For the past three years, Johnson and the remaining 21 teachers at Marlton are encouraged to educate the 300 students through this form of instruction known as arts integration. Part of the formal definition: “An approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form.”
For example, kindergarten teacher Briona Copeland led her nearly 30 students to stand and face a big-screen video to listen, sing and act on this song: “A verb is an action word. A verb is what we do. Think of more action words. It’s up to, you.” Then the children skipped, ran, clapped and danced.
Artwork adorns the hallways with messages that include “Art in Science” based on the solar system; “H.O.T. (Higher Order Thinking) Math” with three-dimensional boxes; and an objective to create art work based on the lyrics of R&B singer Andra Day’s song, “Rise Up.”
Teachers interviewed said every student — special needs, limited English proficiency and advanced learner — participates.
All 24 students represent one of each inside Cheryl Ramsey’s first-grade class.
“I’ve found that using the arts, it really helps to reach everybody,” said Ramsey, who’s been an educator since 1986 and her fifth year in Prince George’s. “If [a student’s] English is not as proficient, that student can certainly draw to retell a story. That student is still learning and will improve as [he or she] gets older.”
Not simply art
Prince George’s Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell led the effort to institute arts integration four years ago at 15 schools. Today, 73 schools have teachers who integrate art into all the core subjects of science, technology, math and reading.
Maxwell sought this as a way to not only build confidence among students, but also help increase test scores, boost morale and even attendance.
The teaching method began in 1999 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Northwest. The center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) conducts workshops for hundreds of teachers throughout the D.C. region every school year.
The Kennedy Center offers a checklist to ensure schools are using arts integration properly and not simply arts in the classroom. Some of the questions include:
• Are the students engaged in constructing and demonstrating understanding as opposed to just memorizing and reciting knowledge?
• Are the students engaged in a process of creating something original as opposed to copying or parroting? and
• Are there objectives in both the art form and another part of the curriculum or a concern/need?
Marlo Castillo said Prince George’s remains the only school system in the D.C. metropolitan area with a specific arts integration office.
“It’s not a matter of memorizing certain subjects. It’s about creating and solving problems by engaging students,” said Castillo, who conducted teacher workshops on the CETA program at the Kennedy Center for five years and now works an arts integration resource teacher for Prince George’s. “When [students] are engaged in the creative process, it becomes motivating.”
John Ceschini, arts integration officer for the school system, described how a 2014 Arts Education in Maryland Schools report lists advantages students gain through the arts such as creativity and innovation, tolerance and empathy and self-esteem.
The future goal: incorporate the program in all 208 public schools and centers in four years.
“We are getting away from just learning content. You can use your iPhone and it will give you information,” he said. “To be able to solve a problem, you are going to have to engage the student and able to be part of the process. Students [would] have ownership of the learning.”
Back inside Marlton Elementary, each first-grader with Ramsey either held a stick, drew a design or talked with a partner on how their house wouldn’t get blown away.
The purpose of project: build team chemistry, learn science and get a little messy.
“I like all types of art,” said Karinne, 6. “It’s fun because art helps you do everything.”