Math classrooms across Greenville, MS transformed two years ago. Fifth grade geometry students at Melissa Manning Elementary chanted and moved in patterns instead of memorizing facts. Sixth graders at Matty Akin learned about negative and positive numbers by dancing along a number line, not filling out worksheets. And as teachers abandoned their traditional techniques in favor of arts-based methods, student enthusiasm and achievement soared.
The woman behind the was Marcia Daft, a Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant who specializes in using the arts to teach math, as well as language arts, social studies and science. Daft has spent four weeks in Greenville over the last two years, showing local educators how to employ chanting games to promote literacy, dance routines to demonstrate scientific processes, and group movement to teach math. Earlier this month, she was back for a final series of workshops in which she reinforced concepts to teachers who experienced her workshops before and revealed her secrets to educators who were new to her techniques.
“Every classroom learns better if the arts are part of the learning process. That transcends private school-public school differences, economic differences, and even language differences,” said Daft, whose visits to Greenville were funded by a grant from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Arts integration promotes learning is by involving all students. In the model lesson Daft recently led, each of 12 students offered suggestions for a class poem about the joys of summer. When Daft asked for volunteers to read the finished poem aloud, all hands shot up.
Chandra Gilmore, a fifth grade teacher at Manning who has worked with Daft since she first came to Greenville, said this level of student participation is normal in an arts-integrated classroom. When Gilmore began using rhythm, drama, and movement in her math lessons, she observed improvement in slower students who had previously avoided participating in class.
One of the most noticeable benefits of arts-integrated education, according to Daft, is the increased amount of information that students remember after a lesson. “I could give them 10 worksheets, and there wouldn’t be the same retention,” said Daft. Jeannie West, who teaches sixth grade at Akin, said that she saw a 20-point improvement in test scores for the algebra concepts she taught using Daft’s methods.
Students also notice the advantages of learning while dancing, singing, and composing poetry. Kayla Lockridge, 8, an Akin student, said she learns more from Daft’s style of teaching than she does from sitting at her desk, listening to a teacher talk. “Miss Marcia makes learning fun,” said Lockridge, one of the first and second grade students who participated in Daft’s model lessons.
The success of arts-integrated teaching comes at a price, as Daft’s techniques are challenging for teachers to master. Her workshops lasted a week each and consist of 30 hours of instruction, lesson modeling, practice and one-on-one coaching during the day, followed by homework in the evenings. Even this intense training is not enough, though. Daft said that teachers should be exposed to 50 hours of training before they are fully ready to integrate arts into their classroom.
The largest barrier to arts integration, Daft said, is classroom management, though not in the traditional sense. Students in arts-integrated classrooms do not lose control out of boredom, as they often do in a conventional, sit-in-your-seats-and-learn environments. Instead, students become so excited about what they are learning that teachers have trouble managing the enthusiasm in the classroom.
The Greenville Arts Council wants teachers — even those who were not participants in Daft’s workshops — to use her techniques in the years to come. “We have been asking ourselves, ’How are we going to sustain this?”’ said Dr. Kathryn Lewis, executive director of the Greenville Arts Council, which wrote the grant to bring Daft to Greenville. The GAC has come up with two strategies to guarantee that Greenville’s children continue dancing and singing their way to increased comprehension. First, teachers who have mastered Daft’s techniques will train those who missed out on Daft’s workshops. Second, the GAC plans to work with local administrators to develop an arts-based curriculum for the entire Greenville Public School District. The council has applied for another Kennedy Center grant to fund the project.
“You gotta have support to really teach this way,” said Lewis.