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News & AwardsArtful Teaching Integrates Creative Concepts into Old School Subjects

October, 2018  |  Juneau Empire

Anyone who lived through the ’90s would recognize the sound Saturday coming from Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School’s library. While Los del Rio’s “Macarena” played, about a dozen educators flopped and folded their arms and shimmied their way through the dance associated with the song. The Juneau School District faculty weren’t just dancing for the fun of it. They were participating in a workshop focused on integrating arts into teaching math.

“Patterns are the building blocks of all mathematics,” said Marcia Daft, who led the workshop. “They’re also the building blocks of music and dance.”

The weekend workshop was part of Artful Teaching, an arts-based professional learning approach developed in collaboration with the Juneau School District, Juneau Arts & Humanities Council and University of Alaska Southeast. It is also supported by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and helps bring teachers to artists, artists into classrooms and arts into everyday lessons.

“Teachers say over and over again how engaged and joyous their students are,” said Juneau School District Artful Teaching coordinator Amy Rautainen.

The program was launched in 2015 and has grown every year. It currently includes about 80 teachers throughout the school district and 10 teaching artists, Rautainen said, and it has secured funding through 2021. “It’s a pretty amazing program,” said Glacier Valley School third-grade teacher Ellen Canapary. “It’s the most powerful professional development I’ve had and will continue to have.”

Put your art into it

Integrating art into teaching doesn’t necessarily mean asking students to create a craft. For example: Using equations to create a picture on a graphing calculator would not necessarily qualify as art integration, educators said. “One of the things I’ve really learned is I think a lot of people have a misconception of what arts integration is,” Canapary said. Ultimately, the goal is to teach an art form as well as a particular content area, so there is a stronger connection.

“It’s not just, ‘We do art on Fridays,’” said Electra Gardinier, an English language learners teacher for Dzantik’i Heeni. “We engage in it every day.” It’s also a way to ensure art is present in classrooms. “We see continually reduced funding in the arts, which is one of the reasons to integrate the arts into other programs,” said Jen LaRoe, arts education director for JAHC.

That might mean lessons that link fractions and music or dance and patterns. The concepts can then be taught in tandem to provide students an understanding of both concepts. “It’s active learning, not just sitting,” LaRoe said. Artful Teaching also helps brings artists to students and teachers.

“Part of the approach is bringing in high-quality teaching artists that have honed in on specific strategy,” LaRoe said. That means Kennedy Center-affiliated educators have been in Juneau classrooms, Juneau teachers have been to Washington, D.C., and local teaching artists are being cultivated. “We’re training local teaching artists in arts integration as well,” LaRoe said. “It’s been really nice to see. A lot of teaching artists are becoming engaged.”

Buying in

This year, almost all of Gardinier’s sixth-graders were familiar with Artful Teaching tenants. That means when it came time to create a tableaux, posing in a way to convey a recently learned concept or story, the class is enthusiastic.

But she said the first time students approach some artful teaching ideas, there’s apprehension. “At first, a lot of them look at me like I’m crazy,” Gardinier said. “I’ll start with moans and groans. It does take some buy-in.” Gardinier said it usually doesn’t take long to get students’ interest, especially if the alternative is a worksheet. Repetition helps, too. “The frequency at which I use the routines helps with buy-in,” Gardinier said.

Over time, Artful Teaching ideas will just be another part of public school in Juneau. “It will feel more like how school looks like,” Rautainen said. Those close to the Artful Teaching program uniformly had good things to say about it, and said they have not encountered resistance to it from colleagues. That’s partly because Artful Teaching is in no way mandatory and supplements rather than challenges curriculum, they said.

“What I hear is people saying, ‘What is this stuff that’s happening? How do I get involved?’” Canapary said. Both she and Gardinier said they are glad to be involved with Artful Teaching. They particularly praised the time it gives teachers to talk shop. “Having time to meet with my colleagues is a really unique thing,” Gadinier said. “It’s incredibly beneficial.”

Teachers teaching other teachers

Educators utilizing artful teaching strategies may be involved in the program through a few different tracks. Gardinier started while pursuing a master’s at UAS. “I joined as a student, and they allowed me to shadow,” Gardinier said. “Everything I do is influenced by Artful Teaching.” Part of the reason the program may reach out to young teachers is to encourage years of arts integration. “The end goal is to recruit and retain teachers who are confident and competent in teaching through art and local cultures,” Rautainen said. “Sustainability is a big part of that.”

The cohort has grown by about 15 educators each year since Artful Teaching started, and that includes mid-career teachers as well. Some teachers may employ artful teaching concepts without being part of the main group that meets and holds workshops. That’s because the teachers who are involved can teach others some of the tenants of art integration. “Many teachers have gone on to train other teachers,” Gardinier said. That also could allow Artful Teaching’s effects to extend past its six years of funding. “We’re hoping this has a long-term impact,” LaRoe said.

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