Announcing Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts


The Montana Arts Council and the Office of Public Instruction are teaming up to offer Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts, a professional development initiative for K-12 educators across the state. Through this exciting new program, MAC and OPI seek to develop teacher leaders who can support other teachers statewide in integrating the arts into their classrooms. According to the most recent data gathered by the Montana Arts Council, less than half of public schools in the state clearly articulate the arts in their school improvement plans.  In Montana elementary schools, 86% of schools offer music instruction, while only 61% offer arts instruction, less than 5% offer any kind of theatre or dance, and 11% of schools offer no high-quality arts experiences at all (

In addition, over half of Montana’s schools have fewer than 100 students, and with a small student body, few of them can afford to bring in a full or even part-time arts specialist.   The arts are then left to be taught by elementary classroom teachers, who while endorsed to teach the arts in their curriculum, often lack the skill or confidence to offer high-quality experiences to their students. After years of struggle with cutbacks in budget and programs nationally, there is renewed interest in the impact the arts can have on learning.   And with current research that shows 72% of business leaders say creativity is the number one skill they are seeking when hiring (, and a wealth of research to support the myriad benefits of arts education, MAC and OPI see an opportunity to give arts education a much-needed boost in Montana’s public schools by training a cohort of educators to serve as coaches, mentors and advocates in their schools and local communities for an arts-integrated approach to teaching and learning.

“The Montana Teacher Leaders project will add an exciting new professional learning opportunity for all teachers across our great state to integrate the arts into their classrooms and spark creative, engaged and joyful teaching and learning for all learners” says Jael Prezeau, Division Administrator for Content Standards and Instruction at OPI.

In the creation of the Teacher Leaders in the Arts Initiative, MAC Director of Arts Education Emily Kohring researched arts-based professional development initiatives happening in other states to seek out models that could possibly be replicated in Montana. After internet research, phone interviews with colleagues, and a site visit to the Alaska Basic Arts Institute this past summer, Kohring brought back some ideas to share with OPI staff. Integrating her ideas with OPI’s strategic plan for professional learning for educators, a plan was developed jointly to help overcome one of the unique challenges of our state: geography. In a state as large as Montana, how do you ensure an opportunity available to a teacher in Missoula is also available to a teacher in Wolf Point?

In its first year, Teacher Leaders in the Arts will recruit up to 18 teachers evenly distributed across OPI’s nine professional learning regions statewide. Teachers Leader candidates will come to a 10-day summer institute at Salish Kootenai College, where they will be deeply immersed in multi-disciplinary arts integration tools and strategies, brain theory, ideas for building creative classrooms, STEAM learning, and cultural arts led by master teaching artists and educators. Teacher Leader candidates will return to their regions, where they will receive a stipend to support a field project in arts learning during the school year. Technology then becomes the source of connectivity for the Teacher Leader candidates spread across the state, as they gather monthly as an online professional learning community to share how they are implementing what they are learning. They will also receive bimonthly webinars on selected topics in arts learning, led by leaders in the field.

At the end of the school year, the first year cohort will be identified as a Teacher Leader in the Arts in their region. A Teacher Leader in the Arts will be ready to serve as a resource to other educators to help them implement arts-based learning in the classroom, Teacher Leaders will also serve as champions for arts learning in their regions, advocating for greater access to arts learning opportunities for all of Montana’s K-12 students. The first-year cohort of Teacher Leaders in the Arts will also help plan and execute the second year of activities for the Initiative.

In year two, the Teacher Leaders in the Arts program will place a special focus on teachers in schools with less than 100 students, as well as schools with a majority American Indian population.

For the first-year cohort, the program seeks Montana K-12 arts specialists in visual art, music, or theatre; professional teaching artists with significant K-12 public school experience; school principals or administrators; and retired arts specialists. Classroom teachers with a strong background and comfort in the arts will also be considered.


Questions? Contact Emily Kohring, Director of Arts Education at MAC, (406) 444-6522 or


Bright Spots

Why is it so hard?  Seriously. 

This is a question that was asked in a recent blog post by arts education leader and advocate Matt D’Arrigo, his response to being surrounded by a preponderance of evidence about the benefits of arts education, and the seemingly overwhelming support  for arts education by average Americans (93% of Americans believe it’s important, according to Americans for the Arts), and still feeling he was rolling a boulder up a hill.

“Yet here we still stand; hands out begging for change–both literally and figuratively.”

His question is one that rattles around in my brain almost daily. as I hear the same story over and over:  lack of money, lack of supplies, lack of qualified instructors, lack of time, lack, lack, lack from teachers, administrators, parents, and colleagues across the country.

All of us are rolling that boulder up a hill.  Our Artists in Schools and Communities program ran out of funding two months into the fiscal year, for the second year in a row, due to budget cuts.  The worst part of my job is telling a teacher or artist who calls me I have no money to fund their program this school year that isn’t half over yet. Sometimes it is too hard, especially when I have to tell it to a school with no arts specialists, with a population of kids who don’t have the resources to take after school arts classes either because they are expensive or they live too far away from any.

And then, as has happened so many times before, a teacher inspires me to keep going.  Jennifer Magiera teaches in the Chicago Public Schools, and gave this talk at a Tedx event.  It’s long, but it’s worth it if you have 18 minutes:

Magiera talks about a lot of good things related to arts education, like the power of purposeful play, and how we can’t just expect kids to know how to use their creative skills if we don’t give them any opportunity to practice them in the classroom.  She talks about how opportunities to use creative thinking in the classroom gives kids the skills they need to “outwit obstacles” in life.  I love that!  She also talks about how she wanted to transform her teaching to give her students more opportunities to be creative, and how overwhelming it felt to her because she waited too long and the change was very hard to make, but she managed the change by focusing on the “bright spots.”  She defined bright spots as small things that are working, and these small things help not to let the big things overwhelm you.

Change is hard, and slow, and daunting.  But, Magiera is right, it is not hard to find bright spots.  In arts education in Montana, we have so many!  Here are a few that I have encountered, just in recent memory:

  • UM Dance Professor Karen Kaufmann and Missoula-based dance educator Jordan Dehline just published an incredible resource for teachers called Dance Integration: 36 Dance Lesson Plans for Science and Mathematics (available at  These lessons have been field tested in Montana classrooms by the CoMotion Dance Project with Montana classroom teachers.  They work!  I’ve seen them in action.
  • In October the Montana Music Educator’s Association (MMEA) held their annual conference at Hellgate High School in Missoula.  I spoke briefly at their general session, which opened with bandmasters from all over the state playing a newly-commissioned piece in honor of our great state.  And have you ever heard an auditorium packed with music teachers sing the national anthem together?  I highly recommend the spine-tingling experience. The energy in the room was through the roof.  We have remarkable music educators in the Big Sky–they love music, and they love young people.
  • The VSA Montana Choir sang during the MEA-MFT conference across town that same day.  The choir is made up of some 40 adults with disabilities–but their choir director doesn’t treat them like they have disabilities.  We watched their rehearsal, where they warmed up, he gave them notes, he corrected them and made them do it again–just like any choir.  And they sang with a sense of joy that lifted the spirits of every person in the room.
  • This past summer, Montana Quarterly published an article about Bynum School, one of 61 one-room schoolhouses in Montana.  At Bynum school, they have an 80-year-old tradition of beginning each and every day by dancing.  One of the most beautiful articles I’ve every come across about arts education, and Montana, I have not stopped thinking about it.  I hope someday soon to meet their remarkable teacher, Susan Luinstra.

I’d love to hear about your bright spot in arts education.  Every bright spot helps add some light, and makes the hard part, the non-stop struggle to keep arts education accessible to every student, a little less daunting.

What’s the big deal about arts standards?

Missoula middle school students in The Flagship Program's Photovoice photography project.

Missoula middle school students in The Flagship Program’s Photovoice photography project.

The Montana Arts Council, in partnership with the Montana Office of Public Instruction, will lead an upcoming statewide effort to revise the Montana Standards for Arts for K-12 public schools.

I get really excited when I tell people that Montana is getting ready to revise their state standards for arts education. Sometimes when I tell people they share my excitement, and think it’s a really cool thing. More often, I get a polite “Oh, that’s nice” or a blank, rather puzzled look.

So, what’s the big deal about revising arts standards?

If you go on the website for the Office of Public Instruction and search for a page about arts education, you won’t find one. In the category of “Content Standards and Instruction”, arts standards are not listed along with English Language Arts, Math and Science. If you search, you will come across one document, the Montana Standards for Arts, a brief document listing six standards that cover all the arts disciplines. They are general, not specific to music, or theater or visual art. There are benchmarks under the standards for what students should know and be able to do in the arts by the end of 4th, 8th and 12th grade. The entire document is only twelve pages long. By comparison, the Montana Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is 67 pages long.

This lack of focus on arts education is not a Montana problem, it is a national problem. The arts have received the short end of the stick in nearly every state by many years of federal No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top-era policies. The good news is that the tide is turning. The arts are resurgent, and starting with a revision of our standards it is possible that Montana will be at the forefront of the effort to restore the arts to their place of critical importance in a high-quality education.

Standards in education are a way for educators to measure what their students know and are able to do in a content area. It is often repeated in the education world that what we can measure, we value. Improving our arts standards will increase the value of arts education across Montana.

Our new standards will be discipline-specific, which will be of huge benefit to teachers who teach in these specific content areas, helping them build assessments specific to what their students are learning. Montana will even have new standards in Media Arts!

It is an oft-cited fact that 72% of business leaders say creativity is the number one skill they are seeking when hiring. Teaching the arts, whether it is in a stand-alone music or theatre class, or integrated into a teacher’s science or history curriculum, is teaching “applied creativity.”

We need stronger benchmarks to measure what high-quality teaching and learning in the arts looks like, and revising the Montana arts standards will allow us to help creative the college, career and civic readiness that is the primary goal of a public school education in our state.

The business and education communities are investing in opportunities for students to develop their creative skills in the classroom that leads to future innovation in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and other creative industries. Studying the arts help to develop critical habits of mind—creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, among others—that can complement STEM learning initiatives in schools. In fact, we arts educators like to call it STEAM! With stronger arts standards that are useful to arts specialists and classroom teachers in other content areas, that “A” for arts in STEAM will help create our next generation of scientists and innovators.

Here is what excites me the most: revising the Montana Standards for the Arts is an excellent opportunity to gather groups of educators, parents, business and civic leaders across the state to engage in an important dialogue about what we would like arts education, or “applied creativity” to look like in our schools. A lot of people are going to be involved in this effort, through focus groups, writing teams and review teams, and a lot of dialogue about arts education is going to happen. Who knows what the result of that could be? Beyond new arts standards, what new relationships, new ideas and new collaborations could happen that benefit Montana students? This is going to be good! If you want to get involved, please contact me at or (406) 444-6522.

Carolyn Pardini's 4th grade students at Pablo School, creating artwork with teaching artist Jennifer Thompson.

Carolyn Pardini’s 4th grade students at Pablo School, creating artwork with teaching artist Jennifer Thompson.

Can Our Classrooms Become Beehives of Creativity?

This week I travelled to Los Angeles for the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) Cultural Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education, co-hosted by the California Arts Council. The event was a convening of researchers and policy experts gathered to address the growing interest in creativity and innovation as a solution to some of the myriad challenges of K-12 public education.  It was impressive company with some of the field’s most distinguished researchers and thought leaders.

Our keynote speaker at the opening dinner was Frank Gehry, renowned for his innovative thinking in the field of architecture and revered around the world as a “Big C” creative–somebody who was born with inherent creative genius.  That’s the way most of us think about creativity, right?  Creativity is something you are born with, and something you can recognize in children in a classroom setting, and label.  This child is creative, just look at her drawings!  This child–not so much.  Stick figures, nothing novel about that.  Oh well, maybe that one will be good at sports.

During the next morning’s Symposium panel discussions, a few researchers turned the idea of creativity as an attribute that individual people possess on its head.  First came Dr. James Haywood Rolling, Jr., an associate professor at Syracuse University, who boldly asserted in his opening remarks “There are no orphan imaginations.”  Dr. Rolling has studied the natural phenomenon of swarm intelligence and applied it to creativity in the learning process in his book Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership.  Swarm intelligence is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems–like bees in a hive.   He posits that creativity is also  a social behavior where the collected experience and information shared by the participants generates ideas.  Ideas don’t come from the one or two people in the room deemed most creative, but from the collective energy, experience and knowledge each individual brings to the group to share.

Edward Clapp, doctoral candidate from Harvard’s Project Zero also advocated for the idea of creativity as a social behavior by stating that no act of creativity can take place in isolation.  He argues that the education system is holding on to the idea of the individual as the creative one, labeling some students as creative while others are not, and this definition of creativity creates an anti-growth mindset in schools.  The majority of schools believe that creativity is a fixed capacity, it’s not a skill that can be taught.  Clapp believes that creativity should be seen as an experience for students that should happen through problem- and project-based learning in groups, and not as something that an individual student is or has.

Creativity as experience!  There are already great models for this kind of learning, evident in the growing Makerspace movement, and in theatre and visual art classrooms where students are encouraged to work together to solve challenging art-making problems.  Students are given a problem to solve, and it’s the ideas generated that are creative, not the individuals.  By making creativity an experience rather than an attribute, everyone in the room is honored as a creator, everyone has creative skills that can be nurtured–including the teacher.  The teacher doesn’t have to be the one everybody looks to for all the answers–the teacher asks a question or presents a problem to the students, and can then problem solve and invent alongside the students.

The implications Dr. Rollings and Edward Clapp’s idea of shifting creativity in learning from an individual attribute of children who are “Big C” creative to creativity as a group participatory process are huge, both for arts education policy and educational access in our schools.  Imaging classrooms where all students are honored as makers, creators and innovators, because it is ideas that get labeled as creative and not children, is by far the most exciting idea that came out of the Symposium.

What would it take to make this happen?  It is a paradigm shift in thinking for educators, even for arts educators.  How many students have been discouraged from pursuing arts courses by teachers because their talent and creativity was not a clearly evident attribute?  It will require that teachers, especially arts teachers, set aside their judgment about who is creative and who is not creative in the classroom setting, and design opportunities that shine a spotlight on all the students, not just the ones who are most evidently talented.

We will also have to reinvent classrooms and the way teachers teach in order to release the creativity that too often remains locked up in our heads, to paraphrase Dr. Rollings.  Our classrooms will have to become more project-based, with the teacher becoming less an expert and more a learner exploring complex questions alongside the students.  It will also require a re-balance of power between teachers and students, because, as Symposium participants Dr. Robert Bilder pointed out “creativity exists on the edge of chaos” and we tend to dislike chaos in our classrooms.  We want classrooms to be orderly, and for it to look like somebody is in charge, but in the kind of creative learning environment Rollings and Clapp are advocating for, learning is loud and messy and students have much more voice than we are sometimes comfortable allowing them.

It will also require education policymakers to see creativity as a skill to be developed, just like math or reading.  Creativity is something you do, and you can get better at, not something you are or aren’t.  It’s also a skill that can be measured and assessed, and researchers are doing that, like Symposium participants James Catterall, Mark A. Runco and Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein.  And, if it is indeed a skill, teachers will also need help developing this skill in themselves in order to feel comfortable teaching it through high-quality professional development that will help them develop the creative skills of their students.

At the end of the long Symposium day, we got a sense of the kind of creative space Rollings and Clapp are advocating for when we toured Frank Gehry’s studio, an experience that surprisingly reinforced the idea that creativity is less about the “Big C” and more about a social process.  Gehry himself does not work in isolation, and he has designed his studio to make sure that the 120 or so people who work there feed off the collective energy and imagination of everybody else who works there.  The studio is one large warehouse with few walls or doors, organized by project rather than by a hierarchy.  It is literally filled with models from floor to ceiling, because their process is to make a model of every single idea, in multiple scales, until the building is ready to be built.  A beehive of making, creating, problem-solving and non-stop collaboration.  It was after 5:00, and nobody was packing up to go home.

Imagine our classrooms like that when the bell rings, nobody getting up to go home, everybody too busy making.  A beehive of creativity that all students experience together.

The Best of Times. The Worst of Times (for Creativity).

Depending on who you listen to, 2013 has either been the worst year ever for creativity (Common Core!  Standardized tests!  Cuts to art and music programs!), or a revolutionary year for creativity (TED!  STEAM learning!  Makerspaces!).  Just today I read two blog posts with views that could lead an arts education advocate to either euphoria or despair.

In their post  Best of 2013: 7 Ways Imagination Ruled the World, GOOD celebrates wonderful examples of how creativity and innovation are being celebrated in communities and schools, from the one-day cultural and social media phenomenon of San Francisco’s Bat Kid, to the Global Cardboard Challenge that was inspired by the short film Caine’s Arcade, the story of an extraordinary young man with an imagination lit up by the search for a way to entertain himself while at his dad’s workplace all summer.  If you haven’t seen Caine’s Arcade, click on it below, and I dare you not to smile.

On the flip side, Slate’s essay  Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity argues that people like the products of creativity, valuing the work of art or the innovation that is the result of creative thinking, but that they don’t actually value creative people. The essay argues that people who think creatively are often dismissed by their co-workers, and most would much rather fit in than stand out for their creativity. It even cites a study that says that teachers tend to discriminate against their creative students.

Hmmm.  People don’t like or value creative people?  Makes me want to bury my head under the covers and give up the fight. Even teachers discriminate against their creative students? If people don’t value creativity among their peers and coworkers, why should we encourage it in schools?

Maybe it is because our world is biased against creative people that it is such a struggle to get people to value arts education in our schools.  But as arts education advocates, we don’t really have time to sit and dwell on all the ways the world is against us and our students. No doubt it is true, for some people, some of the time that people with out-of-the-box thinking are often labeled oddballs, or looked upon with suspicion, in school or in the workplace.  They always will be, just watch any John Hughes movie.  For every Ferris Bueller there will always be a Mr. Rooney, ready to crush the creative spirit.

But here is what I know that keeps me moving forward:  Caine’s Arcade has had over 4,000,000 views on YouTube, and this sweet little oddball of a boy encouraged kids all over the world to raid their parents’ recycling and make stuff.  Bat Kid electrified an entire city, and even President Obama joined in on the fun.  What was the whole Bat Kid thing but a day-long, site-specific improvisation that involved thousands of people who left their homes and offices to participate?  Watch a few flash mobs on YouTube (and there are a lot more than a few), and watch the looks of wonder on the faces of the unwitting people who just happened to be there at that moment.  People want this.  People want that feeling of wonder that is sparked by encountering truly creative people making things that fill us with joy and amazement and make us say “Wow. That is cool. How did anybody come up with that idea?”

As this year becomes 2014, I know arts education advocates like myself will keep pushing our agenda to keep the arts and creative learning in public schools, because even if there are people who don’t value creative minds, there are more of us who do, and those jaw-dropping moments of wonder and amazement at how astoundingly creative humans can be will become few and far between if we don’t continue to push for bands and choirs and art studios and school plays and Makerspaces in our schools.

Happy New Year!  May your year be filled with joy and wonder and creative experiences.