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.

Checking the Creative Pulse

In June, I spent a few days with some really hard-working graduate students.  They were involved in a rigorous, four-week course of study that included early morning classes, an all-afternoon seminar and mountains of reading, projects and papers to complete at night after the long day of intense focus.  What kind of crazy people would give up four weeks of their summer in Montana to work this hard, and miss out on all that camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and craft brew-drinking that the Big Sky has to offer?

Teachers would.  Almost all these graduate students are teachers.  Think teachers don’t work during the summer?  Wrong.  Here is one thing I know about teachers, though it may contradict some characterizations made by the mainstream media:  almost every teacher I know wants to learn how to be a better teacher, and how best to help their students learn.  Towards that end, many go to school in the summertime.  These particular teachers go to school for two summers in a row, giving up time with family and friends to attend the Creative Pulse program at the University of Montana.  Creative Pulse is a master’s degree program in integrated arts and education, and draws not only arts teachers from every discipline, but also classroom teachers of all grade levels and subject areas.  Creative Pulse is taught by UM College of Visual and Performing Arts faculty, plus guest lecturers.  This year, 38 teachers participated in Creative Pulse, most from Montana, but a few from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Massachusetts.


I participated in the first week’s seminar as a guest presenter and observer.  The topic, School Communities: The intersection of Arts, Education and Culture, was led by director of Creative Pulse Karen Kaufmann and Dr. Lori Gray, assistant professor of music education at U of M.  The overarching question for the course was “what does the ideal school culture look like?” To explore the question, participants were led through a variety of arts-based strategies to process numerous readings, discussions and guest lectures.  They danced school culture, they drew school culture, they created frozen images with their bodies of school culture.  They were offered what all students should be offered in an ideal school culture:  multiple ways to express their knowledge and share their ideas.

Creative Pulse itself creates a culture you want to stay in for a while.  It was remarkable to see the kind of community the Creative Pulse participants, who call themselves “Pulsers,” quickly created.  The leaders of Creative Pulse have clearly created a place where risk-taking, creative expression and honest reflection are the norm, and where joy in learning is the most palpable feeling.  Everyone in the room was working very hard in an intense process over four long weeks–but having a ball doing it.

Isn’t that the kind of culture we want for all students?  One where everyone is working hard and having a ball?  Of course, a major topic in the seminar was how the arts can create this kind of joy-filled school culture.  Creative Pulse participants become true believers that the arts can transform the learning environment for students, and many of them become committed to being change agents in their schools.  Yet many of the “Pulsers” will return to schools where the arts are not fully embraced, and where the school culture may not be healthy.  This is one of the conundrums of great arts-based professional development programs for teachers.  So often there are only one or a handful of representatives from a single school who get very excited about what they learn, and return to their school fired up to integrate the arts into the culture–only to meet a wall of obstacles and resistance that deflates the energy they built up during the experience.  Administrators with conflicting priorities, disinterested colleagues, testing mandates, constraints of time and budget–all these things can be bubble-bursting.

How do we help keep the momentum going for teachers coming out of arts-based professional development programs with a mission to transform their school culture through the arts?  Geography is one huge obstacle, especially in Montana.  Our state is very large, and many of our teachers are working in small, isolated communities.  I’ve been having exciting conversations with some of my colleagues at the Office of Public Instruction about the potential in digital technology for teachers, not only as a platform for professional development coursework, but also as a way to connect teachers through online professional learning communities where they can chat with colleagues who have similar interests, no matter where they live.  Coursework is already happening through the new Montana Professional Learning Digital Network, including classes in integrating the arts into the Common Core.  Free services like Google Hangouts can also help teachers meet up online.  Twitter is already a great, no-cost platform to connect teachers, and a large group of Montana educators meet every Tuesday night at 8:00 pm with the hashtag #MTedchat to discuss topics in education and swap ideas.  Maybe we need a #MTartsedchat, too?

One of my favorite things to see is a group of teachers standing together in a circle at an arts-based professional development workshop.  I have led many of them, and I’m always in awe of teachers and their willingness to take risks and try new things like dancing or doing improvisation, even if it terrifies them, if they think they will learn something they can take back to their students.  My hope is that we can create more professional development opportunities for teachers in Montana like the Creative Pulse, places where teachers and teaching artists can stand in a circle, taking risks together, learning and sharing ideas to improve arts education for all students.


National Core Arts Standards Launch

NCCAS logo

On June 4th, after collecting input from over 6,000 educators and artists and culling through over one million comments submitted during three different draft reviews, the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) published the National Core Arts Standards on a new, interactive website, found at (I personally find the website to be very clunky, but I understand that it is a work in progress).

The National Core Arts Standards now include a total of five artistic disciplines. In addition to music, theatre, dance and visual art, the new standards now include media arts as its own distinct artistic discipline, recognizing the role technology now plays in how every art form is practiced and taught.

Executive Director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies Jonathan Katz pointed out at a June 4 launch webinar that one strong benefit to having a set of national standards is that it gives arts educators a common language to describe what students should know and be able to do in the arts, and it helps make the case for the importance of artistic literacy as another way that children can learn. Noted arts education researcher Dr. James Catterall also added that arts standards create “an expression of intention and purpose” for arts education advocates, making the arts important alongside other subject matters.

The new standards are organized by a set of four overarching anchor standards, followed by discipline-specific performance standards, broken down by grade band.   The four anchor standards describe artistic processes that apply to all the disciplines: creating, performing (referred to as presenting in visual arts and producing in media arts), responding and connecting. In addition to allowing users to organize the standards in different ways, the website also hosts instructional support resources, including Model Cornerstone Assessments for each discipline, enduring understandings and essential questions for each standard, and glossaries and additional resources teachers can utilize in their classrooms.

Adoption of the National Core Arts Standards by each state is completely voluntary. Some states are already in the process of adopting or adapting the standards, and some states will keep the standards they have. Montana educators have been involved in the draft review process for the National Core Arts Standards since spring of 2013 and have offered both individual and collective feedback to the NCCAS. When the time comes to revise Montana’s Standards for Arts, a broad coalition of Montana citizens invested in education will likely take a look at the National Core Arts Standards in the review process.

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.

State Poetry Out Loud Finals Postponed

POL logo

You know it’s a tough winter when even here in Montana, where we pride ourselves on being a tough and hardy crew, we are forced to start postponing events due to weather conditions. Unfortunately, due to the blizzard and heavy snow conditions across Western Montana today and tomorrow, the Montana State Poetry Out Loud Finals scheduled for Saturday, March 1 at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena have been postponed, and will be rescheduled for either March 8 or March 15, at a location to be determined in Helena.

Please contact Emily Kohring at the Montana Art Council for more information: or (406) 444-6522

Crispy Chicken Wings and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Dancing Classrooms 2

This past Saturday, a group of fourteen slightly sleepy Helena School District teachers gathered in an elementary school gym on a cold, snowy morning looking a little apprehensive.  The teachers had voluntarily signed up for a professional development workshop with Rodney Lopez, National Program Director for Dancing Classrooms, a New York City-based organization that provides ballrooms dancing residencies to classrooms.   As somebody who has been on both sides of arts-based professional development, as a provider and as a classroom teacher, I recognized some of the body language:

“Why did I sign up for this?  It’s Saturday. I could be sleeping in.”

“I’m about to completely embarrass myself.”

“If I duck out now, will anybody notice?”

Dancing Classrooms began in New York City, but the organization now works in classrooms all over the country and even internationally.  Dancing Classrooms teaches ballroom dancing to students, but, as their website states, it is not about teaching ballroom dancing:  “The dance is a tool for getting the children to break down social barriers, learn about honor and respect, treat others carefully, improve self-confidence, communicate and cooperate, and accept others even if they are different.” The work of Dancing Classrooms was featured in the hit documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, which was screened for parents and students in Helena on Friday evening as part of Dancing Classroom’s Helena School District residency.  Lopez also worked with students at both Helena Middle School and C. R. Anderson Middle School on Friday as part of the project that was the brainchild of district gifted and talented teacher Julie Mitchell and was funded by the Helena Education Foundation through their Great Ideas grant program.

After gathering the teachers for a brief overview of the day and an icebreaker activity in their seats, Lopez wasted no time getting the group up and immersed in Dancing Classrooms’ method of teaching ballroom dance to young people. He taught the group as if he was working with a group of 5th graders and it was their very first session (a Dancing Classrooms residency is normally a 10-week residency, with two sessions per week).  “Respect.  Elegance.  Teamwork.  That’s our goal,”  Lopez told the group.  He also immediately made them comfortable by telling them, “If you can count to eight, you can do ballroom dancing.”  The first dance they learned was the merengue.  Students always start by learning the parts of the dance without touching, and without worrying who their partner is going to be, something that can cause a lot of anxiety for students.  Gradually, the students are assigned partners, but first they are in “pancake” position–meaning they dance with one partner’s hands on top of the other’s, rather than in full “dance frame.”

Part of the brilliance of the Dancing Classrooms method is the way they use language and metaphor to demystify the idea of dancing and make children who are not dancers comfortable with the idea of dancing.  Lopez used terms like “crispy chicken wings” and “peanut butter sandwiches” to describe how participants should hold their arms in dance frame once they got to that point.  The humorous terms make the participants laugh, rather than making them think about the awkwardness of being so close to another person.

Dancing Classrooms 3

Lopez also gradually insists on eye contact between the dancers as a sign of respect for each other.  Every dance ends with a bow and a thank you to the partner.  At the beginning and end of every session, the dancers also escort each other in and out of the dancing classroom, because the dancing classroom is a place of honor, and the students are the kings and queens of the ballroom.  Respect for each other, for the instructor, and for the space is constantly reinforced throughout the lesson.

Watching the group learn the merengue, then the tango, and then a swing dance, it was remarkable not only how quickly they learned the steps, but also how fully engaged and comfortable each teacher became in the process.  The room very quickly went from a nervous discomfort to a joyful energy that made time go very quickly.

During the session, Lopez shared with the teachers the Dulaine Method that is the philosophy of how Dancing Classrooms approaches their classroom residencies.  The method is named for Pierre Dulaine, the founder of Dancing Classrooms.

1.  Respect and compassion.  Every student and teacher in the room is honored for where they are at in their journey.  If they are not ready to dance, that is ok.

2.  Being present.  Focus on what is happening right now.

3.  Creating a safe space.  Nobody feels wrong.  Everybody feels a sense of belonging.

4.  Command and control.  The teacher is in charge of the learning in the classroom, and the students are simultaneously learning command and control of themselves.

5.  Body and verbal language.  Change the language so it’s relavant to the experience of the child.

6.  Humor and joy.  Laughter helps take away the discomfort associated with learning something new and different.

I marvel at how easily translatable this philosophy is to every classroom, in every school, in every subject.  What if these six tenets were posted on the wall of every classroom our students walked into every day?  Observing this group of teachers working with Rodney Lopez, quickly learning three dances in three hours and building a safe space of laughter and joy, I was reminded again of the power the arts have to create a learning environment where everybody can succeed.  And, given that proven power, I marvel at how often children are denied access to arts learning experiences like this in their schools.  But, on this Saturday morning, there was a lot to celebrate:  a teacher with the vision to bring Dancing Classrooms to Montana, a local foundation that would support it, a master teaching artist, and a willing group of teachers who will take what they learned back to their classrooms to the benefit of their students.

Dancing Classrooms 1

A Shared Endeavor

Recently, a coalition of twelve national organizations led by the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE), called on policy makers and the public to re-examine support for quality arts education in a document called Arts Education for America’s Students, A Shared Endeavor.

According to SEADAE’s press release, A Shared Endeavor defines what quality arts education looks like at the local level, encourages partnerships, and calls on organizations and individuals to actively support and promote:

  • Policies and resources for arts education.
  • Access to arts education for all students.
  • Collaboration between school-based arts educators, other subject area teachers, and community-based artists and arts educators.
  • Long-term advocacy partnership between all providers of arts education.

The twelve organizations, which include the National Association for Music Education, the National Art Education Association, American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Kennedy Center, and the National Education Association, among others, believe students benefit from sequential, standards-based arts curriculum, deep expertise and professional experience, and standards-based connections between the arts and other content areas.

Two things I take away from A Shared Endeavor:

1.  I appreciate that the document reinforces the importance of certified arts teachers with deep expertise.  In many Montana schools, both urban and rural, and especially in elementary schools, you will often find not enough certified arts teachers in any subject.  The arts are often left to be taught by certified non-arts teachers who receive little professional development in how to teach any of the art forms.  Or, the school scrapes together funds (often through the parent organization, or funding programs like the Montana Arts Council’s Artists in Schools and Communities grant) to bring in a teaching artist to work with the students for a residency that is a wonderful opportunity for students with little access to the arts, but is almost always too short and limited in its scope.  In parts of the country, this practice has sometimes also had the unintentional consequence of pitting teaching artists and certified arts teachers against each other.  Teaching artists should be brought in to enhance and support school curriculum, never to replace certified arts educators.

2.  I also like that the document stresses the critical importance of collaboration.  Collaboration between schools, districts and arts organization; and between certified arts teachers, certified classroom teachers, and teaching artists, working in partnership to deliver a high-quality arts education for all students, not just the ones that are lucky enough to live in the districts that have lots of resources to afford it.  Collaboration, more than money, creates great arts education in schools.  Arts organizations can bring schools access to cultural opportunities they might never encounter otherwise.  Teaching artists and certified non-arts teachers can partner to create great learning experiences tied to the Common Core.  Certified arts specialists can enrich what they are already teaching by bringing in guests artists to share their unique talents with students.  Everyone working toward a shared endeavor–the best possible education for all students.

It is an endeavor we all should share, because there is no high-quality education without the arts.  I wonder who else can share the endeavor with us besides artists and educators?  We need parents, we need CEOs, we need scientists, we need policymakers.  I would love to see organizations added to A Shared Endeavor who are outside of the arts or education field.  Just imagine.  What if NASA signed on?  How about the National Academy of Sciences?  How about the National PTO?  Boeing?  Apple?  The U. S. Chamber of Commerce?  An arts education advocate can dream, can’t she?

Arts Education for All Students:  A Shared Endeavor

Arts Education for All Students: A Shared Endeavor

An iPad or a Piano?

Much has been made recently of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s push to put an iPad in the hands of every student. The district has invested millions, the tablets have been easily hacked by students to access off-limits content, and the controversy may cost their superintendent his job. A recent editorial in the L. A. Times raises interesting questions about the value of investing huge sums of money in technology in classrooms at the expense of other kinds of learning, including arts education. Jeff Lantos, a long-time teacher, argues that what students need is not tons of technology thrown at them, but a really great teacher . . . with a piano:

 . . . if bureaucrats and billionaires really want to “disrupt” the traditional educational model, they should forget iPads and Androids. Instead, put a piano in every classroom and make piano lessons part of teacher training. Imagine an educational model in which music, dance and drama are part of every lesson. Imagine students singing about math properties, taking history from the page to the stage, dancing their way through the Constitutional Convention and the Lewis and Clark expedition, acting out scenes from novels, borrowing from Tom Lehrer and singing the periodic table of elements.

While I believe the writer may be a tad technophobic (there are many ways that technology can enhance student creativity instead of hindering it), I also believe he is right in his assertion that no interface with a screen can replace the human interaction between a good teacher and an eager learner, especially when they are engaged in the creative process of learning through dance, drama, art or music.

An excellent illustration of this can be found in this video clip from John Merrow’s Learning Matters blog.  Maria Eby teaches at a school in North Carolina that is part of the A+ program of the North Carolina Arts Council, an highly-successful, arts-based, whole-school reform effort. She is not an arts specialist, but she thoroughly believes in the power of learning through the arts, and uses it to great effect to get her students to practice higher-order thinking skills, and to understand the life of a plant.

Both an iPad and a great teacher can command a student’s full attention, but I argue that the zoned-out, bleary-eyed time-suck of an iPad can’t compete with the tuned-in, joy-filled magic spell a great teacher can cast on her students when she dons the bean stalk costume.

Lantos ends his editorial with a problem he posed to his young students:

I said to my students: “We’re facing drastic budget cuts. We have to get rid of either the 15 laptops or the piano. Which should it be?” I don’t think I have to tell you the response.

Pitting technology against the arts in schools creates a false dichotomy–it should not be an either/or situation.  We must teach children to use technology successfully to be competitive in the 21st century.  But I can’t help wondering what might happen in a school that took a fraction of the resources being spent to buy iPads and Androids and invested in a few pianos, or a kiln, or a new dance floor–and then invested some professional development money to train their teachers to use it?