2016-2017 Montana Teacher Leader in the Arts now taking applications!

Do you believe in the power of arts learning to make a difference in the lives of students?  Do you want to take a leadership role in expanding arts education opportunities in your school and community?

The Montana Arts Council, in partnership with the Montana Office of Public Instruction, is now recruiting educators across Montana for the second year of Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts. Through this innovative program, MAC and the OPI seek to develop teacher leaders who can support other teachers statewide in integrating the arts into their classrooms.

The program includes an on-site summer institute on arts learning, June 20-29 at Salish Kootenai College, online professional learning opportunities throughout the school year, and support for a field project in the arts in the teacher leader’s school or region.

All K-12 teacher in Montana’s public schools, arts specialist and classroom teachers, as well as qualified teaching artists, are welcome to apply for the program.

Full program information and an application is available here.

The deadline for application is now Wednesday, March 30, 2016.  Contact Emily Kohring, Director of Arts Education at the Montana Arts Council, ekohring@mt.gov with questions.

Check out this video of our 2015 inaugural Summer Institute, made by Teacher Leader in the Arts Wes Hines:


Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts Application Deadline Extended



The application deadline for the Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts program has been extended to 5:00 pm, Monday, March 2. 

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.

Who can apply for the program?

  •  Certified arts specialists in K-12 schools in any discipline.
  •  Classroom teachers with significant background and a high comfort level in the arts.
  •  Principals and other school administrators.
  •  Retired teachers who were certified arts specialists.
  •  Professional teaching artists who demonstrate a significant level of experience in and knowledge of K-12 public education.


Click here for more information.  Click here for a downloadable pdf with applicant information and instructions on how to apply.

Artists in Schools and Communities FY16 Grant Cycle Opens

Visual arts residency with artist Jan Lord at Creston School.

Visual arts residency with artist Jan Lord at Creston School.

Happy New Year!  2016 is going to be a fantastic year to bring a professional teaching artist to your community to benefit learners of all ages through a rich and meaningful arts learning experience.

Guidelines for the FY16 Artists in Schools and Communities program are now available on the Montana Arts Council website for projects beginning July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016.

The Montana Arts Council strives to provide access to quality arts learning to develop the creative potential of Montanans of all ages. Towards that end, the Artists in Schools and Communities program provides matching funds that support a wide range of arts learning experiences and artist residencies for participants of all ages with professional working artists, as well as other special projects that support arts learning in schools and community settings.

Click here to see a list of Artists in Schools and Communities grants awarded in FY15.

Circus arts residency in Hot Springs, August 2014.

Circus arts residency in Hot Springs, August 2014.

The FY16 grant cycle features a notable change over previous years. Rather than a rolling deadline for grant applicants, there will be one deadline for all grant requests $1500 and over in the Arts Learning Experience, Artist Residency, and Special Projects categories. This deadline will be April 6, 2015. Grant requests over $1500 submitted after the April 6 deadline will not be considered.

The deadline for all organizations in the Arts Learning Partner category will be April 13, 2015. Arts Learning Partners are select Montana arts organizations that have a proven record of providing high-quality arts learning experiences to participants both regionally and across the state of Montana. Arts Learning Partner organizations must meet specific criteria for consideration in this category.

Grants up to $10,000 are available and must be matched 1:1 with other funds (MAC will provide a 2:1 match for first-time applicants, Class C schools, or small rural schools supervised by a county superintendent). For complete guidelines, please see our website.

To discuss an idea for a potential arts learning project for your school or community, contact Emily Kohring, Director of Arts Education, at (406) 444-6522 or ekohring@mt.gov.

Photovoice residency with Missoula Flagship Program students, June 2014.

Photovoice residency with Missoula Flagship Program students, June 2014.

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 www.HumanKinetics.com).  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 ekohring@mt.gov 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.

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 www.nationalartsstandards.org (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.

Some Is Not Enough


This month, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a talent show at the White House to spotlight the success of Turnaround Arts, a public-private partnership led by the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities that “uses the arts to help narrow the achievement gap, increase student engagement and improve the culture and climate in the country’s highest poverty schools.” The program began as a pilot in eight schools, including Lame Deer Middle School on the Northern Cheyenne reservation here in Montana, and has had enough documented success that it is now expanding to 30 more schools across the nation. Celebrities like Kerry Washington, Jason Mraz and Sarah Jessica Parker were all over the media talking about the benefits of arts education. The expansion of Turnaround Arts is great news for arts education.  Even though a relatively tiny number of schools will benefit from Turnaround Arts’ efforts, the success of this national program sends a message: the arts are a proven and powerful tool for whole-school reform, and one extremely effective tool to close the achievement gap. This message is reinforced in an editorial by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, where they identify “Four Steps to Close the Gap”. Step number three–integrating the arts into the curriculum:

Recent research has shown that when principals–especially those in Title I schools–employ arts integrated strategies, the students who participate are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, have higher GPAs and, later, higher SAT scores, and show significantly higher mathematics proficiency.  Indeed, proficiency in math and other subjects seems to increase the more arts are integrated into the curriculum.  Plus, these benefits are more pronounced in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

There are other successful arts-based school reform efforts besides the high-profile Turnaround Arts initiative:  The Whole Schools Initiative in Mississippi, Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools in Connecticut, Value Plus Schools in Tennessee, and the A+ Schools program in North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.  The following if from the Executive Summary of research conducted on Mississippi’s Whole Schools Initiative (WSI):

WSI schools that effectively implement arts integration were found to have reduced or actually eliminated the academic achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students.

Read that sentence again.  Using arts integration, they actually eliminated the achievement gap in some schools.

How much more evidence do we need that the arts are the answer for many of our students? It is no easy task to be an arts education advocate.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that what you believe in works, every day you are still fighting the good fight in an overall climate where the arts are supported in some schools and in some communities, but not in all schools and communities.  Some is not enough, especially in Montana, where only 43% of school districts treat the arts as core curriculum, and 11% of schools offer no high-quality arts experiences at all.

Despite those sobering facts, the good news is that there is remarkable arts learning going on in many Montana schools and communities.  Just a few examples from my recent travels:

VSA Montana teaching artist Carol Poppenga works with students at Geyser School on Highway 200 between Great Falls and Lewistown.  Poppenga provided arts lessons to five rural schools in the Lewistown area this year, as well as five Hutterite colony schools.  Her smallest school, in Shawmut, had only two students.


Artist and storyteller Monte Yellow Bird worked with 5th graders at Ponderosa Elementary in Billings, a Title I school with few resources, but with parents who are incredible advocates for the arts.  The Parent Council funded part of the residency, and a partnership between the Montana Arts Council and OPI’s Office of Indian Education filled in with the remaining funding and technical assistance.  Read about the residency in the Billings Gazette.


Jefferson Elementary School in Helena is one of the few public elementary schools in the state of Montana that integrates the arts into core curriculum.  Each year the parents organize a day-long gala to celebrate the arts in the school, involving every student in the school.  The gala also includes an art auction to raise money for next year’s activities, since the arts programming in the school is almost entirely supported by the school’s parents.


Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Montana Shakes! program, just wrapping up its third season,  introduces the works of Shakespeare to elementary school audiences by creating a shortened version of one of the Bard’s plays, combining Elizabethan language with our modern language, and using audience participation to engage young students and help make the work accessible.  The tour is growing every year, serving a larger number of schools across Montana and Wyoming.


It’s exciting to see these and many other arts learning projects happening in Montana schools, but too many students still do not have equitable access to arts learning opportunities.  Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, a powerful advocate for arts education in California, recently wrote an ARTSblog post about the expansion of Turnaround Arts into more schools and why the model is a success.  What is generally referred to as the “achievement gap” in education she refers to as an “opportunity gap.”  When a school is provided the resources and technical assistance to implement something that is proven to work–like arts integration–the school, its staff, and its learners have the opportunity to succeed and transform the school culture.  Shriver references a John Dewey quote, one that I think serves as a guidepost for the work that is left to do to provide equitable access to arts education to all students:

What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community.  Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.

Too many young people are falling into the opportunity gap, and while the arts are certainly not the whole answer to the problem of why too many students struggle at school, the arts can provide a lot to fill that gap:  another way to learn, a way to build critical habits of mind that lead to success, a way to transform a school culture from a place labeled as “failing” to a place rich with music, art and joy.  And until we fill that gap for all kids, and not just some kids, our work is not finished.  Grab a shovel.


Meet Montana’s Poetry Out Loud Champion

State POL 2014 Finalists

The top eight finalists at Montana’s 2014 Poetry Out Loud State Competition

On Saturday, March 8, eighteen remarkably poised and talented teenagers from across the state competed to become Montana’s Poetry Out Loud Champion. Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation contest created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, with the goal of supporting the memorization and recitation of great works of poetry by young people. Young people, with the support of their English teachers, compete first in classroom competition, then their school-wide competitions before they move on to the regionals, and, finally, the state competition, sponsored by the Montana Arts Council and held this year at Helena’s Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts in Helena.

This year’s winner in a very tough competition was Sowmya Sudhaker from Butte High School, who now moves on to the National Finals in Washington DC along with her teacher, Mr. Doug Ruffier. Sowmya will be coached for the national competition by Poetry Out Loud State Coordinator Margaret Belisle and Montana Arts Council 2014 Artist’s Innovation Award Winner, Missoula-based poet Mark Gibbons.

State Poetry Out Loud Champion Sowmya Sudhaker, center, with runners up Darcie Caldwell of Helena, right, and Savannah Smith, left, also of Helena.

State Poetry Out Loud Champion Sowmya Sudhaker, center, with runners up Darcie Caldwell of Helena, right, and Savannah Smith, left, also of Helena.

I interviewed Sowmya after her big Poetry Out Loud victory:

1.  Tell us a little about yourself.  What activities are you involved in at school?  What are your plans after your graduate?

I was born in a city called Mangalore, in India. I have moved to different places several times in my life since I was born. When I was four we moved to Michigan for about two years, and later moved to India again. After a year we went to Mexico and lived there for five years. From Mexico I came to Butte and I have been here for six years now.

I have been in Butte High’s Varsity Chorale for fpur years. I am also in group of top ten kids from the Varsity called the BSharps.

For now, I plan on going to Montana Tech for Software Engineering.   After having some experience with the fine arts, I am still unsure of what I truly want to do for a career.

2.  How did you get involved in Poetry Out Loud?

My freshman year, I participated in the POL competition representing my English class. However, it was back when I didn’t know much about how the program worked, or what was expected of a participant. I participated sophomore year but didn’t move ahead from my classroom competition. Junior year my teacher did not participate in POL and now senior year, Mr. Ruffier required us to memorize a poem from the POL website as an assignment. After everyone recited, Mr. Ruffier asked me if I wanted to participate in the school competition and I agreed. At that point, I had no idea I would come to the state level!

3.  Who is your favorite poet or favorite poem?

My favorite poem would definitely be the first poem I recited at State — “Isla” by Virgil Suarez. Besides having the familiar Spanish language that I truly miss, the poem applies to me at a very personal level. The poem starts with the narrator telling his story of having lived “In Los Angeles… watching the Three Stooges, The Little Rascal, Speed Racer, and the Godzilla movies.” The Three Stooges was one of the first American shows I watched to learn English, like the narrator. The poem continues talking about how Godzilla feels so out of place in the new world it had come to.

“I understood by the age of twelve what it meant to be unwanted, exiled, how you move from one country to another where nobody wants you, nobody knows you,” is probably my favorite line as it applies to me spot on.

As I personally moved to different countries I also felt like I wouldn’t have a chance to settle in a specific place where I could actually fit in. However, I am truly grateful for having experienced all these cultures which have fused into who I am today.

4.  Why do you think it is valuable for students to read and study poetry?

Usually when a typical student hears the word “poetry” all that goes through their head is “Boring” or “Oh no, that’s so hard.”  I think poetry is essential in students’ lives since it is just as healing as the power of music. Songs that students listen to in their everyday lives have lyrics. Those lyrics are indeed poems, and if one takes the time to understand and visualize a poem in their own interpretations, it is almost therapeutic. After I read “Isla” I felt like I could finally turn my emotions into words and realize I am not the only one who feels a certain way.

What are you looking forward to about the National Finals in Washington, DC?

I definitely look forward to the experience of competing at a national level in anything as this is my first time. It is truly an honor to be able to participate at this level and I know there is plenty that I’ll learn during this trip!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your involvement with Poetry Out Loud?

Poetry Out Loud gave me the chance to explore various types of poetry out there that I hadn’t really paid attention to. Thanks to Mr. Ruffier’s expertise, I now have the skill to analyze poems better than before. This is and will be a part of me from now on.

Click here to read a copy of Sowmya’s favorite poem, “Isla” by Virgil Suarez.

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: ekohring@mt.gov or (406) 444-6522

VSA Montana to offer Autism and the Arts Workshop


The Montana Arts Council is proud to be partnering with VSA Montana, the State Organization on Arts and Disability,  to offer Working in the Arts with Children on the Autism Spectrum, a full-day workshop for arts specialists, classroom teachers of all grade levels, teaching artists, arts organization staff members and paraprofessionals.

The workshop will include a morning discussion of characteristics and behaviors of children on the autism spectrum, along with strategies and interventions to help engage learners in the classroom setting.  The session is led by Brett Gilleo, LLC of Big Sky Therapeutic Services in Great Falls, who works extensively with children on the spectrum, as well as families and teachers, to support successful learning experiences.

The afternoon will include hands-on arts learning activities led by Marlene Schumann, M.Ed.  Marlene has a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from Montana State University and her BA in Art and Mass Communication.  She specializes in assessment strategies for learners of all abilities.

The workshop will be offered twice during the spring in the following locations:

Saturday, February 22 in Helena at the Montana Council for Developmental Disablities, 2714 Billings Avenue (deadline to register is February 14!)

Saturday, April 5 in Conrad at Conrad High School

The workshop is offered free to all participants with support from the Montana Arts Council.  Lunch is included.  A half-day follow up for all participants will be scheduled at a later date.

Renewal units will be available for teachers.

For additional details, and to register, contact:

Cythia Wood, Executive Director

VSA Montana

(406) 549-2984

PO Box 7225 Missoula, MT 59807

or email: info@vsamontana.org