This week I am happy to bring you a guest blogger, Susan Riley, with Make It Work: School-Wide Arts Integration.  Susan is a music teacher in Columbia, MD, and works as the arts integration site coordinator.  The school-wide arts integration program she leads is recognized by the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance as the “best arts integration program in the state,” has been visited by state legislators, featured in the Baltimore Sun, and is being nominated as a school of excellence by the Kennedy Center. Check out her website and blog at ~EMP

“The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.”

–          Vince Havner

My daughter is 18 months old and everything in this world seems huge to her.  But stairs are one of my favorite things to watch her try and tackle.  She stands at the bottom of a set of stairs for what seems like ages – calculating, measuring, figuring.  But then finally, the magic moment: she makes a decision to climb them.  And after that, look out!  Before you know it, she is at the top (with mommy or daddy behind her of course) and giggling with pride.

Starting An Arts Integration Program

Starting an arts integration program in a school is just like climbing those stairs.  You must take time, in the beginning, to envision what your school will look like as a result, as well as methodically plan for exactly how you will climb those steps.  But nothing will happen until you make the decision to take that first tentative, but determined step up.

The school-wide arts integration program that I run in my elementary school has been 3 years in the making.  It is now a school-wide program, a model school for the county, has been featured on local television programs, and is being nominated for the Kennedy Center’s Excellence in Arts Award for Maryland.  How did we get there?  Easy!  Through 3 long years of persistence, planning, and praise.


The Tipping Point: This Is It!

I was finishing up my Masters degree in education administration and supervision and was coming into my internship.  At the same time, I had hit that 5-year point that most teachers reach where it’s either push on through in education or leave and never look back.  I knew I needed something inspiring, but didn’t know what, and without it, I was going to burn out.  Then, at one of our music teachers conferences, I heard an overview about arts integration and what its potentials could be in the classroom and my mind started whirling.  I went back to my graduate school library, researched as much as I could about the topic and sat back in one of those hard red leather chairs and thought “this is it”.  I gathered up all of my information, went to my principal and started to change the way we did things.

My principal was the best thing that ever could have happened to me at that point.  After presenting him with this information and being very blunt with what I needed professionally at that time, he looked me square in the eyes and said “if you can get a primary and an intermediate team leader to try this out with you, you can start a pilot with them”.  I presented the idea at our team leaders meeting and lo and behold!  All 7 team leaders (our special education team leader included) agreed to try this program as a pilot the following year.  That’s a big deal – getting the leaders in your school to sign on with this program is key to getting it to go anywhere.  While I would agree you only need 2-3 key leaders to start, getting all of them on board was a fantastic bonus.


The Planning Process

That summer, I took my time and planned.  I researched arts integration articles, pulled out key research, created a lesson plan template, created peer reviews, and found a book to use in our professional development group for this brave team of leaders.  Then I gave each teacher a folder at the beginning of the fall and an outline of when our group would meet, chapters to read and discuss and what a lesson plan could look like.

Failing Forward

And then came the “fall flat on your face” moments.  That entire fall, this great team met and discussed our book and looked at our lesson plan templates, and then folded their arms over their chests. They talked to me about how they couldn’t find the art objectives.  They didn’t understand how to teach both at the same time.  They didn’t know why it was important for them to assess the art side.  Everything in the book made it look way too hard and WAY too time-consuming.  They appreciated my efforts and enthusiasm, but this just didn’t seem like something practical.  So, I changed my mindset.

When my daughter gets about halfway up the stairs, she sometimes slips and starts to go backward.  I always want to lift her up at that point, but she usually says “I got it” and changes the way her feet are planted on those stairs.  She pauses to look up a moment, get her bearings, and then shifts just a bit to compensate for what went wrong the last time.  Then, she gets up, and off she goes again.


Seeing Is Believing

I contacted the woman who had brought in the presenter for my music conference last year and told her of my dilemma.  She put me in contact with two schools in our state that were doing arts integration well and had been honored for it several times.  I called them and asked if we could take a “field trip” to their schools for a morning to watch how it was done.  They agreed and both schools planned a morning visit that allowed us to see arts integration in action and interview the teachers themselves.

That’s when things changed for us.  We came back that afternoon as a team and talked about what we saw, how it wasn’t as difficult as the book had made it out to be, and ideas that we got just by watching them.  Within 2 weeks, teachers were writing lessons and trying them in their classrooms.  With the success of those lessons, teachers tried more and more and by the spring, we had over 20 lessons that had been created for our lesson plan bank.

That spring, I created a video with our pilot teachers about our journey, what we learned, and where we wanted to go and showed it to our staff at our next staff meeting.  Our staff got excited about it and decided to take it school-wide the following year.  True to education, I gathered the data from our pilot teachers’ classrooms that spring.  Our standardized testing from those pilot classrooms showed huge gains in reading and math from all learners, but most especially minorities and special education students when compared to non-pilot classrooms.  That data provided our administrators with the knowledge that the program had value and we added it to our school improvement plan.  And the rest is history.


An Ongoing Process

We found a way to make school-wide arts integration work. But, we are still finding ways to improve our program, innovate it with technology, and weave it in with the 21st Century Skills Initiative that is coming down the road in education.  In my next article, I’ll be talking about the essential components to align this program with your current curricular models so that it can be taken far beyond your school into your district or state.  But once you get to the top of those stairs, there is nothing like a good celebration of your achievement before attempting the next flight.

Once at the top, Emma always turns around, laughs from her view way up above and then claps “yay!!!” in joy over her triumph.  The vision realized, the next journey begins.

Susan’s next post in this series: Nuts, Bolts and…Paintbrushes? (School-Wide Arts Integration)