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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Bates Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Annapolis, MD

How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning

Student achievement was down. Teachers were demoralized. Until a bold strategy -- integrating the arts into curricula -- helped students embrace their learning and retain their knowledge. Today the faculty, staff, and students of Maryland's Bates Middle School are crafting a whole new vision of school transformation.
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

Students at Bates Middle School learn about art concepts such as photo composition (above) that are integrated into other curricula like math.

Credit: Zachary Fink

What do Mars and modern dance have to do with each other? How do you connect fractions with Andy Warhol? At Wiley H. Bates Middle School, in Annapolis, Maryland, the answer is arts integration. Every teacher there is committed to weaving the arts and standard curricula together to create a richer and more lasting learning experience for their students.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context. For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets (PDF). In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining composition in Warhol's Campbell's soup paintings.

(See more arts-integrated lesson plans from Bates.)

What we also saw in these classrooms were students who were enthusiastically participating in the learning process, and having fun. It's not revelatory to say that the arts can engage kids. But that that engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline seems like a secret that really needs to be revealed. When you see how the kids embrace these lessons, hear them tell how art helps them remember concepts better, and learn about the improvements teachers have noted in student understanding and retention, it makes you wonder why more schools aren't integrating the arts in every class.

A Whole-School Reform

Bates decided to become a fully arts-integrated school in 2007 as the primary initiative in a whole-school reform effort. Other initiatives in their school improvement plan (PDF) included Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an operational framework for implementing practices and interventions to improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness system with research-based methods for elementary through postsecondary students. Their principal at the time, Diane Bragdon, had brought the school back from the brink of failure and now was ready to aim its trajectory squarely toward greater success. Bragdon got the support of Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, long a proponent of schools of choice, who knew well the impact arts integration had had in other Maryland schools. The district applied for a four-year grant called Supporting Arts Integrated Learning for Student Success (SAILSS) from the U.S. Department of Education and was one of 15 districts and schools to receive it.

Since they started implementing arts integration schoolwide in 2009, Bates has seen a 23 percent drop in the average number of referrals and suspensions per student. The school’s percentage of students proficient or advanced in math has grown four times more than the state's over the same period, and five times more in reading. Not all lessons are taught with arts integration, but Bates takes pains to diligently track those that have been in a regular log (PDF), and they report substantial improvements in student comprehension and retention.

Why Does Arts Integration Work?

Why does it work? Arts integration uses teaching practices that have been shown in brain-based research to improve comprehension and long-term retention. For example, when students create stories, pictures, or other nonverbal expressions of the content they are learning -- a process researchers call elaboration -- they are also helping to better embed the information. In one eighth-grade math class, students prepared for a test on linear equations by creating photo stories of the steps involved. This required that teacher Laura Casciato spend nearly a full class period teaching about basic principles of design (PDF). She explained the trade-off: "It was an easy decision to spend time on the art because we know that they retain that information better. They're going to look at that test and say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that information from my photo.'"

As with any new initiative, there are a number of factors that must be in place for it to succeed. With arts integration, high-quality professional development is essential. Teachers don't need to be "artistic" to be able to use arts integration; they just need to learn some of the fundamentals so they will be better able to think of ways to merge art concepts with other content. For example, knowing the basic elements of design, such as emphasis, balance, contrast, and repetition, enabled Casciato to teach her students how to create more informative photo compositions to illustrate each step in solving a linear equation (PDF).

(Read tips for administrators and teachers for getting started with arts integration.)

Bates used the bulk of their grant money for professional development, which they started in the 2007-08 school year. They have PD Thursdays every other week, and at least one per month is on arts integration. Last year (2011-12) was the final year of their grant funding. Teachers report they are now well versed in arts standards and know how to create arts-integrated lessons. Many now train their colleagues and new teachers entering the school.

Beyond engagement and retention, adults and students at Bates cite numerous other benefits of arts integration: It encourages healthy risk taking, helps kids recognize new skills in themselves and others, provides a way to differentiate instruction, builds collaboration among both students and teachers, bridges differences, and draws in parents and the community. Plus it's just plain fun.

Lastly, there's equity. If we agree that the arts can provide all kinds of benefits for kids, from intellectual to creative to social-emotional, then shouldn't all kids have the opportunity to learn about and experience them? But far too few schools have either the funding or the bureaucratic support to make this a priority, a lack often born out of fear of sacrificing academic achievement. What Bates and many other arts-integrated schools across the country are showing is that by creating a richer, more memorable learning experience through the arts, they unleash not only a rising tide of academic achievement but they lay the foundation for what it means to be a truly creative community.

What do you think about this Schools That Work story? We'd love to hear from you!
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Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

Thank you for this article. Curiously there was no mention of music within this arts integration. I encourage your readers to explore integrating music along with the other art forms. Music is the most emotive of the arts. Emotions -24 times stronger than non-emotive thoughts, are a key for embedding robust learning. Music -along with dance and the visual arts contributes to a multi-sensory learning experience creating powerful anchors that enhance memory recall. Therein lies the paradox: the best way to increase achieve in the 3 R's which present day education is so focussed on - is not to increase time at the expense of the arts, but to integrate more arts. This is the clever solution that so many left-brain leaders are still blind to. Michael www.musiceducationworld.com

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

Michael - great point. I was the AI specialist for the county until this past summer and have worked with our 5 AI elementary schools and our two AI middle schools: Bates and Brooklyn Park. I can assure you that music is a key element in their Arts Integration initiatives and we have worked hard to develop authentic and intentional music, drama, dance and visual arts connections in and through all content areas in our Arts Integration schools. Lori Snyder, our Senior Manager of Performing and Visual Arts Magnets and Amy Cohn, our Coordinator of Music have developed purposeful opportunities to use and create music within all of our schools, but particularly in our AI communities. We believe as powerfully as you do that music is an emotive and whole-mind experience that can and should be used in any naturally-aligned area to the curriculum.

Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

The primary reason for the success of the school is because of the reason of academics + interest. They have mixes learning a fun. Such concepts are loved by the students.


Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

What an excellent and inspirational article and comments. Michael, I will be reading your work. Are you familiar with Acadamaics? I am the author of over 2000 educational songs for grades pre k - 12. Students can literally sing their way through school. From the multiplication tables to the laws of thermodynamics we have songs immediately applicable to every subject and grade level. Here is a link http://www.acadamiacs.com/. I present my lectures "Music, Learning and the Brain" and "Connections: The Brain Development Workshop" which are all based on what you already know - MUSIC IS DEFINITELY THE BEST WAY TO TEACH ACADEMICS! The MLB seminar explains how the brain learns, hemispheric dominance and more. Did you know that 70% of all teachers are left brain dominant? 78% of all "gifted" students are left brainers while 78% of all high school drop outs are right brain dominant. The brain was hardwired to learn through music. A left brain subject becomes a right brained subject if music is used as the delivery system. I have 3 year old students who already know their multiplication tables, states and capitols and presidents in order. Last night I had a class full of elementary students with ADD. They sang the entire periodic table of the elements by memory without even blinking an eye. We followed that up with the songs about all of the European Explorers. They LOVE to learn through music. And I will enthusiastically agree with your closing statement which is well worth repeating, " The best way to increase and achieve in the 3 R's which present day education is so focused on is not to increase time at the expense of the arts, but to integrate more arts."

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

Thank you for your contribution, Virginia. What you are doing is so exciting.
I will definitely be visiting your website.
All the best and go the arts!

Douglas D. Fox's picture
Douglas D. Fox
Theater, Media, Journalism, English teacher: St. Pauls High School, NC

With all this talk of "arts integration" where is the study of the arts for The ARTS sake?

Will we demean the value of The Arts to the point that their only purpose is to enhance learning of "core subjects"?

What will happen to writing music for self expression instead to better understand harmonics or mathematical principles (Bach way ahead of the curve on that one)?

What will happen to creating a photo as means of self expression instead of explaining linear progressions or other math or English or history of science concept?

What will happen to dance? To singing? To visual arts? To theatre arts? Will my art, theatre, only have value when it teaches the Pythagorean Theorem as a means to get a square flat, lighting as means of understanding Ohms law and other principles of electricity and circuits, etc.?

Integrate all we want, BUT we have not fully served the WHOLE child until we teach them art for ARTS sake, for beauty's sake, for expression of the soul's sake.

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

Yes, as a concert pianist who graduated with honors from the largest conservatory on the east coast, there is nothing I enjoy more than playing Mozart by candle light or Bach in the early morning. Composing is a most enriching part of my life and I perform regularly. I also teach the wonderful arts of classical and jazz piano. Please know that we are not in any means "degrading" the any of the performing or visual arts by using them as a medium to convey knowledge of facts and concepts. Instead, please view this as using the arts to raise the required information to a new level. Not everyone will be a concert musician, Broadway performer or and exhibited painter. Some have talents to build the instruments, design the sets and formulate the paints. We all need to work together and that's where the beauty of life lies - the harmony of your talents working with everyone else's to make the whole world a better place.

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

One of the most difficult parts about advocating for Arts Integration is the remarkable balance between Arts for arts sake and the value of integrating the arts authentically within content areas. As a professional musician and former music teacher, I understand this debate and truly believe in your last statement, Douglas, about arts for arts sake serving the whole child. One of the reasons that I advocate for arts integration is because of this very reason.

True, authentic arts integration requires MORE arts classes that focus on the skills, processes and creativity of the arts in their own rights, not less. This makes arts teachers and their classes some of the most important and valuable content areas in the school. The reason for this lies in the true intention of integration: that you use the skills and processes learned within the arts classes to enhance and deepen the meaning of other content areas. It is not to be used in place of or substitution for the arts, but rather as a way to access student engagement, creativity and expression through their connection within and to the arts.

Arts integration is so much more than singing a song about Fifty-Nifty United States in Social Studies or creating shadow boxes in Language Arts. Instead, it's about authentically aligning and assessing standards side-by-side, with equal importance so that students can develop their own, deeper meaning from both content areas. Integration works - but only if we invest in the arts for their own sake and make intentional connections to this learning.

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