Imagine you’ve been asked to improvise dialogue for a person in this photograph from the Civil War. Which character would you choose? How would you portray him or her? What can you infer from his or her posture and facial expression?
Given such an assignment, students can develop a character, a scene and, in time, a play. In the process, says EDC’s Eileen Mackin, they will learn not only the elements of good theater, but the history of the Civil War, and how it might have affected individual soldiers and civilians.
Mackin is Project Director of SmART Schools, a standards-based, whole-school reform initiative that uses the arts to engage all students. In three years of pilot-testing, more than 230 Rhode Island teachers have attended summer institutes and professional development courses with the SmART Schools Project staff, learning how to deepen student understanding of academic content by employing theater, music, dance, and the visual arts. The pilot program has now expanded to include two Rhode Island middle schools and schools in New Hampshire. Last month, the Rhode Island Foundation awarded the program $75,000 for additional support to pilot schools and to develop a SmART Schools website.
Most traditional arts education programs depend on outside resources, on artists coming into the schools, completing a residency—and leaving. In the SmART Schools model, artists enter the schools not as visitors, but as coaches and co-teachers. And, in the course of collaborating with other teachers, the role of the art teacher changes fundamentally. “They move from the margins of the school community into its center,” Mackin says. “Where their positions were once expendable ‘frills,’ they are now pivotal to how the school works and how students learn.”
The SmART Schools program encourages such teamwork. Drawing on their own collaborations with national school reform faculty, project staff help teachers develop skills for working effectively not only with artists and art teachers, but with other teachers and staff, across grade levels and disciplines. They show teachers how to plan teaching and assessment strategies together, and they engage teachers in analyzing their school’s culture and values. “Teachers begin to build communities of learners among themselves,” says Mackin. “The whole faculty gets involved. It becomes a self-reinforcing activity.” In one school, she notes, the principal now sings with her faculty regularly, an unusual, but effective, way of building a team.
Some people might argue that art is just “fun” and doesn’t really belong in schools, Mackin says, “but we use art as an entry point into real content.” Students might learn how to draw maps, and reconfigure them to reflect social and economic changes over time, she suggests. They might work with a landscape designer to develop a landscape plan for their school, learning about the local ecology as well as measuring, math, and drafting. Or they might choreograph a “molecule dance” to understand how elements combine.
All of the SmART Schools arts education work is tied to academic standards students are expected to meet. The project is not about creating artists, Mackin stresses, “it’s about creating opportunities for every student, including kids who may not have been successful formerly. They suddenly have other ways to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.”
The Stony Lane School in Kingston is one of three Rhode Island elementary schools where the project, originally known as Spectra RI, has been pilot-tested. The school received high marks last spring from the state Department of Education. A week-long visit by a SALT (School Accountability for Learning and Teaching) team found that “teachers successfully integrate the arts (music, art, dance, drama, and physical education) with core curricular areas. Weekly collaborative planning times allow classroom teachers and specialists to brainstorm multidisciplinary connections for thematic units… These ideas and plans carry the electricity and enthusiasm from the meeting into the classroom. This system also creates the opportunity for quality co-teaching.”
In developing SmART Schools, Mackin draws on work she has done with Howard Gardner of Harvard University’s Project Zero, and on her own extensive background as a painter, sculptor, and teacher. Even as a practicing artist with shows in New York City galleries, she says, she always taught art at local schools and in after-school and community-based art programs, as a way to give something back to her community. For SmART Schools she also drew on her own life as a student, she says. “I remembered my own schooling. I was one of those students who was not engaged by school, except for the 45 minutes a week we spent in art class.”
Originally published on February 1, 2002