I can certainly appreciate why not everyone agrees that introducing Arts Integration (AI) into the Upper Darby curriculum is a good idea. I publicly stated my own opposition to this program to the School Board when it was first brought to our attention. I know there are many skeptics in the community who would just like to see the District bring back the specials programs as they were last year and leave well enough alone.

If it is presented and taught with integrity, AI can be a game changer for any public school district facing budget cuts.

The Upper Darby arts, music, physical education and library programs as they stood in the 2011-12 school year were well loved, highly successful, and led by exceptional teachers, some of whom we have lost as a result of the budget battles fought last spring. However, at this time we have to acknowledge that the School District has made it clear that it is moving forward with its plans to implement an Arts Integration curriculum. While we may not like how we ended up here, the curriculum deserves to be examined on its own merits.

When I began to research AI this past summer, my thinking about it began to change. Through extensive reading and conversations with experts in the field of AI, I came to see this program as a progressive student-centered curriculum design that is creative, active, collaborative and ever-evolving. It is completely aligned with research supporting the nature of how children really learn and retain information. AI requires more art, more music and more movement in order to be effective and, therefore, successful. If it is presented and taught with integrity, AI can be a game changer for any public school district facing budget cuts.

I am grateful that the Upper Darby School District has chosen an Arts Integration Curriculum as part of its vision for the future rather than sustain the current curriculum. So far in this school year, the teachers have been following an Arts Enhancement program rather than an authentic AI Curriculum, a fact stated by Martha Menz, the Upper Darby School District Curriculum Director, at the School Board meeting held on January 7, 2013. Next week we are going to get our first real introduction to AI. Ms. Menz has advised us that the District has contracted with Susan Riley, arts integration specialist, curriculum design specialist, and author of “Shake the Sketch”, to come to the district for 4 separate 2-day sessions and help to provide professional development and support for our teachers. I see this as a positive move in the right direction to help our schools. I am hopeful that her visit will offer answers to so many questions that we have as a community.

In anticipation and in preparation for her visit, I wanted to share some AI facts to show why I think this curriculum has so much promise for our District.

FACT #1: AI is not art “enhancement” or arts & crafts. Enhancement only supports a class by introducing art or music projects to support a theme or idea, but arts remain subservient to the subject being taught. In contrast, authentic AI has the arts interwoven throughout a lesson plan so that students gain knowledge not only of a general subject area, but also of the arts. The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through Arts Program (CETA) defines AI as “ . . an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”(CETA, 2012).

FACT #2: Authentic AI in no way supports the removal of any art classes, music, P.E. or library.  The research in this area clearly supports that time must be provided in a curriculum schedule for art, music and P.E to be taught separately, by certified teachers. “Time must be incorporated into the master schedule of the school for music, art, and physical education as core subjects that teach for art’s sake.” (Riley, 2012).  This allows for students to learn the discipline so it can be applied in the content classes. (Riley, 2012; Day, 1998; Aprill, 2001; Guillatt, 2008; Eisner, 1999).

FACT #3: In order for AI to be successful, teachers must be provided with appropriate professional training and support by their school district administration.  The invitation to Susan Riley is a first and necessary step in this direction.  In addition, Assistant Superintendent Dan McGarry advised us in the January School Board meeting that he has personally begun visiting other schools with successful AI programs to learn more about its application and teacher development.  The district has also purchased the training binder created by The Kennedy Center CETA program that includes a long list of AI teachers available for even more professional development. There is even talk of teachers attending the CETA conference this summer in Washington, D.C. If the district continues its efforts in these areas, our teachers will benefit tremendously from having multiple resources for authentic AI development.

FACT #4: AI requires a clearly written vision statement by the School District that spells out what the AI program will look like in a classroom, what students will be accomplishing, how assessments are to be made to show progress, and what is the dream for our students to have experienced/learned. The vision statement will guide the process of change and implementation so everyone can see in the beginning what the dream for our schools looks like in year one, year two and every year thereafter covering a minimum of  five-year time span. A vision statement is open, transparent and a necessary introduction to building a successful AI curriculum. Although we have yet to see any vision statement, I am looking to this first AI training for further support in movement in this area.

FACT #5: AI supports student achievement at all levels. AI helps improves test scores, with evidence of dramatic improvement on student attendance. (Riley, 2012). AI has shown increases in student willingness to tackle difficult academic content (April, 2010) as well as self-directed learning (Achbacher, 1991). Studies have found a decrease in stereotypical attitudes, greater cultural awareness and sensitivity. (Edwards, 1994). Increases in cognitive development through music (Malyarenko, 1996) and through increased movement have been studied as well. The research supporting AI’s positive outcomes at their highest levels is endless.

In an AI-driven curriculum design, art, music and movement are necessary and primary; they are ubiquitous throughout the school day. If this new program is allowed to develop and grow correctly, with the right tools and the right support structures in place, then the results could be amazing for our community, our schools, our teachers, and, most of all, our students.

For more reading on AI, I recommend the following:

Edutopia Susan Riley article

EdWeek Article

Arts Ed Article

Education Closet Article

Kennedy Center Program

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