There's Value in Infusing the Arts Into Personalized Learning
By Jin-Soo Huh, the executive director of personalized learning at Distinctive Schools
"Arts are a part of who our students are, who people are," said Kara May, the director of Art in Motion (AIM), a new school opening on Chicago's South Side this fall. The arts encourage creative expression and cognitive complexity, they communicate ideas that impact both hearts and minds, they connect people within and across cultures and history, they give our lives meaning. Given the strong benefits of arts integration, my colleagues and I at Distinctive Schools asked ourselves this question: What would it look like to make the arts a core part of personalized learning? Through our work, we were able to discover a natural, strong connection between personalized learning and arts integration.
"It's important that arts aren't just desserts," May emphasized. "So many schools offer the arts as a supplemental piece. Having a dually focused approach at Art in Motion, where there are both arts classes and content classes infused with the arts, makes the students' learning so much more sound, pedagogically."
An interdisciplinary approach to infuse the arts across the curriculum would help students develop a broad range of competencies in a more authentic way. When we separate "core" subjects from other subjects in schools, we are often faced with false choices. Traditionally, math and English/language arts are most valued—their content is the base of state assessment systems, and schools often create double-blocks in the master schedule to give more instructional time to them. Science and history/social studies round out the core. And then there's the rest: art, music, health and physical education, social sciences, engineering and technology, etc. These supplemental courses are given less time in the schedule and are often the first to go when budgets get tight. It's hard to create a learning environment that develops the whole child in this kind of environment; so why do we separate "core" subjects from other subjects in schools?
Infusing Arts Into the Education Model
We started to explore this question and how we could create a learning environment that infuses the arts into our personalized-learning-driven academic model while designing AIM. The learning model for the creative arts school is student-centered and arts-infused. Growing to serve students in 7th through 12th grades, the school will offer middle school students exposure to various art forms including voice, dance, and visual arts. As students progress onward through high school at AIM, they will have the opportunity to choose a focus area within the arts. The arts will be infused into the personalized learning academic model used throughout the Distinctive Schools network, providing opportunities for both academic and artistic learning and development.
Since AIM is the first school in the network to infuse the arts into a personalized learning model, we assembled a team of arts educators and academic-content teachers from across our network to help authentically integrate the arts into the academic program.
"Having both arts and humanities specialists collaborating was invaluable—helping one another to understand the way we think about learning and how we interpret work was a really powerful experience," arts educator Molly Quinn explained. "There was some struggle initially between creative and analytical ways of thinking, but we grew together and developed a strong path forward."
This team became familiar with arts integration and how it benefits students. They pored over the National Core Arts Standards and crosswalked them with the Common Core State Standards to see where natural overlap exists. From there, the team collectively examined one 7th grade English unit to see what arts standards were already covered by the project and ways to further integrate the arts. The discussion and collaboration led to the development of a unit in which students will learn the technical and creative skills in writing and performing for a podcast. The initial project required students to conclude with a debate; the arts-infused project concludes with students sharing their debate via podcast, followed by a critique and discussion with their peers. The core objectives of the project are reached with the additional engagement and creative elements the arts provide.
The Value of Authentic Arts-Making
A major goal for the group of educators was to ensure that the integration of the arts standards was not a forced "add on." The projects need to be authentic to truly engage students and be successful.
"The arts are actually tailor-made for personalized learning, they just inherently fit that model and allow the learner so many different pathways to success," music teacher Frank Cademartori said. "The hardest part, though, is making sure the art-making is authentic; true arts integration has the student learning through the process. I'm so in love with the potential of arts integration and its power in the classroom. It can appeal to so many different types of learners and can seamlessly link content to skills."
English educator Rachael Beucher said it was critical to have both arts and academic perspectives around the table. "The level of collaboration was higher and more valuable because we had experts from both sides of the curriculum working together to take existing projects and make them even more amazing by incorporating the arts standards. It also allowed for us as educators to think about the needs of our students and allow more ways for them to show us their learning through a different lens."
This experience helped to provide a framework for arts integration in year one of an arts-infused middle school model. This process is the foundation AIM hopes to use as a springboard to further intertwine the arts with academic content. This team of educators was challenged by the task of integrating arts into a personalized learning model but clearly sees the benefits for student learning.
"In order to incorporate the arts into a project, it is more difficult than one would think," Beucher reflected. "The art standards are equally challenging and rigorous, and it takes careful consideration as to how they can align to Common Core Standards and not just add to a task but enhance it. The benefits of infusing arts into a personalized environment are endless."