Photo by Allie Maki Maya
Teaching Portland's children core curriculum through the arts. [30:06]
Marna Stalcup: Arts innovation has been around for decades. You would often see it in pockets - so for example, in magnet programs or in magnet schools sometimes. In our own community, there were arts-focused schools that were really using the arts as an approach to learning so it was seen as a real tool and opportunity to level the playing field for children so it's not such a new concept, it's just not been extensively and fully implemented across the board within a school system.
Jo Reed: That's Marna Stalcup, program manager of Portland's The Right Brain Initiative.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
The Right Brain Initiative is an innovative educational program of Portland, Oregon's Regional Arts & Culture Council.
It's a public/private partnership that wants all children in Portland to have equal access to a broad range of the arts. But The Right Brain Initiative is more than arts education in the traditional sense of the term. It wants to integrate arts into the way core curriculum is taught. As its manifesto states, brains come with two sides for a reason. They complement one another and when they work together, it affects learning profoundly.
The Right Brain Initiative aims to engage students' creative right brains while processing traditionally analytic left-brain subjects. To this end, the program brings artists into classrooms to collaborate with teachers. In the process, teachers are trained to educate through art while artists are trained to teach their discipline to students. As a result, the students are exposed to innovative, creative, and unexpected ways to approach subjects such as writing, mathematics, and science. The Right Brain Initiative is nothing if not ambitious. Now in its fifth year, its long-term goal is to be in every K-8 school in the Portland Metropolitan area.
I spoke with program manager Marna Stalcup recently and asked her what prompted the creation of The Right Brain Initiative.
Marna Stalcup: Back in probably, I think it was 1990, we had a significant ballot measure that was passed in our community, it was a property tax limitation, and with the funding, the way schools are funded in our state, it had a huge impact on school funding. And as has historically been the case, it was no different in this situation, the arts took the heavy hit. So those programs and offerings were reduced or eliminated from some schools. You couple that with ten years later the narrowing of the curriculum, if you will, through the No Child Left Behind Act. And so the arts just really suffered greatly. But Portland is recognized as a creative community. We have all sorts of young creatives moving here for that very reason. So it was really disturbing that our children in schools, and the children that they were bringing up in this community didn't have access to those kinds of learning experiences. So the arts community stepped up in a big way, and had been for many years, had been offering programs to students through schools, performances, going in to doing residencies and classrooms and so on. But the challenge there was that it was not an equitable delivery system. So we pulled together various stakeholders in our community and decided that collectively we wanted to address this. So that was the real impetus for the program. And so far, we're making some strides in that direction.
Jo Reed: There's certainly other cities, other school districts that appeal to artists directly, and come up with ways to provide arts for students, because as we all know, arts are the first things to be cut. But it tends to not be as embedded as The Right Brain Initiative is.
Marna Stalcup: Yes, that's correct. You know, very often in a school, it's so unfortunate that a music teacher will have their instructional space is down in the basement, or out in the portable, and it's very much removed from the central functioning of the school. And very often, those music teachers, or those art teachers, because they're moving from school to school, or classroom to classroom, are not seen as part of the fabric of the school. So one of the goals that we have with The Right Brain Initiative, and as our arts integration model, is to really bring those specialists, where they do exist in schools, into the fold of our work, and we really see them as a rich resource to continue that kind of creative learning opportunity we're bringing to schools.
Jo Reed: Well, it seems like it's a process that moves almost in a circular fashion, because you have artists coming into schools who are learning teaching techniques, and you have teachers who are learning how to use the arts in their core curriculum, and you have students benefiting from both.
Marna Stalcup: That's exactly right. One of the things that's been really central, I believe, to our success is our professional development model. So the training model we have for both classroom teachers and teaching artists from the community, as well as those art specialists that are in schools, where we bring them together for full-day trainings, where we begin to understand and develop a common language, so that we can see what each piece of this equation is contributing. And then we develop this pedagogy really, or this approach to teaching that helps students see the connections, the natural connections among subject areas, among approaches to learning that really makes for a rich, rich learning environment where everyone feels that they are an equal contributor.
Jo Reed: I want to go in two directions at once, and they both have to do with beginnings. So I'll start with sort of the historical beginning first. You began these discussions, as you say, quite a few years ago. What were the first steps you took to really make this a reality?
Marna Stalcup: Really essential to the beginning of this initiative was convening all of the stakeholders. And as a partnership initiative, we saw that really the school districts and the children that they serve, are our clients. So we had to start with what their needs are. So we convened five superintendents of five of the largest districts in our tri-county area, and really began talking with them about where did they see the arts as really benefiting the learning of children in their schools. And at that time-- and this was in 2007, I guess -- the real focus, still operating under No Child Left Behind, was on literacy, and improving those literacy scores for students. And seeing that the arts could really help to influence that. We began talking, at the same time, with our arts organizations and really looking to the programs and services and opportunities that they brought to children, and how could we begin to connect these pieces. We had funders at the table who were really looking for an approach that would, again, leverage the resources within the community. So we were paying very careful attention to the desires and the needs within the community, and kept those conversations ongoing through the development of this program. The other piece that was important, too, is that -- in fact, the first month on the job for me -- I spent out in the community conducting eight community conversations from all corners of the community where we had people from all walks of life talking with us about what they viewed as essential and important to the well-being of children within the community. So from the very beginning we had investment from all of the partners within this initiative.
Jo Reed: How many schools were involved that first year?
Marna Stalcup: We began with 20 schools, right from the top. And that was...those schools were coming from four different school districts. And each of them made their own choices as to how schools would be identified, and brought on-board. So most schools came on-board that had very few resources, had the greatest need, and that was really our desire was to serve those schools first.
Jo Reed: All right, and now here's the other leg of that beginning question. Let's say I'm a school, and am I selected? Do I apply? How am I chosen? How do I become part of this project?
Marna Stalcup: Well, every year we learn something, and after that first year, we quickly realized that we needed to develop a system and a process for bringing schools on-board that were ready for this, where this was really a match, and we were really filling a significant need. So we identified a representative from each of our partnering districts, and they've become the conduit for us, and really the grounding for us. We worked with them to develop what we call just an interest survey, that we ask each school, the principal and the staff -- not just the principal in isolation, but in conjunction with the staff -- to give us a sense of what their needs are, how they see Right Brain benefiting students and meeting those needs. What they bring as a staff to this. And what the potential for team building and collaborative work is within their schools. The district then reviews those interest forms. We, meaning a couple of team members and I, review them. We prioritize those applications, if you will, and then we compare notes. And I will have to say that every single time we have done this, we have been right on the money in terms of prioritizing those choices. What it allows for school districts to know is that while we can only bring on so many-- three schools this year-- we have five interested, so let's plan these other two, that these other two will join the following year. So it kind of cues up the schools in that way. And it's been very, very successful.
Jo Reed: And if I'm a school that has been selected, are there phases that we go through before the program is fully implemented?
Marna Stalcup: Yes. And that was another big learning for us. Let me just step back a moment in that very first year when we brought schools on-board, they came fully on-board in the very first year, not fully understanding what The Right Brain Initiative was at that time. And we were just beginning it, so we were still in the phase of developing the program. And what we've learned from that is that we were asking way too much, way too soon without providing a substantial foundation for them to build upon. So we now have a five-phase program model that brings schools on-board, and in the initial year, what we call invitational, we begin professional development with the principal and a teacher, we do presentations for the faculty so they understand what the initiative is and what its goals are. We invite them to a site visit at a school that has been in the initiative. So it's a real learning year. And the second year we build upon that by setting up some of the structures for Right Brain. We give them a residency, so they can see how it might work in their school. And then in the third year, we are in the school, full-tilt, serving every single child, working in every single classroom by that third year. And from there, it just continues on.
Jo Reed: When we're talking about integrating the arts into core curriculum, we're really talking about the arts, at large. It isn't just visual arts, it's also music, it's also movement?
Marna Stalcup: Correct. Yes. We have artists that work with us from the field of dance, from music, theater arts, media arts, and visual arts, are the primary areas. We're very interested in moving into the field of design and architecture. We haven't quite gotten...made that leap just yet, but that's something that we're very, very interested in.
Jo Reed: Now how do you match the artists and the schools? Is it the school that decides, "We really want to focus, for example, on movement this year," and so they'll reach out to a dance company?
Marna Stalcup: That's exactly right. All of our work begins with the child. The child is at the center of our work. Over the course of time, children experience all art forms and that provides them access to diverse arts experiences, and also it helps them understand how they can really tap into various learning styles and learning modes. So the schools will then look at those learning needs, see what experiences students might not have had, and then move in that direction to begin identifying an artist.
Jo Reed: Okay, let's talk about the fun part now; we're in the classroom. Give us some examples of how, in fact, this works.
Marna Stalcup: This is a great day to ask me that, because we just hosted our annual Spring Reflection Colloquium last week, which brings together all of our schools, sharing their work. We have the artists and the teacher present. While we don't have children physically present, we have them present in that we're looking at their work, and the work that's resulted from this teacher/artist collaboration. So we had some fabulous examples shared last week, actually. One example might be a first-grade classroom that was really interested in studying cycles in nature. And the teacher had identified a text, and this was in particular to the water cycle, and I believe the text was called, Follow the Water from Brook to Ocean. It was appropriate for first-grade classroom. And the teaching artist that they selected as a visual artist, who does a lot of print making. So they really began to see the notion of cycles in nature as very similar to the cycle of print making. And the learning that occurred in that classroom -- and I had the pleasure of being there a couple of times was really remarkable as the light bulbs went off for children seeing that, "I can create this plate. And I can print multiple times. And every time it might look a little different, but it's all the same process, just as in nature, and in the water cycle. It repeats itself over and over again. It may change a little bit, it may be snow one day, rain another, but the process is the same." So it was just amazing to see the learning for children and being able to connect those processes and between a science concept.
Jo Reed: Another school that participated in the program, the Quatama School, it brought in the Oregon Ballet Theatre into its classrooms. Tell us about that.
Marna Stalcup: Well, this is a really interesting scenario. This is a school that has been identified as a STEM school, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, by a local partnership initiative. And they decided that they really moved their work into the STEAM field, adding the "A" for the arts. So they were very, very thoughtful as they moved into that about really connecting that work to science. And, in this sixth-grade classroom, the students were studying the water cycle. Not that that's all we teach in the Pacific Northwest, but it was ironic that these two particular schools focused on a similar topic. But the artists came in and really helped students to improvise movement, and to collaborate without pre-planning and talking, but just through observation of body and movement. And to physicalize the water cycle. These are sixth-grade boys and girls and you would typically think the eyes would be rolling, and arms would be crossed, and they would be unwilling to participate, but every single child was a full participant. The teacher then took that learning when the artist wasn't present, and they were studying water molecules, and the students were sitting in chairs, before you knew it, they were up and demonstrating with their bodies what water molecules do when they condense, and when they expand, and they were again, physicalizing that, so that the concepts were really thoroughly understood.
Jo Reed: That is. And it's also, it's something so wonderful about literally embodying that information.
Marna Stalcup: That's how some children learn. They're kinesthetic learners, and as soon as you put movement to it, the learning and the understanding is there.
Jo Reed: You know, it also strikes me that this program would be really wonderful for students with special needs.
Marna Stalcup: It is. And as well as English language learners.
Jo Reed: Ah, yes, of course!
Marna Stalcup: We've had many stories from teachers saying that, you know, a child that's acquiring the language, or is challenged to learn in a very linear way, has new inroads to learning, and has new opportunities to express their understanding. Part of what we do after a residency is complete, we spend some one-on-one time with a handful of students in a classroom. We call them imagination interviews. And really, it's about the meta-cognitive piece of learning, and really getting children to talk about their learning process. There was one interviewer talking with a challenged student in a classroom and trying to get to the kernel of his understanding, and this was the life-cycle -- this was a primary grade -- and the life-cycle of the frog. And while the child could not articulate with language, either written or oral, he drew a beautiful illustration that so clearly demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the life-cycle of a frog. So that was just a fabulous rewarding moment for that child and for that interviewer.
Jo Reed: You gave a couple of examples of how the children, the students, are responding. Can you see that kind of inventive way of learning being carried over into other studies as well?
Marna Stalcup: Yes. Absolutely. Through another example, speak to this, another school worked again with a movement artist. And the teachers were really interested in helping the students feel confident and not so fearful about risk-taking, about revision, about critiquing work. And so they were studying poetry at the time. The interesting thing is in working through movement, and putting to movement again a science concept of electron energy and atoms, and students after video-taping and looking back at their work could really critique and understand what was communicated properly and improperly in terms of their understanding, and they could go back and revise and make it better, so that it more clearly communicated their learning. So then when they're back into the writing and studying poetry, they can reflect on that experience and really understand that the way you do good work is to continually look and improve and revise and move forward. So the transference of that learning is really, is really significant.
Jo Reed: I would imagine that for many teachers this must be very exciting.
Marna Stalcup: It really is. Again, the energy in the room at our Spring Colloquium was phenomenal. The learning isn't all on the student side. It's also on the adult side. So teachers, as they're working with these teaching artists, as they're coming to professional development, and beginning to understand the power of arts-based teaching strategies, they're then taking that back into their daily practice. So that students are having opportunities to be creative and critical thinkers on a daily basis in their classrooms, whether there's an artist there with them or not. Teachers are really embracing this. So teachers being inspired, gaining confidence in really taking their teaching to the next level. It's really beginning to change the way students are learning and the way teachers are teaching.
Jo Reed: You say that you involve the community in this from the get-go. Talk about what the community input is, and why the community involvement was so important.
Marna Stalcup: So many times we think about schools as being -- well, they are -- the hub of learning, and in many communities they're the hub of the community. But very often, we don't turn to our community to ask them into that. It's only those that have children or grandchildren within a school community. And really schools need to be and should be a vital part of the ongoing dialogue in the development of our communities and the health of our communities. So we saw that as being very important. The other thing I would say is that early on in this initiative, our Mayor in the City of Portland, is very much invested in education, and in the arts, and we know that the local economy, and actually the global economy really relies upon thinkers who can approach a problem from any number of directions. So we all have an investment in growing the kinds of citizens that will help us meet those challenges. So everyone has a stake in this, and we just feel that it's very important, and people are very eager to talk about it, and see that they do have a part and a role. So outreach, for us, is a big, big part of the work that we're doing, too, to help develop and sustain that understanding.
Jo Reed: Yes, it's interesting, in your brochure, you ask people to imagine what life is going to be like for their children and what they are going to need in order to have a successful life. And you stress what
they're going to need is to be able to think inventively and innovatively, and think on their toes.
Marna Stalcup: Absolutely. You know, when you think about it, many of the jobs and the careers, we don't even have any sense of what those might be. So we have to really develop the thinking skills of children, so that they can be adaptable and flexible and apply that knowledge and understanding across the board.
Jo Reed: How are we seeing the results? As I said, it's only been five years, so it's hard to have a long-term set of data to be able to look at. But what have you seen thus far?
Marna Stalcup: Our program is framed around [The] Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which is a national partnership, that really looks at things you've just mentioned. So creative and critical thinking, and collaboration and communication are all really seen as essential. So that's framing the work that we're doing, and we look for all of the residency and artists experiences to really lead us in that direction. So we have through a series of classroom observations collected some data that really shows that when an artist is present and working with a classroom teacher, that the presence of those skills and children utilizing those skills can double over a traditional classroom environment and setting. So that's really showing us that children are able to, and responsive to, and can demonstrate those skills which, in the end, is going to help them be more successful across their educational journey and into the future. So that's one piece of data that's been important to us. Another, as we were talking earlier, about teachers beginning to adopt these arts-based strategies. Our most recent data is 64 percent of the teachers who have been through our professional development are utilizing those strategies on a regular basis.
Jo Reed: It also seems to me as though this program promotes an emphasis on process.
Marna Stalcup: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: And I was just thinking, by emphasizing the process, you really get to see the parallels between making our writing music, doing science. The processes really aren't that different.
Marna Stalcup: It's exactly right. It's tough, because very often when you think of the arts, you think of the end product. You think of the exhibition, you think of the dance performance, you think of the play. And so really trying to shift that thinking to pay attention to and to help children be articulate about the process is really only going to benefit them in more ways. And you're absolutely right in seeing the parallels between the scientific process and the artistic process, for example. In terms of mathematical problem solving, and the problem solving that's involved in undertaking any kind of artistic pursuit, is there. And it's alive and well.
Jo Reed: The other thing that strikes me as I think about this is that straight down the line, there's an emphasis on collaboration between the program and the community; the program in the community; with teachers; with the artists. But also in the classroom among the students themselves.
Marna Stalcup: That's right. It's one of those things that we're learning how to...I mean, we recognize it, but helping to front-load that for children, so that they can begin to identify that what they are doing is collaborating and helping them understand what that means. So that they begin to help one another and not feel that they need to be better than, or have the right answer, but that everyone wins when they work together, and they can all improve what it is they're doing in their learning. So we're beginning to see that more and more. It's one of the huge things that classroom teachers have said they need help with, that the arts can really bring to their classrooms is to create that environment of tolerance, of understanding of differences, and to know that there's more than one way to solve a problem, and we can very often solve it better when we work together.
Jo Reed: What's been your biggest challenge thus far?
Marna Stalcup: Well, aside from the usual funding issue, I think that one of our challenges early on was the fear factor that suddenly, here's this big new program that funders are going to love. And so on the side of arts organizations, it would cannibalize all the funding within the community, and on the school side there may have been some fear among art specialists, saying, "Oh, school districts are going to see this as a cheaper way to go, to bring the arts into schools." So there was a lot of anxiety around that. But again, the continual conversations and engaging all of those stakeholders, that has really dissipated. And some of those with the greatest fear have become our strongest advocates. I think more recently as the program has matured, and we're getting smarter about our work, one of the things that we have recognized and we're working hard on now, is to really begin to diversify the cultural experiences that students have access to. The demographics in our schools are changing very rapidly, and we need to keep pace with that, so that the artists that are working with children in their classrooms look like them. So we're finding ways to begin to identify and engage those resources across our community so that we can be advocates and on the forefront of that.
Jo Reed: You got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, $25,000. What does that grant mean for you?
Marna Stalcup: That's huge for us! The major portion of our initiative that will help support is the professional development, again, that piece that brings those artists and teachers together to learn together. And that's an ongoing part of our program. And it will also allow us to provide to the community at large, not just those within our initiative a summer seminar that we're planning in June of 2014 that will bring in together around the table, you know, learning environment those folks from across various sectors of our community. Not just the teachers and the teaching artists, but also potentially business leaders, engaging some of those designers that we talked about earlier, into this opportunity and this approach to teaching and learning.
Jo Reed: What's surprised you?
Marna Stalcup: What has surprised us? I think what has surprised most of us within this initiative is the way that teachers and teaching artists have been so responsive, and so receptive, to take that risk to work together. I mean, on the one hand, it's not surprising, but on the other, it is. And in some situations, an entire school district is adopting this as their approach to their elementary education. So that's been a real thrill for us. Those of us who have been in the field a long, long time, and have finally seen this as an opportunity to really advance this work, and to see us as helping teachers and schools to address some of the new approaches that are coming down the line for them. Common core state standards are huge right now. And the work that we're doing is really supporting all of that work, so that we are true partners in this.
Jo Reed: And what are you looking forward to?
Marna Stalcup: Doing more of what we're doing. We have a mighty goal of being in all 240 K-8 schools in 25 school districts across our region. And we're about 20 percent of the way right now. So we're really looking forward to continuing to share this work in bringing more on-board.
Jo Reed: Marna Stalcup, thank you so much. I wish you all the best, and gosh, it makes me wish I was a kid in Portland.
Marna Stalcup: Well, thank you so much, Jo.
Jo Reed: Thank you, Marna.
That was Marna Stalcup, program manager of The Right Brain Initiative. If you are interested in arts education, check out this issue of NEA Arts. It's devoted exclusively to education and the arts. You can find it online at arts.gov.
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