The Arts Make the Education Difference
An Arts Integration Program Enriches the Curriculum And Brings a School Community a New Level of Success
Is there such a thing as kids who actually want to go to school on snow days? At Adams Elementary School in Hamilton, Ohio, there are parents and teachers who will proudly tell you this strange devotion to their school really exists.
The credit, they believe, goes to a beloved program, SPECTRA+, whose guiding principle is reaching the whole child with an arts-rich curriculum. The program integrates arts instruction across the disciplines at every grade level.
What is SPECTRA+?
Children at Adams experience the arts as part of each of their core subjects—math, science, language arts, and social studies. They also participate in a class in each of four art disciplines—visual art, music, dance, and drama—every week, taught by a certified arts instructor. Teachers work together on lesson plans so concepts learned in both arts and non-arts classes are coordinated and reinforce each other. SPECTRA+ brings the fine arts into the curriculum and the curriculum into the arts.
"When the children at Adams are learning about George and Martha Washington in social studies, they're also learning the minuet in dance," says Kathy Leist, the principal at Adams for eight years who now serves as director of continuous improvement for the Hamilton school district. "In second grade, the children are learning U.S. geography in social studies, and singing the states of the union in music." The result is kids who love what they're doing at school, and it shows.
SPECTRA+—which stands for Schools, Parents, Educators, Children, Teachers Rediscover the Arts—was developed by Hamilton's Fitton Center for the Creative Arts. The Hamilton school district provides basic funding for SPECTRA+. Fitton provides training for school staff, some financial resources, and administrative support. Schools in New York and California have also adopted the program.
SPECTRA+ grew out of a cultural action plan instituted during Hamilton's bicentennial. The first goal was to build an arts center—the Fitton Center—then to build an arts-in-education program for children. The partnership that ensued included the Ohio Arts Council, which came up with funding and concepts for the program.
How does it affect students?
"One of the values of integrating art into the curriculum is it gives children multiple opportunities to learn a concept," says Jackie Quay, who administers SPECTRA+ for the Fitton Center. In other words, if children aren't learning a concept through one experience, they'll learn it through another. Children have a better chance to "get" a concept if they're learning it from multiple sources.
Kids at Adams don't just learn to tell time, for example, by hearing a description of an abstract concept and watching the teacher move the arrows on a cardboard display. They're taught a dance where they become a clock, with their movements changing to reflect the changing hours. They become time.
"SPECTRA+ also gives us a chance to apply the concept of multiple intelligences," says Quay. "Kids are smart in different ways. Some kids read and write well, other kids do better showing you what they know through their hands. The program gives a child more options to express what they know, and it gives teachers other ways to know if a child understands what's being taught."
The program also gives kids a chance to watch and interact with artists of all types, including visual artists, folk and traditional artists, authors, puppeteers, quilters, musicians, and composers. Residencies of one to three weeks are tied to teaching units in any of the core subjects.
"If the kids are studying short stories in language arts," says Leist, "we'd invite an illustrator to show how pictures can work with words." At another SPECTRA+ school in Hamilton, a media artist demonstrated the creative and technical aspects of a video production, a tie-in for a language arts segment. Kids learned how a story is created, made clay animation figures, and learned special-effects features such as how to show the passage of time.
"Art can be the hook, the vehicle, that gets a child into the world of learning," says Mike Fox, who knows the program as both the parent of a SPECTRA+ student and as a policymaker in his role as county commissioner. "It's a nurturing context for learning to occur because there are no right or wrong answers.
"It can be especially beneficial to kids who have been brought up hearing a lot of prohibitions, like 'no' and 'you can't,'" Fox adds. "Kids who start their lives with non-nurturing communications are at a disadvantage. An arts-rich program addresses the whole child and how they feel about themselves.
"When teaching kids, you're usually addressing a lot of energy and emotions. Art allows students to give expression to feelings and emotions in a way that's safe because it's part of the academic regimen. And, those positive affirmations that come from experiences with art carry over to other areas."
How does it affect the school?
"When a school becomes a SPECTRA+ school, the school climate changes," says Quay. "There's a more positive atmosphere." Attendance rates go up and serious misbehavior decreases. The teachers work well together because they're working toward a common goal.
How does it affect the staff?
Staff development is central piece of SPECTRA+'s success. "When the SPECTRA+ program started at Adams, teachers liked the idea of integrating the arts, but they didn't know how to do it," says Leist. "We offered in-services and brought in guests—including Bruce Campbell, author of Multiple Intelligences —to speak. We showed teachers how art could help them reach their instructional goals. The staff often used their own time, afterschool and during the summer, to learn what they needed to make the program a success."
The Fitton Center offers an array of hands-on, arts-related learning opportunities for teachers, all with a curriculum component aligned with local, state, or national standards. "We provide the curriculum, the tie-ins with standards, and the assessments," says Quay.
Adams also gives their teachers time to work together to plan innovative lessons. "This part is so important," Leist adds. "The staff needs the opportunity to grow professionally, and they need time to integrate that growth as well."
Pride all around
The word pride comes up frequently in conversations about SPECTRA+—school pride, professional pride, student pride, and parent pride. "The value extends to everyone involved," says Quay. "The principal, the school board, the superintendent, the parents, the local arts center, they're all working together in a successful partnership. Plus, it's more fun for everyone." Even on snow days.
Bringing the arts to your school
To bring SPECTRA+—or a program like it—to your school, Quay and Leist offer these suggestions:
- Start by getting a task force together. Elicit partners at the local arts agency, the local arts council, the PTA, and the school board. The whole community needs to be focused in the same direction, and everyone should refer back to their shared vision frequently.
- Research other model programs and talk with their developers.
- Find out who the key people are who have to be won over. Then, when you make a presentation to them, your material should show first and foremost how this is going to benefit kids.
- Get your stakeholders involved. Invite them to performances or to an arts class.
- You may want to visit the Fitton Center and spend some time visiting a SPECTRA+ school. To win over prospective stakeholders, nothing works better than showing them what success looks like.