Chute 8th grader Connor Bailey is manipulating photographic images for a Civil Rights Movement project.

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Despite dwindling public school arts funding, School District 65 – with help from Columbia College, the U.S. Department of Education, and Foundation 65 – is taking a stand for more arts integration in the classroom. 

During May, District 65 is winding down year two in a partnership with Chicago’s Columbia College and a four-year USDOE grant supporting arts-integrated programming in schools. The $1.3 million grant, managed by the Center for Community Arts Partnerships (CCAP) at Columbia, is funding a comprehensive project at Chute, Nichols and Haven Middle Schools. 

Additionally, funding from Foundation 65 and District 65 has extended the professional development arts model to Evanston’s Title I elementary schools: Dawes, Oakton, Walker and Washington, and also to King Arts Lab and Bessie Rhodes Magnet schools through the next school year.  

The total arts project involves an estimated 70 teachers, 17 artists-in-residence, more than 1,800 students, and cadres of Columbia College students serving as teaching assistants and aides.  

Project AIM

Project AIM (Arts Integration Model), with its focus on integrating the arts into regular academic classrooms, is championed both by those demanding higher academic standards and those wanting more arts exposure for students. 

“This initiative is project-based learning,” said Project Manager Lynne Pace Green of Columbia College.  “Goals of the project are to engage students in learning and to improve student achievement as we develop a culture of arts integration.”  

In the details of the 50-page project grant narrative, the reason for targeting middle school students is explained as the outgrowth of research showing that support for students in these grades is critical for dropout prevention.

The professional development model’s foundation rests on the development of strong learning communities at each school, ongoing teacher in-service and support, teacher and artist partnerships, and dissemination of the process and projects to other teachers and schools in the District. 

A key to the arts-integration initiative is providing classroom teachers with partners who are artists. 

The teacher-artist teams co-create and co-teach academic units that merge creativity and the arts with academic curricula based on national and state standards. 

Each of the three middle schools has targeted a seventh- and eighth-grade curricular area (social studies or language arts) for the project’s focus, so that every seventh- and eighth-grader at these schools will be impacted by the collaboration.

Because King Arts Lab and Bessie Rhodes schools have worked with Columbia College through previous arts grants, students, teachers, and artists at these two magnet schools serve as models of successful integrated arts programming from whom the newer Project AIM participants can learn.

Impact in the Middle Schools

Chute Middle School teacher Michael Hardy said the early Summer Institute and initial Steering Committee meeting convinced him he would benefit from the arts-focused professional development.  “I was hooked almost from the start,” he said in describing the workshops led by project artists and many of the District’s arts specialists in the spring and summer of 2014.

Mr. Hardy said any reservations he had about the value of the program or his participation evaporated when he saw the project artists facilitating workshops that beautifully integrated the arts with academic subjects. 

“The wheels immediately started turning in my head,” said Mr. Hardy, “and I could see so many applications for integrating the arts into what I teach [social studies].  I felt like my brain was on fire with ideas.”  

This spring he has partnered over several weeks with photographer Cecil McDonald to develop a unit using primary-source photographs and current technology in the study of slavery and abolitionists in the era of Frederick Douglass.

“Students learned to analyze photographs and also learned how photos could be used for propaganda purposes. I’ve been pleased and impressed with the connections students have made and their understanding of the big ideas,” he said.

In other seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms at Chute, Nichols, and Haven, poetry and visual arts have been integrated into traditional academic curriculum. In room 130 at Haven, over the course of nine class sessions, teacher Chris Demos and his artist partner, Sun Yun, have been co-teaching a Civil Rights unit they developed together. 

“Sun and I worked together earlier in the year, so we are getting good at taking our different approaches and melding them,” said Mr. Demos. “There’s give and take, negotiating, and both of us finally having a deeper understanding of the possibilities for the topic.”

In his eighth grade Social Studies classroom, groups of three students have each researched a significant Civil Rights figure or event in order to create a physical memorial showing how this person or event effected change in the world. Shape, color, line, texture, and visual symbolism are art elements students use to create their memorials for a final oral presentation to classmates.

“Haven already has fantastic art specialists, but this project has given me awesome opportunities to do cross-curricular work,” said Mr. Demos.

This year Nichols hosted five artist residencies, and all of them supported language arts teachers in the instruction of poetry. Seventh-grade projects included poetry interpreted with dance performances, poetic forms illustrated through computer-generated comic book art, and poetry disseminated through hip-hop and spoken-word performances. A theater artist and a photographer worked closely with the eighth grade language arts teachers to create and teach poetry in lively and creative ways. 

“Students don’t always engage with or respond to traditional forms of teaching the way they do when the arts are integrated,” said Nichols language arts teacher, Elaine Purnell. “Project AIM made such a tremendous impact on our students and staff. The amazing work that came out of the partnership speaks for itself.” 

Ms. Purnell referenced the well attended and successful poetry event for parents and eighth-grade students that took place in early March at Evanston’s performance venue, SPACE, on Chicago Avenue.

“Having the artists involved in curriculum planning has been so impactful.  And we are still seeing the benefits from the way students are motivated to express themselves through poetry,” Ms. Purnell said.

Common to all of the curricular projects is focusing on a big idea and integrating key vocabulary. Leading up to the final project in Kyle Walkfaust’s eighth grade Social Studies class at Chute, artist partner Leah Pinsky introduced Abstract Expressionist paintings and artists, manipulated symbols, collaged and animated images and other tools artists use to communicate ideas and feelings.

In the project she and Mr. Walkfaust developed, students selected a key thematic word around which they composed an art piece about the Civil Rights Movement.

Words such as “freedom,” “inequality,” “courage,” “empowerment” and “oppression” were communicated through juxtaposed photographic images, drawings, text, animated forms, and paint. Historic figures Shirley Chisholm, Cesar Chavez, Thurmond Marshall, Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King were some of the agents of change chosen by students for their final project. 

“Lots of my students are visual learners,” said Mr. Walkfaust.  He gestured to masks and student drawings on his classroom walls. “Visual things help them understand concepts better, so I’m all for having an art-focused classroom and school.”

Integrating the Arts in 1st Grade

Although not covered in the USDOE grant, the additional $200,000 contributed by the District and District 65 Foundation has enabled CCAP to work with teacher Cathy Doyle’s first grade class at Washington School. 

Ms. Doyle, like the above-mentioned teachers, strongly feels that she and her students have benefited from her artist-teacher partnership and the strong community of stakeholders at Washington School and in the District.  

“I see integrating the arts as a powerful way of learning, not as a project,” said Ms. Doyle. “All four of Washington’s first- grade teachers have been part of Project AIM, and we know that collaboration over time is important. The arts are absolutely a key ingredient in the deep academic understandings our children develop.”  

She and her dance artist partner, Clare Tallon Ruen – as well as the other first- grade teachers and their artist partners – created and taught a science unit on the properties of solids, liquids, and gases.

Recently when Ms. Doyle’s class hosted a grand finale science event and extended invitations to parents, the students and their parents learned and participated together.

Through a variety of interactive exercises and activities, Ms. Doyle said, students demonstrated mastery of the science content. They compared and contrasted liquids and solids with Venn diagramming; they made small sculptures that reflected the dance forms describing matter; they used cameras to capture solid and liquid lines found in the school environment; and they even coached their parents to dance like the different forms of matter they had described.

“Students were telling their dancing parents to interpret words with body movement,” said Ms. Doyle. “Move like honey or maple syrup. Make it slow and thick.”              

Parent Emily Clarke attended that science evening with her first grade son, Sam, and said she was “dazzled by the excitement, creativity and learning” she observed.

“Students danced to interpret how solids, liquids, and gases look and behave. As they danced, their bodies showed they understood the concepts,” Ms. Clarke said.

“Sam, who isn’t really a kid too interested in dancing, was totally into it. And it was impressive how much science vocabulary these first graders understood – like, believe it or not, the word ‘viscosity,’” Ms. Clarke added.

Dissemination and Evaluation

Dissemination and evaluation are two ongoing aspects of Project AIM, and the USDOE grant serving middle schools spells out both. Disseminating the arts model across District 65 is important to its sustainablity, so teachers, artists, and the Project AIM management team produce tangible products and processes from which other teachers and arts specialists can learn.

Vehicles for dissemination include process manuals with organizing templates, quarterly steering committee meetings where debriefing and evaluation occurs, 18-hour summer institutes for participating teachers and quarterly teacher workshops.

 At each of the middle schools there are also monthly meetings of the school’s learning committee (stakeholders), video and audio documentation of activities, and culminating project events showcasing student work.

The teachers who were asked the most viable way to sustain the integrated arts model answered in one of several ways: 1) continued teacher-artist teaming for curricular work, 2) involving all of the school’s regular arts specialists in the project, and 3) building in time for collaborative work.

A time-consuming but important part of many large projects, particularly government-funded ones, is project evaluation.

The purpose of an independent evaluation is to provide a thorough understanding of whether Project AIM’s objectives have been met and how the project could be improved.

 Project AIM’s management team is working with two external evaluators from Loyola University’s Center for School Evaluation, Intervention, and Training. Dr. David Ensminger and Dr. Diane Morrison are charged with oversight of a four-year evaluation process.

When assessments are completed and data is analyzed, the formal evaluation will tell participants, the community, other educators, and the grantors to what degree project objectives were met, to what degree teachers acquired and applied arts integration skills, to what extent participating middle schoolers have increased proficiency in math and reading (compared to non-participants), and to what extent participating students have increased executive functioning and critical thinking skills. 

 The number of things measured and reported will be considerable, but some things do not need sophisticated measuring systems.  Merely observing highly engaged students finding artistic ways to interpret what they have learned and feel is powerful information about the value of integrating the arts into core curricula.

Jaime Querciagrosse, 18-year veteran Drama Specialist at King Arts Lab School said, “Common Core standards and the arts are actually an elegant fit.”