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Brooklyn Ascend Charter School was designed to look like an art museum, with high-quality replications of famous paintings from around the world.
Brooklyn Ascend Charter School was designed to look like an art museum, with high-quality replications of famous paintings from around the world. Credit: Kevin Hagen

As more schools across the country experiment with personalized learning approaches to better meet the needs, goals and interests of individual learners, many are overlooking an important piece: arts integration.

That’s one reason the Integrated Arts Academy of Burlington, Vermont, got together with Crayola’s art-focused professional learning programs, channeling resources to identify reasons why infusing arts into other subjects can make personalized learning programs more effective. The Academy is a magnet elementary school is located in a U.S. State Department Refugee Resettlement Area that houses families from dozens of nations.

Related: Can testing save arts education?

Many students have not yet reached proficiency in reading and writing. But because art is a universal language, students and teachers have found common ground and bridged communication gaps.

Art gives students a visual voice where they can convey meaning and express their ideas, knowledge and mastery of concepts through a unique dance, song, work of visual art or even a dramatic movement — no matter which language they speak.

By merging the visual component with written literacies, students are broadening their understanding of themselves and others, while also helping teachers to better understand (and see) their student’s thought processes – what we consider to be the most powerful benefit of incorporating arts as a personalized learning tool.

Because of this deeper awareness of their students, teachers are able to tailor their classrooms through art as a way to meet the needs of vastly diverse learners, an otherwise relatively difficult task for educators.

When a student feels connected to something bigger than themselves and nurtured by the community, their ability to reflect on personal needs and interests is enhanced.

We’ve incorporated community building through the arts daily into our program. From the drum circle that students enter into every Monday morning to the arts celebrations on Friday afternoons, our students are using the arts as a vehicle to develop community and a network both inside and outside of the school.

Related: Do the arts go hand-in-hand with common core?

The imaginative nature of art moves students away from the static here-and-now learning mindset and instead toward transcending both time and location – one where they can envision themselves in new ways and create innovative solutions. At the same time, the historic and cultural nature of art provides students a great platform to explore traditions of their own and others so they’re encouraged to learn how ancestral narratives and artifacts influence beliefs and dispositions.

“The arts can bridge communication gaps and convey a greater level of knowledge.”

Under the belief of “welcoming multiple perspectives” and inviting different perspectives for constructive dialogue and creative expression, we connect students to the neighborhood and enrich individual and collective growth for the school. One day, they may hear stories from staff at the local refugee resettlement. Another day, they’ll explore why people stay or leave a community through tableaus, mock interviews and story dramatizations.

These varied art-infused learning exercises not only help deepen their academic knowledge, but more importantly they’re broadening their understanding of community in the larger sense of the word.

In addition, art-integration is the only educational process that gives students a visual voice. Since artistic expression truly places students on an even playing field, they are more comfortable showing their thoughts and feelings and creatively demonstrating their level of understanding.

For example, in one of the Academy’s fifth grade science classes, students discovered how to use dance to create and communicate meaning about life cycle phases with “movement phrases,” showing each student’s personal understanding. Had they simply shared orally or through the written language, the connection wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful; it would have lost the community development created by this type of artistic and creative process, which far exceeds scientific knowledge.

The arts also strengthen social and emotional learning, helping students explore ideas and express knowledge. The reflective process of seeing one’s personal identity in a new light, reshaping it and then sharing it with others improves student confidence and behavior.

This process of encouraging students to take what is familiar, challenge it and expand upon it makes art in the classroom a very crucial component for developing a sense of self, and is fundamental to personalized learning.

Related: Can the arts get students into college?

The arts can bridge communication gaps and convey a greater level of knowledge.

In Becoming Part of the Story—Refueling the Interest in Visualization Strategies for Reading Comprehension B. De Koning and M. van der Schoot emphasized the importance of forming visual representations of objects or events described through text for cognitive development. Neuroscientist Karin Harman James of Indiana University conducted functional MRIs and found that when children handcrafted letters, it activated parts of the brain that were not activated when they had written with computers. This revealed the value in “manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things,” as it sparks up learning centers in the human brain.

Similarly, Virginia Berninger, emeritus professor of the The University of Washington Interdisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center, illustrated through brain images that hands-on learning “activates massive [brain] regions involved in thinking, language and working memory — the systems used for storing and managing information.”

Essentially, these publications and studies validate that our brains are not wired to memorize answers; they’re designed to solve problems, move, see and explore. Art integration fully engages students by awakening their sense of self, minds and curiosity.

While we don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all learning model, integrating art across all subjects truly blends the best of what we know about the human brain and learners’ needs and can certainly make for a more impactful personalized learning program.

Bobby Riley is the principal of Integrated Arts Academy, Burlington, Vermont and the 2016 National Distinguished Principal for Vermont, honored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals

Cheri Sterman is the Director of Education for Crayola and on the Executive Board of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning

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