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The Arts and Common Core—a Natural Fit

For the second year, a local organization is aligning arts instruction with the new Common Core State Standards for math and English/language arts.

Young Audiences Maryland, a non-profit arts education group, paired professional artists with teachers in training sessions designed to connect various art forms to the Common Core.

Introduced in school districts nationwide this year, the Common Core is a set of standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.  They spell out what students must learn in each grade in math, and English and language arts to prepare them for college or a career.

The standards provide educators with broad flexibility in how they are implemented in the classroom, which is why Pat Cruz, Young Audiences’ education director, said integrating the arts into the Common Core curriculum makes sense.

“The Common Core is about reading and writing and speaking across the curriculum and is perfectly aligned with what we do in the arts because the arts are all about communication and how to better express yourself through language, movement and drama and dance,” Cruz said.

Young Audiences collaborated with the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance and the Maryland State Arts Council in developing the arts/Common Core initiative.

The program required participating teachers and arts professionals to attend several seminars over the past couple of months. They were conducted by Young Audiences’ Teaching Artist Institute instructors. The 27 teachers in the program were selected from Baltimore and districts around the state. They attended training sessions alongside 27 professional artists including a beat boxer, theater troupe, Flamenco dancer, Jazz percussionist, painters, photographers and others.

As part of the program the participants were paired into groups of two and had to come up with lesson plans that incorporated the Common Core standards. Starting this month and running through February, they will fan out in schools across the state. Cruz said nearly 700 students will be reached through the initiative.

In Baltimore city, a fifth-grade class at Windsor Hills Elementary Middle School got a taste of what they will experience in a full week of classes later in the month.  Rashida Forman-Bey and her Baltimore-based WombWork theatre company came to the school last week to prepare the students for the upcoming classes. The energetic Forman-Bey dressed in colorful African attire was paired with Cindy Marcoline during the training seminars. Marcoline teaches math, social studies and reading at Windsor Hills.

“Young Audiences’ work is great and it is important to include the arts in this because sometimes they are overlooked,” Marcoline said. “By bringing in the arts, that opens the door for using all sorts of avenues to address the skills students need.”

As Marcoline directed the students to sit in a circle of chairs in the room, the energetic WombWork performers welcomed them with big smiles as their drummer played softly in the background.

“Today, we’re going to learn to speak a new language and do a little magic and talk about our VIBE,” Forman-Bey told the students. “VIBE stands for voice, imagination, body movement and expression. We’re going to use all of these today as we talk about virtues.”

After going over the meaning of the word, each student was assigned a virtue, which they wore on a diamond-shaped cardboard cutout around their necks. Forman-Bey had the students dancing, singing and clapping as one-by-one they introduced themselves and their assigned virtue to rapid drum beats.

To someone passing by the classroom, it might appear that the fifth graders and Forman-Bey and her theater troupe were just having a lot of fun. They were, but the students were also experiencing the Common Core in action. One of the reading standards for fifth graders is to build a strong vocabulary, which is what Forman-Bey did through theatrical methods.

In addition, the Common Core requires the objectives of lessons to be clearly defined. Marcoline’s and Forman-Bey’s lessons were written on large posters and tacked to the wall. For their project, Forman-Bey collaborated with Marcoline in writing a play based on virtues. The class was a prerequisite to the upcoming lessons in which the students will have to dissect and analyze the play’s characters, all Common Core standards.

“We’re doing character building with our theater process.  If I want the young children to build their characters, what greater way for them to understand it than through theater? It deepens the way in which young people are processing the information,” Forman-Bey said.

In addition to the core’s recommendation of using the arts to teach fifth graders about themes, plots and critical analysis, it also calls for instruction on other countries, something Cindy Marcoline said Forman-Bey’s play does as well.

“It is an African story that they’ll be sharing with the students, so that is a great way to talk about a different culture, as far as characters involved, the choices they make, how they remedy conflict,” Marcoline said.

The Common Core also requires teachers to have clear lesson objectives and goals. Forman-Bey’s and Marcoline’s long vocabulary list, theatrical methods and goals were written on posters and tacked on the wall. In addition, Marcoline says there will be a follow up assignment to this day’s class. “They will have a writing component where they can have reflection on what they’re doing now, how it’s meaningful to them and that helps us determine how to proceed from here,” she said.

Writing to interpret classroom discussions and activities is another Common Core English/language arts standard.

Before attending Young Audiences training sessions, many of the artists had never heard of the Common Core and some were like Forman-Bey, skeptical about participating. “[I was] not gung-ho because, I know this sounds old school, but I didn’t want anyone to crush my groove,” Forman-Bey said with a laugh. “I was like naw, I just want to do the art. But when I took the class, it was wonderful and it was a great way to get a deeper understanding of what I was doing naturally.”

The Common Core standards are not a one-size-fits-all, but allow for flexible instruction. Cruz says that flexibility makes room for the arts to have a bigger role in education. “They actually include in the Common Core examples of how to teach many of the standards through integrated arts methods, like teaching fractions through dance,” Cruz said. “The other thing about Common Core is it has broad definitions of text, so a painting can be seen as text. Looking at the detail in that painting to infer what the artist is trying to say is more  higher level in some ways than straight text.”

Back in the classroom, Forman-Bey delved into another Common Core standard, comparison and contrast, as she explained the difference between positive and negative virtues, using theatrical methods. She said, “I think the arts lends itself to making lessons so much more meaningful because the students have a tendency to remember it long after the lesson is over.”

Johns Hopkins University education professor Mariale Hardiman agrees. Hardiman, a former Baltimore city principal, is conducting a study on how the arts contribute to greater retention. She says they also help teachers wade through the Common Core requirements.

“Aligning the arts integration strategies with those performance standards of Common Core really makes that connection more visible to teachers,” Hardiman said. “It’s very important that teachers don’t see an arts activity as something pasted on to what they have to do, that they see it as part and parcel of the standards they hope to meet with their students.”

Marcoline said the collaboration with Young Audiences has definitely helped her understand the standards better. “When Common Core was first introduced, we were given the specifics of the standards but not necessarily how to achieve them,” Marcoline said. “So it’s refreshing whenever you’re working with something that already has the Common Core in mind and can tell you how it’s going to fit in and how it will address those standards, it just makes it that much easier to incorporate it.”

And the students said they preferred the arts inclusion better than traditional teaching methods. “I liked it a lot…especially when we were in the circle,” said Phayjah Jones. “It was fun.”

Young Audiences will continue the Common Core arts initiative in future years. But they do not want school officials to see integrating the arts in other subjects as a reason to replace pure art courses. They said both are needed.