Arts meets Academics: An Intervention Over Spring Break

Sometimes, quantitative research cannot capture the engagement and energy new activities and minds can bring to a classroom. This editorial article covers a program we ran that created large amounts of excitement for teachers, artists, and especially students all working and learning together.

“You need to be in 4th grade right now! You’re doing area and perimeters!” The third grade teacher of Parkwood Spring Break camp exclaimed in excitement at the academic growth of her student as he stood in front of the classroom teaching the students.

At foundry10, we have formulated an intervention model using dramatic arts in the classroom in conjunction with other necessary academic material to bolster student confidence and ultimately improve their academic performance. This model includes a pairing of traditional classroom teachers with teaching artists to co-create and co-teach curriculum using nontraditional ways of learning traditional subjects such as math, science, and reading. Our research has shown this intervention model to have positive outcomes not only in closing the student achievement gap but also improving student perception of skill and overall enjoyment of subject areas.

Parkwood Break Camp was a five day academic-arts-infused intervention designed to help students testing below state standards close the achievement gap just in time for the SBAC, a state mandated test for elementary students in Washington. Its called “Break Camp” rather than “Academic Intervention” because to many students, it feels like camp!

It’s not just academics in this intervention, it’s a hybrid model of using traditional classroom curriculum infused with arts and imaginative ways of teaching, plus a break in the day for specialist time where the students enjoy arts for arts sake. The program targets students testing on the cusp of being able to pass their grade level standardized tests (SBAC). These collaborative classrooms, led by both the teachers and the teaching artists, foster engagement by capitalizing on play and creative investment. Combining the teacher’s understanding of the required curriculum and the community with the teaching artists’ expanse of knowledge on dramatic arts based pedagogy, each grade level engaged in innovative and play-centered activities.

Specialist times are led by the same teaching artists paired with teachers for the academic-arts infused portions of the day. In specialist time, the students interact with a teaching artist they don’t have in their normal classroom. In this way, they get exposed to different styles of arts curriculum and teaching artists including hip hop dance, physical comedy, improvisation, and musical theater. The teachers also appreciate this change of pace to get to watch their students thrive in different ways. Some teachers mentioned they saw certain students in a new light by the way they shared their personality and talents in the specialist times. It’s purpose is also to be creatively engaging, bonding for students, and a different experience.

“Can we take off our shoes?” “Yes!” the teacher replied to which she received, shouts and squeals! This is not like normal school for the students or the teachers. Student attendance is at nearly 100% each year we’ve run the program. With two meals provided a day (the school is 90% free and reduced lunch) students are getting a full day’s worth of activities and social engagement on top of their academic pursuits. Each intervention class was tailored to the curriculum and ability of each age of students.

Third graders hung up their lab coats before returning to their classroom-turned-kelp-forest, where green and brown kelp hung ceiling-to-floor all throughout the room, and creatures found in the kelp forest made out of paper mache and other crafts sat at the bottom of the seaweed. For example, one student explained that the sea anemone at the base of his kelp was prickly and I should be careful. The class introduced me to other creatures they had made that live at the bottom of the ocean and explained to me the behaviors of these creatures, whether clam-like or bottom-feeders. Meanwhile, the students worked hard solo and in pairs to determine the perimeter and volume necessary for a tank for their lab’s newly acquired sea otters. They used block squares that laid on the floor amidst the kelp strands hanging from the ceiling to determine the tank size.

Fifth graders worked furiously in pairs, using paper, tape, and rulers to fashion together a bridge across their split apart desks. Using calculations, basic physics, and other skills learned in their academic-focused time, they had to determine the width and length necessary to support their quarter in the center of the bridge. They were shouting and jumping up in down in both excitement and frustration as the theme song from survivor added to the drama of their competition to see whose bridge could be the longest and still hold up their quarter. The teacher and teaching artists were celebrating and challenging them together.

In the sixth grade, the teacher and teaching artist developed a rocket-themed science experiment shooting to set the stage for a discussion about moon travel. The experiment, which focused on using pressure to launch bottle caps, had students fired up as they competed to calculate the right mix of chemicals and trajectory to produce the longest launch. After this, the teacher and artist switched off leading the class through research on moon travel and guiding students through creative role-play as astronauts. Throughout a variety of scenarios, from creating fictitious astronaut resumes to calculating what they would need for a moon trip and how much. To connect this imaginative reality to the classroom, the teacher and teaching artist came together to bring in food to dehydrate in the quantities specified by the student calculations, after which they all boarded their space ship and headed for the moon, food in hand.

These exercises, and the others in the program, brought excitement and play into the traditional CORE classroom. Across the board, when students ranked how they felt about math and reading, enjoyment increased. Perception of their own skills also increased in every subject. Attendance was almost at 100% for the entire week. Ultimately, the majority of students, whose scores put them at the cusp of failing, passed the SBAC after participating in the intervention. One of the most exciting findings resulting from the program was that the majority of students also reported feeling more positively about math, science, and reading at the end of the five days in both sessions.

By: Chelsea LeValley