Classroom teachers see arts integration assist student learning

Laguna Elementary School gifted specialist Stephanie Shamy reads from a book made of poems and photos about the Civil War produced by her students. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Local and national arts and education entities are joining forces in the classroom to better reach students whose brains don’t always grasp traditional learning techniques.

Advocates contend a variety of arts-related exercises are better suited to teach some students — especially the unique, foreign, special and gifted students.

Singing, dancing, jumping, citing poetry and taking photos are just a few of the art techniques that are more and more prevalent in the classroom in order to educate future generations.

Scottsdale and Paradise Valley unified school districts — who combined reach 54,000 students — have teachers who say they are seeing direct results from arts integration in their classrooms.

Arts integration is defined as the approach of teaching that “constructs and demonstrates understanding through an art form.” More than including an art project into a single day’s lesson plan, arts integration engages students in a creative process that connects a specific art form with another subject area.

While one young Paradise Valley girl created a skit about counting tickets and charging admission to a horse show, a classroom full of Scottsdale students physically moved around to mimic the rock cycle.

Areas such as science, language arts, math and social studies are benefiting through individual teachers using a new avenue to reach their students.

The “evolution of education” has created a partnership between SUSD, PVSchools, Scottsdale Arts and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Leading artists and educators meet in the Valley throughout the year to expand their approach.

The Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program brings in teaching artists on the Kennedy Center National Roster to assist arts organizations and develop or expand partnerships with their local school systems. Scottsdale Arts, one of the 96 partnerships in 36 states working with the center, joined the program in 2001.

PVSchools, SUSD and Scottsdale Arts all contribute to pay for the program. SUSD officials say they have provided $3,000 to the program this year, while PVSchools is contributing $6,000.

“We feel in Scottsdale that integrating the arts into the curriculum is essential and it’s a way to reach all different kinds of learners. Some kids are super visual, and they need to be inspired visually, and that just ignites a spark,” Laguna Elementary School K-5 gifted specialist Stephanie Shamy said in an Aug. 3 interview. “If you bring the art into it, it just inspires them.”

Stephanie Shamy (photo by Melissa Fittro)

In the classroom

Ms. Shamy has been working with the Partners in Education program for six years. She has seen example after example of how arts integration is helping her students.

One of the most valuable qualities of the partnership, Ms. Shamy says, is the method to integrate objectives into the classroom.

“We’ve been doing this thing where they don’t just teach professional development to the teachers, they teach us for a morning, and in the afternoon we go watch them in classrooms,” she explained.

“They actually show us how to apply what they’re teaching us, how to apply it with kids. Sometimes as teachers we get professional development with all of these wonderful and amazing ideas, and you’re like ‘I don’t know if I can make that work in my classroom.’”

The Kennedy Center aims to resolve that issue by conducting lessons in class with students and showing teachers “look, you can do it,” Ms. Shamy says.

“It’s just a great way to differentiate and get the kids interested and spark creativity, imagination, it’s just a different way to approach,” the longtime gifted teacher explained. “Research shows that bringing arts into education increases student learning.”

Arts integration is assisting more than gifted students. Ms. Shamy has witnessed non-English speaking students engage and grow with the process. Rather than sitting isolated at a desk where they might not be able to read what’s on their worksheet or understand the teacher’s lesson, students are learning by visuals.

“Those kids get to listen to a discussion, they learn the language because that ESL child who may not understand what they heard, just saw it,” she explained.

Gayle Olsen (photo by Melissa Fittro)

“They saw it, they did it, they heard it, and now they’re having a safe environment to participate.”

Boulder Creek Elementary School K-6 visual arts teacher and former special education teacher Gayle Olsen also has several years of experience with the arts integration program.

“I’m crazy about what I’ve learned here; the whole arts integration, it’s very standards-focused but it crosses over everything,” she said in an Aug. 8 interview.

“When I was a special ed teacher, that’s what I did — I brought in the arts to constantly teach. What they’re doing is just phenomenal, the way they have brought everything to life, the integration, the workshops.”

Ms. Olsen is constantly advocating for the fine arts, and PVSchools participates in a lot of workshops and artist competitions.

“How do you redesign a guitar, a violin and make it functional? These are the upcoming problem solvers,” she explained. “Last year they were dissecting cow eyeballs in the art room — it’s all of that being wrapped up that’s making us excel.”


At the district

The day before the 2017-18 school year started Aug. 9, the Paradise Valley Unified School District fine arts department met at Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts for a professional development day.

Tammy Hinds, education specialist for the center for performing arts, explained to the audience how the Kennedy Center partnership is beneficial for all teachers.

“When I have to go speak with a math teacher, that’s when I really have to work hard to try to teach a math teacher to learn how to integrate the arts by taking a dance class, and learning about movement and choreography,” Ms. Hinds explained on Aug. 8.

“This is really what we focus on with professional development. The intention is to bring the arts into all of the schools and into the community, and build a relationship with our schools.”

The first Kennedy Center workshop for this year is slated Aug. 24, with three more planned throughout the year. Workshops range from one to five days and cover the foundation, the definition of arts integration, storytelling and oral skills, moving through math and building musical instruments.

PVSchools Director of Fine Arts Education Norm Pratt says Paradise Valley classrooms have enjoyed tremendous success by implementing fine arts into curriculum.

“The arts have the power to change lives. They are unique because they provide students (with) learning experiences and opportunities, which engage both their mind and heart.”

Thanks to the partnership with the Kennedy Center and Scottsdale Arts, local teachers have access to high quality training, Mr. Pratt says.

“Through these experiences our teachers learn various strategies on how the arts can be used to deepen and enrich learning,” he said. “Arts experiences, combined with rigorous core academics, provide our students with the skill sets needed to be successful in college or careers.”

Kennedy Center Director of Education Operations Jordan LaSalle (photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Within the country

The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts has a vast education department in addition to claiming the title of the nation’s busiest performing arts center, hosting approximately 3,000 events each year for audiences.

The Partners in Education program began in 1991, says Erin Cutler of the Kennedy Center, and is only one of the center’s educational programs.

“The primary purpose of these partnerships is to promote professional learning as teachers,” she explained in an Aug. 8 phone interview. “Every two years we have an application process to join the program.”

Applicants are asked to show their commitment to the arts and must include a letter of support from the superintendent and historical partnerships of the local arts organization.

Following the implementation of arts integration in their local area of Washington D.C., the Kennedy Center’s positive results in the classroom spurred the nationwide expansion which is seeing continued growth.

“I think arts integration is an approach that more and more teachers and schools are beginning to think about,” said Kennedy Center Director of Education Operations Jordan LaSalle.

“Participation in arts and arts integrative lessons have been shown to increase student engagement, motivation, creativity, and with that increased engagement comes increased attendance and fewer discipline problems, which then leads to higher achievement.”

The success Ms. Shamy and Ms. Olsen have witnessed in their classrooms is backed up by results also seen by the Kennedy Center, Ms. LaSalle says.

“I also think arts integration is catching traction because it’s creating new access points for learning for those who learn in different ways, creating space for all learners,” she explained of the educational landscape.

“For example, arts integration is beginning to be used as a differentiated learning method for students with learning disabilities, an access point for English language learners, as well as students who are struggling in the classroom. Arts integration has been shown to be an improving method that yields positive results.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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