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Connecting Concepts

Connecting Concepts

March 31, 2016

Teaching artists have to squeeze in a lot of things, including conversations. Time to talk comes somewhere between managing the performance of a children’s opera and teaching paper arts to infants. Or, so it is with Rebecca Mack—a busy person who must choose wisely how she’ll spend her energy.

Rebecca is a preschool teacher and performing musician who also makes visual art. For the past seven years, she has worked at Burlington Children’s Space, most recently serving as the school’s atelierista. Hers is a part-time position, which allows her to work elsewhere as a teaching artist and spend time with her own art and family. Rebecca did not overlook the opportunity to shape her career when she took this job. She notes, “I realized this was a pivotal time to switch it up.”

two young students and teacher

It was 2011 when Rebecca began teaching as a parent volunteer. She developed a curriculum called “Sound and Light Studio” in which sound and light are presented as both open-ended art materials and as scientific phenomena. She has a suitable background—she studied psychology and studio art with a minor in music—but also realized she needed to learn more about arts integration and curriculum design.

When Rebecca joined the production team for the recently performed Brundibár, Director Trisha Denton recommended the Arts Connect course to her. Trisha is on the Council’s Teaching Artist Roster and an Arts Connect alumna. Rebecca registered and set two specific goals. “I wanted to get a little bit more language specific to arts integration curriculum and to make connections with other teaching artists and experts in the field.” She was able to do that and more. In her words: “There was a big bonus; I got more than I was expecting.”

Expectations Exceeded

“I was looking for language, but what I found was a new approach.” This is the first she heard of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for designing learning experiences that work for a wide spectrum of learners. Teachers introduce concepts through more than one experience. Rebecca admits it takes “a little bit of mental gymnastics to think about it,” but also described the work as “profoundly informative.” Mostly, it requires thinking in advance. “I was familiar with differentiated curriculum, but universal design has you plan ahead of time to have all of your content presented in multiple ways. Now, When I do an arts curriculum with students, I’m really presenting the material or project with learning goals clearly stated and multiple routes.”

Rebecca gave the example of teaching a rhythm. She can find a word that sounds like the rhythm. If she speaks the word aloud, writes the word on paper, then uses a drum with her voice as she says the word again, she provides the student with something auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Before, she says, she might have used just the drums. “I wouldn’t have extrapolated that way.” How does she know it works? “There’s a stronger and more immediate response from the room, much more access to different minds at the same time. This changes the energy of the room very quickly.” This serves her well as a visiting teaching artist. “Most teaching artists don’t have luxury of being with the students for a long time. Building a relationship right away is really valuable.”

hand and shadow on wall

Rebecca Connects

She also wanted to connect with other educators. “There were a lot of arts classroom teachers in this cohort. I expected it to be teaching artists. But I really need to understand how their classrooms work. It was good to be hearing more about the mechanics of these other teacher’s lives.”

Those mechanics include teaching toward standards, exactly the language Rebecca needed to understand. “The experience did remind me how much the classroom teachers need to be checking off boxes. If I know the standards and can hand them a piece of paper that lists the ones I’m meeting, I’m saving them time.”

Time again. It’s a valuable commodity in education and Rebecca is making the very most of hers.


Registration is open now for the third annual Arts Connect course.

Find out more about the Arts Connect course.

Read about another teaching artist who took the course.

Susan McDowell

Tags: Rebecca Mack, teaching artists, Universal Design for Learning, VSA Arts


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