Vermont Arts Council

The Arts Make an Entrance

The arts are an integral part of educational best practices. They offer myriad ways to reach learners of any subject. Such ideas are pertinent to teaching artists in the Northeast Kingdom attending a series of workshops set up by VSA Vermont, a statewide nonprofit and leading resource for creating inclusive arts experiences. Alexandra Turner leads the two-and-a-half-hour sessions. She’s been teaching since she was a teenager (swimming, dance, pre-school, art) and has been a teaching artist in Vermont for almost ten years. Early in her career Alexandra realized, “If I can teach other teachers, I can make a much greater impact.” Providing meaningful instruction also increases impact. She helped others explore this in a recent overview of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

It’s Universal

Anyone who delves into inclusive learning will hear of an educational framework called Universal Design for Learning. Using ramps and curb cuts in architectural design increases accessibility for everyone; removing barriers in education does the same. UDL is effective for all types of learners and can be particularly helpful for English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students whose dominant learning styles lean away from auditory and verbal. Alexandra boils it down to: “Everyone can benefit from exploring content in a variety of ways.”

UDL calls for multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. The goal is the creation of “expert learners,” defined in UDL as learners who are “purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-oriented.” The framework is not specific to the arts, but arts can increase inclusion. For example: UDL suggests teachers “provide options for recruiting interest” in a lesson. In other words, is there more than one way to come to the task at hand? Instead of reading or writing, what if a learner can begin an activity with a drawing or a song? Will a pipe cleaner sculpture work? As Alexandra explained, “Offering an arts modality provides a different way of communicating, building knowledge, and demonstrating understanding — another means beyond written or spoken words.” She observes that the educational system has historically focused on auditory and verbal teaching and learning; UDL can be a tool to evaluate and improve lesson plans to ensure that more students have access to rich and varied learning experiences.

And in Vermont

Alexandra points out, “The creative process also provides great opportunities to practice transferable skills such as perseverance, problem solving, and communication.” Transferable skills are not only useful in school and life, but are now at the core of Vermont’s proficiency-based learning model. Just as there are requirements for high school graduation in Vermont related to literacy, mathematical content and practices, and scientific inquiry; there are requirements for transferable skills including communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, inquiry, problem solving, and the use of technology.

Alexandra recounts lessons from her residencies with VSA’s Arts to Smarts program. In a unit with fourth graders, students were provided the opportunity to delve into historical fiction through the arts. Students engaged in explorations of a variety of arts modalities including book making, clay modeling, and cardboard construction before settling into longer-term projects that required planning. The planning process offered student visual and written formats for thinking through ideas and plans. Students worked individually, in pairs, or in groups to create their own historical fiction illustrations that ranged from a full-blown student-written film exploring the relationships of early civil rights activists, to cardboard dioramas, to collections of paper-doll style characters with extensive wardrobes, to a cartoon-style story set during World War II. Each session included both verbal and written directions with examples, pictures, or demonstrations. Students always had access to books about the art techniques they were exploring as well as the chance to work with materials directly. Alexandra recalls the classroom teacher being “stunned when each and every student completed reading their individual historical fiction novel.” She also notes a variety of social and emotional learning goals and milestones were achieved.

Social and emotional learning goals are another entry point. More about that will be presented in the next workshop, Social Emotional Learning for Teaching Artists Part II. The last in the series, on Arts Integration for Teaching Artists will take place May 5.

Susan McDowell with Alexandra Turner

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