How Art Can Help Center a Student’s Learning Experience

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A Maya Lin third grader works on her climate change project. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

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When I visited Maya Lin, an elementary school in Alameda, California where art is at the center of learning, third graders were in the middle of a multi-week project on climate change. Pairs of students had chosen climates around the world and researched them to learn about the weather, flora and fauna.

In art class, they created artistic representations of their climates using either a torn-paper collage technique or oil pastels. They also wrote books about how climate change will affect their climates and the animals that live there. In the process, they learned what fossil fuels are, where they come from, and how they’re extracted. They studied how the greenhouse gas effect works and made a visual model of it.

One boy, John, showed me his model and described the science behind it.

“I made a project with one of my friends about the greenhouse effect and how the sun’s heat rays go in, and the heat gets trapped inside the atmosphere and heats up the earth,” said John.

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I asked him about the artistic techniques he used to create a blotchy effect on the sun.

“I saw a picture of the sun to try and draw it and there were spots where it was really really bright. So I drew those spots in and then I put tape over it and then I dabbed the paintbrush so it looked like spots, and then the spots where I put tape were still paper white,” he explained. He’d also used collage to create a translucent effect for the atmosphere.

John's artwork depicting the greenhouse gas effect.
John's artwork depicting the greenhouse gas effect. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

I was struck by how much John could tell me both about the iterative creative process he went through, and the science his work represented. He described several early attempts at creating effects that didn’t work – at first, he wanted his sun to be three-dimensional, but couldn’t get it to stay up. He says he was frustrated, but he pushed through those feelings and tried something different.

John’s persistence – and the sheer number of hours he was allotted for artwork during school hours – stood out to me. At a lot of schools I’ve visited, art is relegated to a separate class once a week. The fact that students were showing their knowledge of science through their artwork here struck me as unique.

Over the past two decades, policies focused on math and reading test scores, along with a global recession, have pushed many schools to cut what they considered to be “extras.” In many places, that has meant visual art, music, drama, and dance. These subjects became afterthoughts as school leaders put pressure on teachers to raise kids’ scores in the ‘focus’ subjects – math and reading.

Now, many educators are starting to realize the folly of these practices, backed up by an increasingly robust body of research about the power of art to improve learning.

Johns Hopkins University professor Mariale Hardiman published a 2019 paper in Trends in Neuroscience and Education describing the results of a randomized, controlled trial she conducted in fifth grade science classrooms. She and her team found that arts integration instruction led to long-term retention of science concepts at least as successfully as conventional science teaching. Arts integration was particularly helpful for students with the lowest reading scores.

Studies like this one have led to a resurgence of interest in arts integration, a pedagogy that uses art as a vehicle for learning about any subject. This isn’t a new idea – some educators have long believed in and used art as part of their practice – but now there’s more research to back it up, including work out of Harvard’s Project Zero. Several schools have led this movement, going all in on art at a time when many schools around the country were slashing their arts budgets. Maya Lin is one of them.

For teachers at Maya Lin, integrating art throughout the curriculum and the school day is about making learning fun, multi-disciplinary, connected and creative. It gives students a way to think about the world differently, to make connections, and to contemplate their place within it. Thinking like an artist helps them develop habits that they’ll use no matter what they go on to do, and it has helped inculcate an ethic of perseverance, challenge, and craft to everything students do.

Student work connected to reading Langston Hughes. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

“At its core, arts integration is social justice,” Maya Lin art teacher Constance Moore told me. “It’s a way of creating equity, it's a way of looking at the world and thinking about different perspectives, and centering ideas and people who have not been in the center. Art is such a great way to do that for kids because it makes it accessible to them.”

Maya Lin's Journey to Arts Integration Was About Equity

Before it was called Maya Lin, this school was known as Washington Elementary. Back then, Washington served a mostly low-income population and over a third of its students were designated English language learners. And, like many schools, it was a mainstay of the local community with many committed teachers. But the school’s test scores weren’t great, and enrollment was low, so when Alameda Unified School District started feeling the pinch of the recession in 2009 and 2010, Washington was a prime candidate for closure.

A dedicated group of parents and teachers fought hard to stop the district’s closure plans and to keep a school in the community. They applied for an innovation grant from the district, emphasizing that if they won, they would build a school centered around art. Students would learn all the required standards, but art would be a critical way for teachers to evaluate what students understand. The district accepted the proposal. Washington Elementary closed in the spring of 2011, but reopened again as Maya Lin School in the fall of 2012 with a new focus on arts integration.

District officials told the principal, Judy Goodwin, that she could hire her own staff. She first invited the teachers at Washington to join the project. About half of them did, and the other half were transferred to other jobs in the district.

Maya Lin’s new teaching staff, both the former Washington staff and new hires, went through the Integrated Learning Specialist Program (ILSP) at the Alameda County Office of Education. They learned how to build arts-centered projects collaboratively with other teachers, how to assess learning through art, and they figured out ways to integrate state standards from disparate disciplines – like science and social studies – using art in everyday learning and the habits of successful artists to guide the way.

“The arts provide an access point for everyone,” said Caitlin Gordon, a third grade teacher at Maya Lin. She has found that when art is at the center of the learning experience, it evens the playing field for kids with learning disabilities, or those who are still learning English, or who have less background knowledge about a topic.

“I think it's a way for kids to take some really meaty and intense concepts and process them. I think it allows children to learn about how the process of something is just as important, if not more important, than the product. I think it just really helps create more of that well-balanced, critical-thinking person that we want for our future.”

Gordon is always impressed by how thoughtfully her students approach their own work and that of their peers. They ask good questions and are willing to stretch when a concept doesn’t come easily.

The third grade teaching team greeted students with a fun photo.
The third grade teaching team greeted students with a fun photo. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

When Principal Judy Goodwin and her staff committed to this work seven years ago, they wanted to build a school that would highlight the strengths of the students in it, not just the areas of weakness that test scores showed. And, just as important, they wanted teaching to be a collaborative and creative experience for the adults too.

The art teacher, Constance Moore, is grateful for that collaborative spirit. She says usually the art teacher is relegated to an out-of-the-way classroom where no one bothers them. Teachers are grateful they can send their kids to her for awhile, but other than that, what happens in the art room is separate from other learning.

“But this is completely different. I'm just fully woven into the fabric of the school,” Moore said.

For example, Moore helped plan the climate change project. The three third grade teachers, Caitlin Gordon, Brian Dodson, and Sharon Jackson, developed this project together with Moore’s artistic knowledge guiding them. They discussed the learning goals, developed a thematic through line, and mapped out the science, social studies, and writing standards they’d be covering. And they talked through how students would demonstrate their understanding through art.

Tackling Climate Change Through Art

Some of the work takes place in their classrooms, but it often crosses over into the art studio, where Moore makes sure students are learning specific artistic techniques, the life and history of the artists themselves, and most importantly the Studio Habits of Mind.

Reminders of the Studio Habits of Mind are everywhere: on classroom doors, in charts, in the conversations students and teachers have with each other.
Reminders of the Studio Habits of Mind are everywhere: on classroom doors, in charts, in the conversations students and teachers have with each other. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

The habits are:

  • develop craft
  • engage and persist
  • envision
  • express
  • observe
  • reflect
  • stretch and explore
  • understand art worlds

These practices aren't only used in the art studio at Maya Lin. They are the basis of all academic work in the school, providing a language students use to talk about their learning. One third grade girl explained that she has to “stretch and explore” in math class, especially when learning fractions, a concept that’s been confusing for her.

Or, when John spoke about the setbacks he encountered making his climate change project, he said even though he was frustrated, he “engaged and persisted,” and he did a lot of “envisioning” to come up with new ideas. Everyone at the school uses that language.

In teacher Brian Dodson’s classroom, students were in full-on creation mode when I visited. Some spread out into the hallway and others worked on the floor, while still more were huddled around desks pushed together into pods. Out in the hallway, two girls were working on a large painting inspired by Sean Yoro, a Hawaiian artist. Another girl, Clementine, was busily painting a trash can. One side featured pristine ocean, the other side had trash floating in it.

“I wanted to paint on a trash can because I wanted to show if we don’t fill up the trash can, it’s better for the ocean,” said Clementine. “My essential question is, why are the coral reefs dying?” she said. She went on to explain that trash in the ocean suffocates the coral, which is a problem because the coral reefs provide oxygen. “If we keep this up we could have a little bit less oxygen,” she said.

Student works on her final project for a unit on climate change.
Student works on her final project for a unit on climate change. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

In teacher Caitlin Gordon’s classroom, students were critiquing one another's work at a midpoint in the process, using what they call “the ladder of feedback.” The ladder helps partners take turns presenting their work, getting positive and negative feedback from a partner, and thinking through how they plan to incorporate the feedback. Students choose from several sentence starters to get the conversation going. I listened in as two girls gave one another feedback.

“When I started, I envisioned that there would be a factory and then there would be a tornado heading towards that,” one girl started, explaining her art piece. “But then I got a new idea when I was working on that to make all the natural disasters that climate change could create, like forest fires, tornados, and so much more.”

“I can tell you engaged and persisted because I can see a lot of scribbles, and if something wasn’t exactly as you imagined it, you just kept going,” her partner said, using one of the feedback frames. “Next time, maybe you could stretch and explore by making it in a box. How do you envision your next steps?”

“I envision my next steps by maybe redoing the tornado and making it a little bit better,” the first girls said. Then they switched roles. When they were finished reflecting on their own work, and giving feedback to their partner, the girls set off to implement some of the changes that came up during the discussion.

This is exactly the type of dialogue teachers at Maya Lin have worked so hard to produce. The girls stayed on task, gave each other real feedback, and pushed one another to produce better work. Those are the habits of artists and scholars.

“Human beings have been making art and expressing themselves, even if it's not called art, since we were human beings,” art teacher Constance Moore said. “If you take that out, you're taking out a part of being wholly human. So you cannot be getting a full education without art. Period.”

Over the past seven years, test scores at Maya Lin have improved, and when I visited, joyful learning was happening all around. The school has gone from almost closing because of low enrollment, to being at capacity with a waiting list. The district converted a nearby middle school, Wood Middle, to an arts integration approach and there are other schools in the district interested in learning more.

“I think we need to embrace art as not that add-on, that it can be the center of how students can demonstrate their understanding. And that needs to be very intentional work,” said Principal Judy Goodwin.

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