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The art of teaching: China Grove Elementary staff learn arts integration

By Rebecca Rider
rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

RALEIGH — Staff at China Grove Elementary painted their future this week in Raleigh.

When August rolls around, China Grove Elementary will open its doors as an arts integration school, using A+ Arts strategies. The school is one of 16 “restart schools” in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and will be one of the first to use its charter-like flexibility to tweak its approach to students and learning.

But first, everyone had to be on the same page. On July 9, the 40-member staff of teachers trekked up to Raleigh to get training from A+ Arts.

“We have had an awesome week,” Principal Lea Ann Thomas said Friday.

Instead of shunting the arts to a one-day-a-week special class, A+ Arts arts integration twines them with everyday learning. Teachers learned and practiced activities using dance, music and drama as well as the visual arts.

Thomas said she was most impressed by the way A+ Arts taught teachers not just how to integrate the arts into regular curriculum, but also how they could integrate regular curriculum into the arts.

“It doesn’t have to be huge and big,” she said of integration, “it can be something small and powerful.”

Thomas first heard about A+ Arts during a free information session offered by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. She knew almost immediately that it would be a good fit for her school — but she took it back to her staff to let them decide. Teachers, too, were on board.

According to Thomas, the arts are an invaluable part of learning.

“The arts are all high-order thinking,” she said.

They engage students, and require them to be creative and use critical thinking. When combined with regular curriculum, they require students to explain and expound in ways that encourage true understanding and mastery. It also allows students to approach assignments ablaze with individuality.

Teachers are loving it, too. Beverly Litke, school media center coordinator, said that while the staff tried to integrate arts, anyways, it always helps to have a brainstorming session or to learn from experienced teachers.

“If we were supposed to think of (these things) on our own, we wouldn’t’ve,” she said.

Which is not to say that China Grove Elementary’s staff isn’t creative — but the constraints on time make it difficult to do a whole-school collaboration, planning and learning period like teachers got this week.

The training also encouraged teachers to go outside of their comfort zones and try something new.

“I think the biggest one for me is dance,” she said.

But during the dance segment, Litke learned a few tips and activities she can use in her media center blocks — including some unexpected ones, like when staff were asked to perform a dance illustrating American history.

“You’re thinking, ‘How would you do a dance of the Stamp Act?’” She said of the prompts. “…But you do, and then suddenly you’re doing something you thought you couldn’t five minutes before.”

That confidence and determination is something she and other teachers hope to impart to students beginning in August.

Roughly half of the training week involved team and trust-building exercises, teachers said. It’s something that’s brought the school closer together. Staff rarely gets school-wide planning time and the school has a large range of ages, which can deter co-mingling during the school year. But in Raleigh, teachers learned that everyone has something to contribute.

“There are people here who sing beautifully, and I’ve never heard them before,” teacher Georgianna Karriker said.

“I think it’s really bonded our school together,” fifth grade teacher Julia Kraft said. “…Our school is so big, so I don’t see these people (during the year).”

First grade teacher Ashley Ely said she, and other teachers, will be able to take what they learned during training week and immediately apply it to their own lessons.

“I feel more confident taking what I’ve learned and stepping out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Ely also defended arts integration from those who might think it’s lowering the bar on intellectual rigor.

“(It’s) not, ‘Let’s play this cute little song for the kids,’ but, ‘How can this enhance the lesson?’” She said.

School arts coordinator Michelle Allen said the week has helped renew her passion.

“It’s rewarding to me …to see everyone else excited about my expertise — that’s my passion,” she said.

In addition to benefitting teachers, the training and arts integration also lifts up existing enhancement staff — including media center, art, music and physical education.

“For so long the enhancements have always been extra,” Litke said.

“But this program switches that and brings everyone to the podium as equals,” Allen added.

Kids have always been excited to attend their “extra” classes once a week, and Litke and Allen know they’ll fall in love with having those things be part of their every day learning.

It will also help them learn better — without even realizing it.

“If you can do something through creativity, you’ve already processed it, you’ve already sifted it,” Litke said.

And Thomas said China Grove’s teachers have taken to the programming like ducks to water.

“This is a very, very creative staff,” she said. “I don’t think they knew how creative they were until this week. …They’ve been very engaged, very happy, very hard working. We’re very excited — we almost wish the school year started Monday.”

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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