Wednesday, August 22, 2012
SAN DIEGO About 20 teachers from school districts across San Diego County sit at tables in a rehearsal studio at the La Jolla Playhouse. Half of them face the back of the room and the rest can see a picture projected onto a screen at the front.
Critics of using standardized test scores to judge schools say its focus on basic reading and math skills has crowded subjects like art and science out of many schools. California is starting to roll out new curriculum standards this year that some hope will bring arts back to the classroom.
Terry Miller is doing her best to describe what she sees so her partner can sketch a replica of what looks like the remnants of a mining operation.
After a few minutes, Marva Cappello, a professor in San Diego State University's College of Education, tells those drawing to turn around and see the image they’ve been trying to reproduce.
A chorus of 'ohs' fills the room. Cappello explains she chose an unusual structure for the picture so the teachers who could see the picture wouldn't be able to refer to background knowledge their partners may have had about what a more familiar building, like a suburban home, might look like.
"Remember," she says, "one focus of the Common Core is referring back to the text for evidence."
The Common Core is a new set of voluntary national curriculum standards for public schools. California is joining 44 other states and Washington, D.C. in adopting the math and language arts guidelines. The language standards -– which focus on building reading, writing, speaking and listening skills -– include higher-order skills, too.
“The standards are different in that there’s a focus on critical thinking and problem solving that really wasn’t in the content standards before," Cappello says. "They were really content focused. There are a few instructional shifts that we help teachers come to terms with.”
Capello is working with a group called CARE to show these teachers how they can incorporate more arts into their class time as the new standards are rolled out this year. They did that with a week-long seminar hosted by the Playhouse and the Timken, Mingei and Photographic Arts museums in Balboa Park.
In another workshop later that day, the teachers are role playing while they describe different artifacts from the Mingei.
Rhonda Sloan and Katherine Mickelson pretend to be best friends, one of whom found an unfamiliar object on the beach.
"You touched it?" Mickelson asks Sloan.
"Yeah, I touched it," she says. "At first I thought it was metal, but I think it's maybe something like wood."
A facilitator from the Mingei explains an exercise like this can be used to get students to think about the different ways we use language depending on who we're talking to. Sloan and Mickelson speak much more informally than the women role playing a principal and a student. The exercise can also get students experimenting with descriptive language and making educated guesses.
Sloan is headed back to the classroom after a year away as a fourth grade teacher at Carver Elementary in San Diego. She says she’s excited to use the new teaching methods.
“It has been a wonderful experience," she says of the workshop. "From the standpoint of all of my kids can be successful using the strategies – every last one of them, regardless of their labels, regardless of their reading levels or their English language proficiency.”
Sloan’s colleague, Bill McClain, is also at the week-long seminar. He teaches fourth graders at Carver and sees ways to spread the strategies they’re learning beyond his language arts lessons.
“A lot of the things I think I can use with – fourth grade history is California history – and with our science standards that I think will be really engaging for the kids and also just really help them understand the content,” he says.
Cappello says there aren’t the same opportunities to be wrong with the kinds of art-focused lessons the teachers are learning about. For McClain that means each student can participate in some way even if the written text for a topic is too advanced for them.
“I think they’re much more engaged, I think they’re much more accountable because each student is being asked to do something that they’re able to do," he says. "We’ve taken so much art out of the school that at least we are able to do something that’s artistic and hands on and I think each kid is able to do up to their level, what they can do.”
Cappello says it isn’t just about busy work or having fun in class.
“Helping students use written language, oral language along with print and other kind of non-conventional school texts, helps them get to a deeper level of understanding. It really enhances comprehension and there’s lots of research to back that up,” she says.
Getting arts back into more schools has always been the focus of CARE, which is a partnership of the four arts institutions hosting this week’s seminar. CARE’s program manager Julie Kendig says they try especially to reach teachers serving low-income communities where arts programs are least likely to have survived.
“So not only is there a problem of declining resources for the arts," Kendig says. "But we also understand that there are several outcomes that happen as a result of having exposure to the arts. Many of those are skills that are critical to a 21st century workforce including critical thinking and collaborative problem solving. So we are looking at it as a skill-building issue and an equity issue.”
Unlike most of the teachers at the seminar, Terry Miller is an arts teacher. She teaches theater at San Diego’s Pershing Middle School and is hoping the Common Core standards will offer a way to protect programs like hers.
“Well I think I’ve gained ammunition so that when the budget needs to be cut I can say – 'hey – my students are writing, my students are speaking, my students are listening, my students are reading, my students deal with subtext and inference.' And so it makes it difficult to cut it out,” she says.
This fall Cappello will take time away from teaching to study how using visuals in the classrooms affects students’ developing literacy skills. Depending on what her work shows, maybe someday it’ll be harder to tell arts and reading lessons apart.
Video by Katie Euphrat