Walk into a second-grade music classroom at Birch Grove Elementary School for the Arts and you might see students learning fractions during lessons on quarter and eighth notes, or listen down the hall to hear fourth graders singing in math class.
In a time when arts education is decreasing in many schools, students at Birch Grove are thriving in a creative learning environment where comprehension extends beyond understanding the core concepts.
“With full arts integration, we are doing two things at the same time,” says Ronald Salazar, principal at Birch Grove Elementary. “Teachers are teaching two standards—the standard, like language arts, math, science or social studies, and at the same time, they are teaching the standard for the arts.”
Teachers integrate music, drama, dance and visual arts with any core subject, and the art teachers integrate core subjects into their curriculum. For example, the drama teacher uses language arts in the curriculum to enhance vocabulary, and the science teacher uses visual arts to teach lessons on the life cycle of a plant.
The students are exposed to all areas of curriculum, having more choices and options for learning, even within classrooms.
Starting in first grade, students take art elective classes, like drawing, painting, gymnastics or learn how to play the recorder. Second graders can audition for performing troupes, like drama, choir, visual arts and media arts. The media arts troupe live broadcasts (with running audio and cameras) morning announcements and weather reports on Birch Grove TV (BGTV) and does the lights and sounds for the school shows.
In third grade, students can take orchestra and in fifth grade, band. Kids in grades first through fifth can audition to be part of the spring musical, which typically involves 60–70 students.
Birch Grove’s curriculum integration coordinator Stephanie Vleck says the number one impact of arts-integrated teaching is student engagement. “Anytime you allow students to connect on a personal level to their curriculum and to show who they are—their values, beliefs, personal background—they are completely engaged in what they’re doing.”
Minnesota Department of Education report cards show Birch Grove’s attendance rates are higher than the district and the state. “Get them engaged, and you get them in school every day,” Vleck says.
Arts-integrated lessons involve all senses and fully engage the brain. It’s not about everyone building the same clay pieces. “Our philosophy as an arts school impacts the way we think and see the world differently,” Salazar says. “It involves the entire person. We all tend to learn and think in different terms. It’s not about more of the same, but we have to do more of something different.”