Friday, October 25, 2013

For These Schools, Adding Arts to STEM Boosts Curriculum

by Michelle Fredette
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal.

 Say you're the principal of a school that has been hit by an F5 tornado. No one is hurt, thank goodness, but teachers, students, and staff must move to a temporary school while your damaged school is repaired. Do you try to simply achieve a sense of normalcy during two years of displacement?

 Many principals would. And who would blame them? But Deron Cameron, principal of University Place Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, AL, saw the calamity caused by the April 2011 twister as an opportunity to do more. Armed with grants and donations from around the country, Cameron was determined to not only bring back some of the students his school had lost when the school moved, but to turn the misfortune into an advantage. "We met last year as a faculty and said, 'When we go back into our building, we don't want to do the same-old-same-old. We need to research some practices so it can be a win-win for our students,'" Cameron says.

After investigating a handful of educational approaches that ranged from Montessori to STEM, Cameron and his faculty settled on STEAM, a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--plus the arts. "We liked the arts in STEAM," Cameron says. "Our students have great creativity. We saw that the creativity of STEAM would add another facet."

Other schools are taking up the STEAM approach, even without the hardship of displacement and rebuilding. They come to STEAM because they believe the arts are important, or because they want to reach all of their students, not just the ones who thrive on straight academics.

Jeremy Ferrara, who teaches fourth grade at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, VA, says that his "aha moment" came one Saturday a couple of years ago, when he watched a student from his class creating scenery for a school musical. "This kid wasn't very strong academically," Ferrara says. "I watched him working on the set for two hours, while he measured the cardboard and lined up the pieces. I didn't talk to him, I just watched. He was completely into it. And in the end, everything came out perfectly symmetrical. It just opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn't reaching this kid the right way."

Implementing STEAM

So how does STEAM work? Taylor Elementary had committed to what they were calling "STEM and Beyond." The "Beyond" part was a nod to the need for arts in the equation, but no one was sure exactly how to make that need a reality. Ferrara sought out music teacher Bianca Sanchez and art teacher Elizabeth Ashley and they began to address the problem collaboratively. They started with a lesson on kinetic energy, and when the students responded positively, they pursued additional subjects.

Typically, the process begins with a brainstorming meeting. Ferrara describes an upcoming lesson, then works with Ashley and Sanchez on some potential strategies for working the subject matter into their art and music classes. One such lesson was on the plant lifecycle, an area where students had had low test scores. Ferrara showed Sanchez and Ashley the lifecycle and the standards he had to teach. "Once we understood the science part, we had to see how to connect our own areas," Sanchez says. "For music, I don't want the kids to just sing songs on the subject. I try to find a deeper connection."

To make this deeper connection, Sanchez turned to the music of Philip Glass. "We studied the basic structure of the music, how it starts off simple and slowly changes structure in a way that reminded me of the plant," Sanchez says. Then the kids used GarageBand to create their own compositions to represent the stages of the plant lifecycle. They presented their music to the class, describing how each structural change in the composition reflected a new stage in the cycle.

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