Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Marna Stalcup, The Right Brain Initiative

Washington, DC


Video courtesy of The Right Brain Initiative

Go to the web site of the Right Brain Initiative and you know immediately you?re in for some serious fun. Arrows fly across the screen as a dog descends from above. A smiling, puffing smokestack encourages you to join the mailing list. And moving the cursor makes objects spin, pulse, and leap. It?s a wonderful introduction to an organization deeply committed to teaching kids about and through the arts.

The Right Brain Initiative is a program of Portland, Oregon?s Regional Arts & Culture Council. The arts council recently received a $25,000 NEA Learning in the Arts grant to support this innovative project and its mission to give every K-8 student in the region access to the arts and to create long-term change in the local school system.

Program Manager Marna Stalcup was gracious enough to take time away from the busy preparations for the summer session to talk with the NEA about our brains, the arts, and learning.

NEA: You talk about ?whole brain? learning at the Right Brain Initiative. What is that?

MARNA STALCUP: As we say in our manifesto, ?Brains come with two sides for a reason. They need each other. They fill in each other?s voids and what happens when they work together is magical.? What we?re striving to do is to put the magic back into learning. It?s in response to the need we heard from our school partners to help shift some of the focus away from teaching to the test to providing opportunities to discover and explore and learn in a very natural way. The Right Brain Initiative is not simply about the right brain but how it works in conjunction with more standard teaching and learning.

NEA: It appears that your programs take an arts integration programs approach vs. a discipline-based arts practice approach. Is that accurate to say?

STALCUP: We don?t see it as either/or. We see the learning goals in the arts as equally important to those in other subject areas. In our programs, students do engage in standards-based arts practices with a teaching artist and a classroom teacher who can then draw connections to other core content.

What we?re really looking to do is empower teachers so that arts learning becomes part of the regular classroom environment. By working side by side with a teaching artist, they begin to develop their own skills they can use later without the artist present.

NEA: What is the source of the ideas for residencies?

STALCUP: The original request comes from the school. The school district contributes to a fund for their teachers? participation. Every school has a pot of money ($15 for every enrolled student) that teachers can use to choose the artist they want to bring in. All of our residencies begin with a planning meeting that includes the teacher and the teaching artist that the school has identified [from the RBI roster on its web site.]

Currently we?re working in four districts in 31 schools, reaching about 11,000 children, 10% of our overall goal to be in all 25 districts in the tri-county Portland metropolitan area.

The program is a public/private partnership with investments from the City of Portland, two of the three counties, and our schools districts, foundations, and corporations. We cover all of the costs of the professional development, evaluation, and evidence tracking so we?re giving districts probably five times what they?re investing in terms of actual dollar support.

NEA: Your work entails close collaboration between staff, artists, teachers, and school administrators. How do you keep your various partners moving in the same direction?

STALCUP: Collaboration is one of our guiding principles. Professional development is also key to our work. We have a sequence of professional development offerings that we require of our schools and our teaching artists. It?s not separate training;, they?re in the same room together, learning what arts integration means. That keeps everyone focused on our goals and beginning to understand each other and the language of each other?s worlds.

The other thing is that we view teachers and teaching artists as co-equals. They are responsible to one another and to the outcomes that they determined together ahead of time. That keeps them on the same path. Finally, we have an arts integration facilitator that is assigned to schools to guide them through the process.

NEA: What have been some of the outcomes of your programs for young people?

STALCUP: Some of what we?re really noticing, and we call them ?deep noticings,? is the investment on the part of student, in their time, in thinking about their work. We often don?t give them that opportunity in a more traditional classroom environment.

Early on, we focused on literacy outcomes. It?s one of the big testing areas and the schools felt that the arts could help support that. And we at the Right Brain Initiative have done that. But we?ve also heard interest in things that are more experiential such as building community within a classroom or school. How can the arts help foster and support that?

So we began to push the boundaries on how we define literacy and we?ve now embraced what are commonly known as 21st-century skills, which really have a core home with the arts, collaboration, communication, creativity, of course, and critical thinking. We have a third-party evaluator who is developing tools to identify outcomes [related to those skills].

NEA: What have been some of the outcomes for your teaching artists?

STALCUP: Some of the outcomes are an understanding of the power of their art form, and applications of their art form in the context of education. They learn how they can frame their work for broader impact. And they become more articulate about their work and therefore stronger advocates for the importance of the arts in education.

NEA: What does ?Art Works? mean to you?

STALCUP: For me it?s about the absolute necessity for the arts to be a part of every child?s educational experience. To support the growth in knowledge and the understanding students have about the world in which they live.


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