Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap
Music Credit: Excerpt from Foreric: Piano Study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions.
Laura Schandelmeier: Now we’re going to introduce the concept of money. One day, Jack’s mother went to their treasure chest. Five, 10, 15, 20. Jack, my dear, we need some money. Now wait a minute. Say this with me. Five, 10, 15, 20. Jack, my dear, we need some money.
Jo Reed: That was Wolf Trap teaching artist Laura Schandelmeier using theater, music, and dance to teach foundational concepts in math and science. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
We just heard a demonstration of an educational method called arts integration. Arts integration is an increasingly popular way of using the arts in the classroom to teach a variety of academic subjects in a way that engages students on multiple levels. The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts has long been in the vanguard of this approach to education. Understanding that the way we engage children in the first years of their lives has a profound impact on future learning, the Institute trains teachers to use the arts to tap into children’s innate desire for active, multisensory learning.
In 2010, aware of the call to enhance STEM education—that is education in science, technology, engineering, and math—Wolf Trap began developing early childhood STEM learning through the arts. The reasoning goes like this: by ensuring first STEM’s learning experiences are effective and compelling through arts integration, you foster children’s excitement and cultivate their natural curiosity about STEM subjects. A recently released independent study about the program has proved Wolf Trap’s reasoning correct. Here to discuss the early STEM-arts program is the senior director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts Akua Kouyate-Tate.
Akua, I’d like you tell me more about how Wolf Trap uses arts integration in the classroom. What ages are you working with? How old are the kids?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts is in a classroom with three-to-five-year-olds utilizing skills and elements of an art form—music, dance or drama—and connecting that with skills in learning for a particular subject, whether it’s math or it could be social-emotional development, it could be literacy. So when we blend those, we’re looking at how aspects of the arts can help to support the learning in those other subjects, while at the same time having learning in the art, itself.
Jo Reed: So it’s really very different from art as the standalone subject.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: It is different in the sense that we are looking to have the arts be a part of learning across subject areas in addition to learning in the art form itself.
Jo Reed: And who do you work with? Various school districts? Who are you partnering with?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap partners with school districts, with early childhood education centers, with Head Start, with Early Head Start.
Jo Reed: You call the classroom engagement with an artist a residency. Can you tell me what happens in that classroom?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: A Wolf Trap teaching artist is paired with a classroom teacher over the course of 16 sessions. In that residency, the teaching artist and the classroom teacher will identify what are some of the learning objectives that the teacher wants to focus on while the teaching artist is in the classroom. The teaching artist then identifies what particular areas of their art will support the learning. At the same time, the teaching artist will share strategies with the teacher so that the teacher can learn that strategy. So first, there is a modeling with the teaching artist for showing how they’re using the art form. Then there’s a co-teaching where the teaching artist and teacher do it together. Then the teacher gets to lead using the strategy in the classroom.
Jo Reed: When did the program begin and how did it develop?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap has been doing the Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts since 1981. And from the very beginning, we’ve partnered with Head Start, and we were asked to develop a program that would integrate the arts with learning at the early childhood stage. With that, we realized over the time that we could support teachers in that process, so it’s not simply teaching artists coming into the classroom and then leaving. But it’s really working with the teacher to identify specific goals for learning for the children while they’re there. So we align the work with the goals that the teachers may have in his or her curriculum. So we’ve seen from surveys, from past research how first with the teachers, they are really taking these techniques and strategies of the arts and they’re using them. They’re using them for instruction. They’re using them for classroom management. They’re using them to help children understand regulation. And they’re using the arts to help in specific subject areas, whether it’s learning emergent literacy skills or gross-motor or fine-motor skills or learning how to engage in a collective environment—so collaboration with the children, how they respond, how they can be creative in their thinking.
Jo Reed: Just very briefly, what is a teaching artist?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: A teaching artist is a professional performing artist who has chosen to support children’s learning across subject areas. With Wolf Trap, we bring teaching artists in. They have an audition process first. Then once we’ve gone through the process of auditioning them to see if they have that affinity to work with young children, we then take them through a rigorous professional training of learning how their art interacts with early-learning standards and guidelines and the process of transferring skills to the educator. We go through that intensive training with our Wolf Trap teaching artists. Then, whether it’s mathematics or STEM or maybe we’re talking about literacy, we want to make sure that our teaching artists have an awareness of what is happening in the field of early childhood education so that the work that we provide and the relationships that we build – we know that the content is appropriate for young learners so that they can access the information and the knowledge and be able to apply it.
Jo Reed: Is the Wolf Trap Institute just in the DC region?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Well, we’re really excited, because it’s not only happening in this area. We have 17 affiliate sites across the country where we are engaging in the Wolf Trap program. So if you go on our website, you can actually see if there is an affiliate in your community.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk specifically about the early STEM-arts program. How did it develop?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Back in 2005, we were focusing on arts integrated with emergent literacy, and there was an assessment that was done of the children’s learning. What we found in that one is that not only did the children show that they had gained skills in the emergent literacy area, but there was some indication that they had also gained in the areas of logic and math. At that point, we decided, “Well, let’s be intentional; let’s develop our performing arts, music, drama and dance content with techniques and strategies and experiences that are helping to support math learning.” And so, with that, we had to get a real clear understanding of what happens in math learning for young children, children from 3-years-old up to kindergarten age. What are the concepts; what are the skills. We worked very closely with early childhood specialists to understand that—those skills and developments that they’re looking for—and then we looked at the arts to see where did they naturally align or how we could demonstrate the relationship so that children could go from the abstract to the concrete to better understand a concept or a skill.
Jo Reed: What is it, do you think, about the arts that enables learning in mathematics?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: What the arts provide for young children is an opportunity to experience the concepts—to make them concrete—so that they’re able to use their bodies, their voices. They can embody concepts so that the learning through multiple senses. For example, let’s say that you want to teach children to observe patterns, because patterns are verily important in children being able to identify order and being able to predict what is happening. So you could have children engage in a movement. Let’s say that the pattern is where they’re moving low to the ground, then high up to the ceiling, becomes low and high and low and high. You can also allow their voices to experience the pattern. Let’s say the sound is quiet and loud, so it can be a quiet sound and a very loud sound, a quiet sound and a very loud sound. Again, the children are experiencing this concept of patterns multiple ways, so this is what you’re trying to get for the children to experience when they go through the arts.
Jo Reed: Now I know there’s been an independent study of the program that actually assessed the students’ learning. What were the results?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: In a recent study, we found that not only did the teachers utilize the arts to help support instruction in math learning—and they did it in very significant ways—the children who were in those classrooms with those teachers – they outperformed their peers in the controlled classrooms significantly when it came to math learning. The math-learning component was assessed by a national standard instrument. We also were looking at other things in terms of how teachers were integrating the arts in their instruction so that the assessments of the children and the teachers happened both before and after Wolf Trap was in the classroom, which really was important, because it showed that well after Wolf Trap’s teaching artists had left, the teachers were still using those techniques and strategies and the children were learning very well.
Jo Reed: The study, in fact, shows that the students in the classrooms of the Wolf Trap-trained teachers gained the equivalent of more than a month of additional math learning.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Exactly.
Jo Reed: This is arts integration; it’s educating the whole child. It’s not putting things in silos like, “Okay, this is the math part; this is the art part.” It’s really bringing it all together in quite the way we experience the world.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Why is this not more widely embraced, do you think? And I know you’re speculating.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Right. I would say from my own experience with early childhood educators, they are welcoming this type of integrated approach. They realize, more than anyone, that children learn in numerous ways and that if children are going to be successful, then they have to be able to reach children at those multiple points of learning. They also understand that children learn by doing; children learn by being engaged. So we’ve found a lot of support for the arts-integration approach. The challenge that sometimes comes is when teachers sometimes feel that they may be in a situation where they’re having to address certain types of assessments or tests that may limit how they approach the instruction. So they are in a position where they’re needing very specifically to have the children respond to questions or information.
Jo Reed: In a very particular way.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: In a very particular way. We’re not saying that arts integration is the only way; we’re saying that it is another way that will support and will expand opportunity for reaching all children. And I think the early childhood community, more than any—and I might be biased here—is very, very aware of that type of approach of providing instruction for the whole child. And so I feel very confident that the early childhood field is very open to this.
Jo Reed: But I would imagine that teachers also need a great deal of institutional support in order to be able to make this happen within their classroom.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Absolutely. Teachers do need the institutional support. And for that reason, we’re working also with administration. We’re not circumventing anyone; we’re really working with administration to ensure that we are addressing the specific needs that they see for their children and teachers in the learning environment. So a lot of our professional development can be customized for a particular school district, or a particular classroom, a set of teachers depending on what the focus is. Our intention is not to create a new curriculum; ours is to support the curriculum and the standards that the teachers are charged to bring to their classrooms.
Jo Reed: I know this is a little bit far afield, but I’m thinking about it ‘cause my godchild is in his third year of high school and is being pressured to decide on his college major, so he can take the right classes in high school to be prepared for it. And all right, he’s not my child. I’m not his mother. But at the same time, I feel like I have to go to bat for the kid. And I say he’s 16; this is the time he should be exploring and sticking his finger in every pie. But I find children are facing this pressure at younger and younger ages. And it begs the question: is school about job training or is school about really opening the mind and learning how to learn?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: I think you hit it right on the head, right there, when you talk about learning how to learn but also realizing that learning is really expansive. Learning is about multiple approaches to an idea. Learning has to do with looking at the various dimensions of how something is addressed so that when you are engaged in a project—let’s say a – project learning is happening quite a bit at the middle and high school level at this time; it really is gaining a lot of support. You will be able to see that not only are you engaging in some skills related to math, but it might be some social-justice skills; it might be some areas of collaboration; it might be some art forms that you need to communicate the concepts that you’re trying to get across. It could be multiple ways. This is life. And if we think about our life skills—what are needed for life skills, how we engage in any particular environment—whether you’re a scientist, or an artist, or you are a politician, you know that those skills all come into play. It’s not a single subject area that allows you to be able to engage effectively. It’s across the subject areas really developing those skills and the application to it.
Jo Reed: What about for you? When did the arts enter your life? Did you come from a house where there was a lot of art? Was there art in your school when you were growing up?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: We’re talking about a lot of years <laughs> ago, a long time ago. As a child, yes, in my family certainly we were raised in a community where we were part of our community block club, and we were part of our church, and there was always choirs. And even in elementary school, middle school, and high school, I was in the choral groups, and I was in the dance group. And in the community activities, I engaged with programs that taught me dance, and I really got into African dance forms and really, at that point, of course, there we go again, I started understanding more about culture and tradition. And so as I continued, I decided to move on that pathway. I went to school both at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the performing arts—first in dance and then in arts management. I also was a performing artist, myself, as a dancer. Then I, of course, I became a teacher, an educator. I worked with from pre-K all the way up through college age. And so all of my life, arts has been a part of me, of my family. My children are artists and art educators; it’s beautiful. And I got to tell you that it has opened up opportunities and possibilities and ways of thinking that are expansive for all of us. The arts have allowed us to engage across cultures, within our culture, understanding other people’s perspective, but also expressing our own point of view and really understanding how all of those things come together.
Jo Reed: I think one thing that is often underestimated about the arts is the fact that it’s impossible to engage in the arts, I’d say, without having a sense of empathy—that probably more than any other thing it really triggers that.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: I would agree with you. I think it opens you up to be receptive to things that not only are of you but also outside of you. So I think that it allows us to have a deeper appreciation of who we are as human beings.
Jo Reed: I wanna know what’s next for Wolf Trap’s education program. Are you expanding arts integration into other parts of the curriculum?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Well with respect to our Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, we are developing more how the arts can help to support science and engineering. Of course, we will continue to work with the early-childhood specialists to understand, specifically, what are those concepts, what are those approaches to learning that are important for young children, that process of problem solving. And then we develop our performing arts—music, drama, dance—content to support that and to create experiences for young children that were really dynamic, that will allow them to embody that understanding and carry them as they continue their educational process.
Jo Reed: Okay. Suppose I’m a teacher of young kids and I’m listening to this podcast, and I’m really interested in the possibility of bringing this into my classroom. What do I do? How do I begin?
Akua Kouyate-Tate: You can do a couple of things. You can go to our main wolftrap.org/education and find out about the Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts and see if there is an affiliate in your community. You can also, if you’re an educator, you can go to our education.wolftrap.org site, and you can actually see some of the content, the lessons, the audio clips, the instructional modules that teachers have access to to integrate arts into their room. This is a supplemental support to teachers so that they can be a part of a community of learning. If you’re interested to having Wolf Trap come into your community, talk to your administrators, give us a call, let us see how we might be able to connect in your community. We are partnering with major organizations across the country. We’re partnering with Turnaround Arts. And so we want to be able to help communities to see how to bring arts integration and learning into the curriculum for young children.
Jo Reed: Okay, Akua. Thank you so much.
Akua Kouyate-Tate: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Akua Kouyate-Tate. She’s the senior director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Wolf Trap is integrating art with fundamental science and math learning for young children and the data show significant results.