DECATUR – Teachers at Johns Hill Magnet School are game to try anything during professional development, even creating a tableau about East and West Germany during the Cold War.
Before beginning, Stuart Stotts of the Kennedy Center, the arts integration expert who was leading the workshop thanks to a grant from the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, gave them a crash course in the Cold War and specifically on the Berlin Wall, including a video of East Berlin residents swimming for their lives across the Spree and barely making it.
After the teachers and staff had consulted, rehearsed and presented their tableaus, Stotts asked, “What is the advantage of doing this instead of a lecture and a worksheet or something else?”
“You're still learning as you go,” said Leslie Johnson, one of the teachers. “It's good for the kid who doesn't learn immediately.”
Counselor Katana Baker said such an activity provides social interaction among students who might never speak to each other in the course of a day. Stotts had mixed and matched adults into random groups, as the teachers would do in the classroom.
“It takes the pressure off you as an individual,” added Heather Samonds, a sixth-grade teacher.
Though a tableau isn't the only way of integrating arts into other subjects, Stotts said, it's one that is easy to learn and useful for any grade level and any subject area.
The grant that brought Stotts to Decatur was written by Johns Hill staff Kathy Balamos Ganley, who teaches art; Heather Pistorius, music; Sharon Bird, instructional coach; and Principal Rob Prange.
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Johns Hill has always had a strong fine arts focus, Ganley said, and has always done a good job with two of the ways Stotts mentioned to bring arts into schools: arts curriculum, such as band, and arts-enhancement, such as showing history students a famous painting of an event they're studying. But arts integration can be more difficult to do. Johns Hill staff hopes to integrate the arts into every subject in every grade.
“Our mission and vision for the school is to become more arts integrated and a multicultural environment,” Ganley said. “We have students representing 22 countries, and we have a history of arts in the building as a foundation, and now we're elevating it to the next level.”
Arts integration is the shifting of balance in instruction.
Stotts told Johns Hill staff that all teachers don't have to know all the learning standards in every subject area. Through collaboration, one teacher can know the social studies standards and another the drama standards, and they can combine activities to integrate both into lessons.
The goal is to balance arts and other subjects evenly, and by doing so, provide multiple ways to ensure students' retention. Using the Berlin Wall tableau as an example, Stotts said he guaranteed that months from now, if the subject comes up, the teachers will remember more than they would have if he had only lectured them about it.
Zach Shields, executive director of the foundation, said he's looking for other funding sources and community partners to continue expanding the training.
“The real purpose of this is to give them skills and strategies for doing it, so we're not just saying, 'Hey, integrate arts,''' he said. “How do you do it, how does it make teaching better, rather than just saying here's another thing you have to do. We'd like to start practices that are still alive 20 years from now.”