In teacher Rachel Schottky’s class at Ottomon Elementary in Orangevale, third-grade students created and performed rain dances to the measured cadence of a drum.
“We need a lot of rain,” Albert Erazo, 9, said afterward. “We are in a really bad drought.”
The dances, a salute to the Tewa Indians, were part of a teaching strategy known as Artful Learning, which uses artistic methods to convey core academic concepts.
Think music in the study of math: Eight-bar. Quarter notes. Fractions.
Or geometry in a zebra’s stripes. Dance as an exploration of Indian culture and the environment.
Artful Learning, created by the Leonard Bernstein Center in New York, began in March at Ottomon after parents, school employees and community members wanted an education program that focused on visual and performing arts. Ottomon is a K-5 neighborhood school with about 330 students.
Principal Hilda Fernandez said she researched programs and visited a campus in Napa before recommending Artful Learning to San Juan Unified trustees. The trustees, in turn, agreed to provide $240,000 over three years, mainly to help teachers improve their arts-based instruction.
The new approach, Fernandez said, means greater student engagement, digging deeper for answers and more problem solving and critical thinking, all in symmetry with new requirements of the Common Core State Standards.
“In ‘Starry Nights’ from van Gogh, students talk about what they see,” Fernandez said. “What time of year was it? What do you think the artist experienced? What was the message? Where was he?”
In Napa, Artful Learning is in its third year at Salvador Elementary School. Principal Pam Perkins calls the strategy “a school reform model. We’re talking about change. Innovation. It’s about strengthening your content through arts delivery.”
“In the old days, when I started teaching, there was a lot of thematic instruction,” Perkins said. “This is bigger. Instead of having a theme of dinosaurs or apples or pumpkins, this is really concept-based units of study. We look at big concepts, like relationships, or cycles, so that things are totally connected. They’re really big meaty units.”
In San Juan Unified, district officials say even through tight funding years, there has been a desire to keep arts programs alive, an effort aided by community fundraising, including support from arts agencies and parents.
Funding for arts-dedicated staff, mainly in primary grades, reached $6.5 million in the 2010-11 academic year, including a districtwide visual and performing arts coordinator, said district spokeswoman Kim Minugh. This year, that general fund spending has reached a record-high $7.4 million, up 13 percent, not including arts instruction in secondary grades, where arts funding isn’t calculated separately.
There are other art-focused schools in the region. San Juan Unified has Carriage Drive, a performing arts school in Citrus Heights, and Deterding Elementry in Carmichael, an “arts-inspired” school with visual arts, music and drama.
In Sacramento City Unified, Leonardo da Vinci K-8 School in Hollywood Park emphasizes arts and science but takes a somewhat different approach, known as integrated thematic instruction, said Principal Devon Davis. Teachers create four to eight themes for the school year and integrate visual and performing arts with the curriculum.
Leonardo da Vinci was founded as an arts and science magnet school, Davis said. The school does not use art as the vehicle to learning core subjects. Rather, she said, the goal “is to extend research-based learning through the arts.”
In Schottky’s class, for the last two months, students have been exploring the concept of change and, in particular, forced environmental and political changes, including what that meant for American Indian nations. That, in turn, influenced the exploration of the Tewa Indians and, later, the study of totems.
“We did research on what totems were, why they did them,” she said. “The kids made a totem pole. They interviewed their families and decided what symbol represented their family.”
Every Ottomon class follows an artistic masterwork. Schottky’s third-grade students were guided by a masterwork from 1863 by artist Albert Bierstadt: ‘The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak,” depicting an idyllic encampment of Native Americans.
“We celebrate western expansion,” Schottky said. “What about the Indians? I wanted them (students) to be thinking ideally, to have more empathy for people who have had to change outside their own choice, that we can be more sensitive to Native Americans or any other culture that has been pushed aside.”
On the science front, she said, students are starting to learn about scientific method and the five things (air, sunlight, water, soil and space) a plant needs to survive, and what happens when one of those is removed.
Students sorted photographs of plants according to how the five needs were represented, Schottky said. Then they learned to precisely draw and label the plants and their needs.
Schottky said students respond well to the instruction.
“When I was teaching fractions with music, it would come recess time, and I’d say OK, it’s time to go outside to recess,” she recalled. “And they actually groaned, ‘Oh, do we have to?’
“For recess! And then I’m giving them their homework to take home and a couple of them said, ‘I love this homework!’”