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Elementary-school educators learn how to use the arts to teach other subjects

Elizabeth Maupin | Sentinel Staff Writer
May 13, 2008

Kenneth Vailant, 9, and his 3rd-grade class at Aloma Elementary
learn about Foley artists by creating sounds as they
listen to a book being read by Palmer.

In a fifth-grade classroom at Aloma Elementary School, an experiment is under way. Sixteen earnest students listen intently to a piece of classical music that one pony-tailed girl describes as "doo woo," like the sound of rain dropping on leaves.

A few minutes later, each child tries to form a sea creature from a page of the newspaper -- tearing, folding, crumpling it into shape.

It's part of a pilot program to help classroom teachers learn to teach everyday subject matter through the arts. Today the kids are learning about environmental habitats. They're also learning how musical expression relates to habitat and how to create something with no markers, crayons or computer-drawing programs in sight.

In Orange County, individual schools and their principals decide how the arts are taught. The Orange County Arts Education Center, a new partnership of the county and the public schools, has worked to convince principals of the arts' intrinsic value and to show them what programs -- grants, visiting artists, special events -- are available.

Megan Dufour (left) and arts consultant Mary Palmer create a
puppet show and explore sound in Dufour's 5th-grade class at
Aloma Elementary School in Winter Park. Palmer was
demonstrating how to use the arts in many lessons.

"We're not trying to make them art teachers," says Mary Palmer, former dean of the college of education at the University of Central Florida. "We're trying to make them better classroom teachers."

Palmer's program, called Through the Arts, is part of a larger thrust to make sure that all Orange County students have equal access to the arts.

"I have had principals who said 'I had no idea this was out there,' " says Scott Evans, a former teacher and now director of the center, which opened in January.

Numerous studies have proven that the arts help students learn. One key survey of 25,000 students showed that those who are highly involved in the arts do better in school than those who are not.

Although 2001's No Child Left Behind Act listed the arts as a core subject, many school systems don't follow those directives. That has led, Palmer said, to "an insidious erosion" of arts-education programs.

"There's an arts gap in American schools," Palmer told a group of teachers and principals in training for the program. "Wealthy schools have good arts programs, and poor ones do not."

Evans' office -- which sponsors an annual principals' breakfast, an arts-education job fair and a summer-camp fair aimed at parents -- has been instrumental in helping to bring Palmer and her associates to Aloma Elementary and Ivey Lane Elementary, the two schools chosen for the Through the Arts pilot program. Orange County has funded the program with $20,000 this year.

Along with Palmer, Aloma is hosting working artists from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Voci Dance and other groups.

For some teachers, "it's foreign territory," Palmer says. "But what I've seen is that teachers get re-invigorated, and the arts level the playing field for the children."

Rosette Brown, principal of McNair Magnet School, an arts magnet in Rockledge, told program trainees last summer that working the arts into everyday classroom learning had reversed a period of declining enrollment for her school.

"Through the arts we're able to tap into the learning styles of all children," she said.

That's evident at Aloma, where just about every third-grader in the room clamors to be given a noisemaker to reproduce the sound of a snoring granny. The experience of using music to help narrate a book, Palmer says later, helps them become more interested in reading.

"They had to collaborate and to accommodate each other," she says. "We're trying with the arts to build this collaborative learning."

Proponents of Through the Arts hope to raise outside money to expand to two or three more schools next year. But impending cuts in school budgets make the challenges greater than ever.

"With the budget cuts, I'm really concerned," Palmer says. "As a state we seem to have lost sight of equity for all.

"We definitely have our work cut out for us. But at these schools where we're working, I can see the difference. The teachers are excited, and the kids are excited. And when the kids are excited, they're engaged."

Elizabeth Maupin can be reached at or