On June 13 and 14 the Getty Museum hosted Arts Integration + California: A Convening, which featured various models of arts integration from across the state. In addition to keynotes, case studies, and group discussions, brief “Spark Talks” gave five speakers less than 10 minutes each to highlight one or two big ideas.

The Spark Talks were packed with actionable ideas for integrating the arts into the K–12 classroom—here are my takeaways from the day.

1. Improve Academics by Using Creativity

Dennis Doyle is the executive director of Collaborations: Teachers and Artists (CoTA), which offers a three-year professional development program to help teachers integrate the visual and performing arts into the teaching of Common Core subjects.

In his talk, Doyle highlighted a study on the program led by James Catterall of UCLA, which examined qualitative data on students’ creativity, quantitative data on students’ performance over time, and the effectiveness of student assessment techniques. The study team asked: What conditions are necessary to teach creativity? What are teachers, artists, and students doing that is enhancing creativity? What tools are necessary to sustain creative teaching and learning?

The research yielded a fascinating finding: for students to succeed, teachers must be willing to be vulnerable. It also noted that 87% of participating teachers believed that CoTA positively impacted students collaboration, 74% noted positive impact on students’ creativity, and 88% reported positive impact on students’ depth of understanding of academic content.

2. Focus on Equity First, Quality Second

Denise Grande is director of Arts for All at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. She took us to the 30,000-foot level, asking us to move away from “deficit thinking” and recall that arts integration has been around for a very long time—indeed, since Leonardo da Vinci. She also reminded us that the “arts are not a special treat but an abundant source of nutrition.”

In a room of dedicated arts practitioners and integration specialists, Grande urged us to focus on equity and scale. Her argument: arts advocacy can no longer be about one student in one classroom, but about arts instruction for all students. We can’t increase the quality of instruction that doesn’t exist, she said; we must first address equity and only then tackle quality.

3. Prioritize Arts Integration in the Community

Jeannene M. Przyblyski took yet another tack. With self-effacing humor, she framed her thinking around placemaking and civic art. Przyblyski is the provost at CalArts, and to her the ultimate aim is to build whole people who are resilient citizens connected to one another. She declared that we should live in substantial and vibrant places, and provided case studies and probing questions about the future of arts integration.

In one example, she compared the Florence-Firestone community in L.A. County with Tremé, a historic neighborhood in New Orleans, citing their shared indicators: high levels of poverty and unemployment; struggling schools; random and persistent violence; high levels of youth incarceration; radical demographic shifts over the last 10–20 years; and people with long-standing roots in the community. Why, she asked, does Florence-Firestone struggle for identity while Tremé is a model of resilience? She found that residents of Tremé identify proudly with their neighborhood and benefit from strong traditions of participation in music, dance, and art.

Arts integration develops empowered individuals, a strong engaged workforce, and resilient communities, said Przyblyski. And it must start in the community: in schools, libraries, parks, community centers, and museums. We need both classroom education and radical strategies for imagining how we create, facilitate, and inhabit public space.

4. Use Imagination to Drive Learning

Diana Rivera, a researcher and facilitator at Saybrook University, brought us deep into the psyche of the teaching artist, whom she argued is a vehicle for human relationships.

Rivera asked us to consider how imagination is linked to creativity. In her research, she found that imagination is an altered state of consciousness, and that the act of play increases empathy when linked to creativity and the arts. She found that imagination—even more than empathy—is critical to the advancement of learning.

5. Treat the Arts and Academics as Equal

Shannon Wilkins is head of educational leadership programs and the visual and performing arts at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. She discussed a three-session training she developed for school principals in partnership with the L.A. County Arts Commission, which focused on teaching creativity within Common Core standards.

Wilkins’s “Teaching Creativity” training consists of three parts, with guidance on:
•    Integrating the arts into language arts curricula,
•    Adding the arts to science, technology, engineering, and math instruction, and
•    Implementing arts integration at the school level.

She recommends teaching both the arts and academic subjects equally, and not placing one in service of the other. Since its inception six years ago, the County has trained over 600 instructors and won two major awards.

Wilkins also shared her preferred definition of arts integration, developed by the Kennedy Center:

“Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in the creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”

The major obstacle to arts integration in secondary schools, Wilkins said, is instructors’ fear of not being taken seriously. She recommended creating strong modalities for middle and high school students that use art objects to make learning come alive—using paintings and sculptures to show history, place, and time.

Ways Forward

The various strategies presented in these talks—from equitable delivery of the arts to methods for teaching creativity—offered a dynamic overview of current projects. But if arts are truly to be for all, our next step must be to reach all principals, teachers, teaching artists, and students, not just the few served by pilot programs.

In discussions at the event, some colleagues suggested mandated hours in the day in which the arts are taught. Others argued that integration is the best of both worlds—exposure to the visual and performing arts with fulfillment of other subject area goals.

These Spark Talks made clear to me that we in the field have tremendous models and resources for implementation strategies. I hope that we can now develop larger, long-term strategies to ensure that we are reaching every school, every classroom, and every student with the best ways of learning that include creativity and the arts.