Enriching the curriculum and boosting middle school student engagement with the arts
We don’t need statistics to know that a curriculum lacking in arts is boring, but too often when budgets are cut, the fun parts of being in school for children are the first to be eliminated. The notion that schools with limited budgets implies having limited resources or opportunities for students never crosses my mind. Instead, I believe that schools in high need communities can access ample resources that offer a more enriching curriculum and integrate the arts to empower youth, change mindsets, develop creativity, and engage students.
I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at a middle school, and part of my role involves supporting content teachers in their classrooms. Last year I worked with a colleague—a seventh grade language arts teacher—on a unit about poetry. He wanted his students to write poems in the Japanese poetic form of haiku. My English language learners struggled to understand even after I translated the lesson. They lacked background knowledge on poetry and had difficulty breaking words down into syllables. Instead, they counted the silent endings like in the word “through.” Once they understood that part, they asked “What’s Japan?”
Opportunities for Collaboration
Even when our planning time is during the same period, too often it isn’t feasible to meet face-to-face with colleagues, so we found other ways to collaborate. Initially we exchanged ideas by e-mail and as the project time approached, we met before school. We both wanted our students to understand and enjoy the unit.
My colleague shared the language arts standards he wanted to meet and I shared those for English of other languages. Once we had outlined all standards we wished to cover, I began searching among my connections in our community and using LinkedIn for an available guest to help make the lesson more relevant and exciting. My colleague helped by creating an exit activity on Google classroom and sharing activities we could both use to prepare for the unit project.
Through my search on ways to enhance the poetry unit, I secured Mr. Satogata, a Japanese American Haiku master, artist, and calligrapher to spend the day with us. It was a rare treat. He came early, set up the classroom, and even brought treats for students to sample from Japan. This activity was offered to all students including English speakers.
Making it Special
As part of the planning, we enlisted the help of our librarian and reached out to the high school art teacher, who sent her students during each period to take photos of the activity. Prior to the visit, students composed their haikus, wrote thank you notes, and designed a large banner to welcome our guest.
Since I teach larger groups and have a bigger classroom, I swapped rooms with my colleague for the day to make way for the seating and art project. We also secured parental permission for students to take photos. For those who did not, we took note to respect their wishes.
Students expressed that they had been looking forward to the guest visit. At the end of each class, students lined up to take a photo with him and many asked for his autograph. At the end of the day, Mr. Satogata asked me what I was going to do with the welcome banner, so my students presented the banner to him along with their thank you notes. While he expressed it was a tremendous experience for him, students shared the same sentiment. One ESL student was so excited about the visit, saying “I never met a person from Japan before!”
On our school website, we posted the photos and sent the link to our guest. Although we didn’t have it in our budget to pay for his time or the food he brought, he eagerly volunteered to return again next year because he enjoyed his time with us. That is a critical component for all visits: making sure guests feel valued and at ease.
Elevate the Standards
In seventh grade reading class, students learned about the civil rights movement while the ESL students struggled to follow along with the televised recording of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr. I asked students to write about a dream they have and what steps they would take to achieve their goal. The activity combined several prompts that my students were doing in different classes, including writing smart goals, learning about the social justice movement, and understanding Dr. King’s speech.
I extended this activity to all students including non-ESL students to write a detailed essay for a project called The Dream Goes On. As I started the activity, a few students asked to speak to me privately, so private that it needed to be outside of the class. We stepped in the hallway and one by one they confided their belief that people like them don’t dream—at all. I was baffled. How could youth so young already have this limiting mindset? “Besides, nobody will read mine anyway. Well you have to, but that’s it!” one student told me.
I don’t set out to prove my students wrong, but I wanted to show them a world that is caring and eager to read their dreams. I searched online for contact information and sent an email to the Freedom Center in Cincinnati requesting to meet face-to-face to talk about collaborating on this project. I didn’t hear back so I searched for a specific contact at the center. It worked. During the meeting, I shared about the work that students have done and asked for permission to have my students display an exhibit. This way a lot of people could read the dreams my students wrote. Permission was granted! It meant that I needed to guide students in installing a museum-worthy display.
|Two students from my English Learners posing by their drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of a large display at the Cincinnati Freedom Center|
13 Ways to Bring the Arts and Community Talent to Your Classroom
- Include the wishes of your students. Their needs and input help by showing you what matters to them.
- Focus on the standards instead of the activity. It is easier to partner with colleagues when their content standards are integrated in the activity or project.
- Expand your network by volunteering for various organizations.
- Take the time to find out what’s already available. When I seek ways to enhance lessons, I look for resources and opportunities that exist within the community because people want to invest in their youth.
- Be specific with your wishes. People want to help but often don’t know how.
- Teach gratitude. I take the time to teach students to thank their guests in person and with a handwritten note.
- Find creative ways to recognize your volunteers. My students have nominated guests for awards. Guests feel honored to be remembered and nominated, and the thought matters more than the outcome.
- Join different organizations. Through my membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I have met many authors who have already committed to volunteering to talk at my school.
- Involve students in enlisting help. Their families may have unique leads.
- Being excited about an idea is contagious. I had family members sponsor my students for camps and donate to my projects or in my name to my school.
- Make it special for the guests. Students can offer to give a school tour and introduce guests to the administrators and other teachers. This creates a special rapport between youth and our guests.
- Obtain parent permission. This serves to inform parents about upcoming activities and to double check permissions for photo releases.
- Give grants a chance! It is not accurate that one must always dot all their i’s and cross their t’s—compelling proposals get funded.
Through the arts, students delved into the project. Ironically, although most students will not stay after school to catch up on missed work, many volunteered long hours on the weekend and after school to design this project. We had a very short timeframe for the exhibit creation, and through hard work these students did it. They put a lot of effort in being artistic. My advanced ESL students took the time to translate the “I Have a Dream” speech into Spanish, which helped those with less English fluency understand.
Using arts elevated the project, engaged students into coming to school during the weekend, and offered a forum to include parental help, making it possible for these students to have their dreams on display to be read by many. Next year, I have already lined up a Japanese Tea Master to demonstrate a tea ceremony and several authors, storytellers, and speakers have committed to volunteer their time at our school. These community guests are eager to share their skills and time to bring learning to life. When it comes to the ability to make learning fun and engaging, it doesn’t matter that my district serves youth from low-income homes or that we have 79% of students on free/reduced meals, because the resources and opportunities available for our students are abundant.