VSA Vermont has a long history of bringing art and arts engagement to Vermonters with disabilities. In recent years, in particular, the success of the nonprofit's arts integration model for students with severe emotional and behavioral challenges has fueled the growth of a new education initiative: Arts to Smarts.
The initiative's goal is to use art to augment the learning process in subjects like reading, writing, math, social studies and science for elementary and middle school students. It's a collaborative effort of VSA and the Howard Center, with academic accreditation from Saint Michael's College and financial support from Jane's Trust, the Bay & Paul Foundations and the Vermont Arts Council. In its second year, Arts to Smarts has trained six teachers who are already using the new pedagogy in four local schools.
VSA teaching artist Lisa Condino planted the seeds of Arts to Smarts in a 2014 pilot program. Working with students at the Howard Center's Baird School in Burlington, which serves children ages 6 to 14, she set out to use art in combination with the Universal Design for Learning framework. By creating flexible learning environments that meet individual students' needs, UDL-trained teachers motivate and engage students in their own learning.
"It's a leveling thing," Condino said in a phone interview. "We're all exploring, creating, experimenting. I meet the kids where they're at — my goal is for them to be engaged."
This student engagement, Condino said, "needs to be personal." For example, in one lesson, students learned fractions by making wire sculptures using their own bodies as measuring sticks. As they crafted one sculpture from a body-length of wire, another from half of a body-length of wire, and so on, a mathematical concept came to life in their three-dimensional representations.
"Staff were noticing that kids were staying the entire time — and making the choice to do that," said Judith Chalmer, executive director of VSA Vermont. "We heard things," she continued, "[such as] 'The staff is going into Lisa's classrooms to see how she does it.'" And, Condino added, "Teachers [have said], 'I didn't know my kids were this creative, this clever.'"
Noting Condino's efforts, Sandra Limoge, special education director at the Baird School, wrote via email: "Overall, I'd have to say that, as a result of our shift to an arts integration model of instruction ... not only are students far more engaged in the arts, at times it's what motivates them to come to school — knowing that a teaching artist will be in their classroom that day and [that] they will have the opportunity to 'make.'"
Chalmer soon realized that "If it's making this much difference in the lives of kids at the Baird School, just think of the kids around the state who could be benefiting," she said. Condino's success, as Chalmer put it, led VSA to "do a deep dive and find out what are the things that are working, and how they are working."
The organization received funds to analyze and craft a curriculum around its Arts to Smarts work. It enlisted retired University of Vermont professor of education Charles Rathbone to comb through Condino's teaching logs. VSA volunteer coordinator and adult program manager Heidi Swevens led a focus group with Baird School staff. She reached out to schools around the state to learn about their needs and their current levels of arts engagement.
The group's work resulted in the inaugural Arts to Smarts course, led by Condino and Limoge at the Baird School last fall. Six teaching artists were selected to participate in a series of daylong weekend intensives. Each did short practicum residencies in Baird classrooms, as well.
Graduates of the program have since worked in collaboration with teachers at several schools statewide. Participating schools include Lyndon Educational Alternative Resources Network in Lyndonville, the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler in Burlington, Winooski Middle School and the J.F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski.
VSA Vermont's leadership hopes to offer the course a second time this fall, training another cohort of teaching artists for pairing with schools that express interest. While the scale of Arts to Smarts is still small and its growth incremental, the pace seems fitting for an organization that places the emphasis on individual process. "It's about human beings — it's not math. It's not a formula," Condino said.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Learning Comes to Life in New VSA Vermont Arts Program"
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.