"What's this made of?" teaching artist Kim Desjardins asked a class of wide-eyed kindergartners one recent morning at Burlington's Integrated Arts Academy. She held up a clay relief tile, a two-dimensional square containing three-dimensional figures of a tree and the sun.
"Play-Doh," one boy declared confidently.
"It's like Play-Doh," Desjardins said. "What's Play-Doh made of?"
"Rock?" the boy asked. Beside him, a little girl fidgeted, thrusting her hand upward insistently.
"It comes from the ground like rocks do, so in that way it's similar to a rock," Desjardins encouraged. The girl rocked forward on her knees, waving her hand around.
"I think Rosa can help," suggested the class' kindergarten teacher, Emily Stewart.
"Clay!" Rosa exclaimed, and some of her classmates burst out in "oohs" and "ahhs."
The blustery mid-March morning marked Desjardins' first day of a semester-long residency at IAA. This was also the first class taught by a Vermont artist who had completed a new training course with Arts Connect, an initiative to train local teaching artists in an educational model called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
The Arts Connect initiative was named almost as an afterthought for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts grant called Arts Connect All, which funded a successful pilot year in 2012 to 2013. In Vermont, the program is now driven by an impressive coalition of more than 10 arts, education, government and nonprofit organizations. They include VSA Vermont, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, the Vermont Arts Council, Champlain College Emergent Media Center and Burlington City Arts. Judy Chalmer, executive director of VSA Vermont, is spearheading the collaboration, while each participating organization contributes outreach, networking, training and so on. A $20,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation helped fund this year's programming.
Why are so many organizations with arts-based programming and missions investing new resources and funding in education? In short, because they already invest there, and they want to do it better.
"All of us have a long history of putting teaching artists in schools," Chalmer notes. "Each of us has come to it with our own perspectives; in many ways, one of the most exciting things about this partnership is that we want to build the skill and level of teaching artists together instead of separately. We're responding to a need that schools across the state have ... we know that the arts help kids learn."
To connect artists with Arts Connect, all the organizations with rosters of teaching artists sent out announcements to them. The VAC's education programs manager, Ben Doyle, compiled the resulting applications; so far, 10 artists have completed the Arts Connect training. Schools can apply for funding through the council to bring in any of those artists for residencies.
"We viewed [Arts Connect] as professional development for teaching artists," says Doyle. He adds that, in an ideal world, all 111 of the artists on the VAC's roster would go through the training. "We're trying to be very strategic in using the arts to transform education," Doyle says.
And what exactly is Universal Design for Learning?
"It's a framework that helps you build the most inclusive possible learning environment for kids," explains Charlie Rathbone, a retired University of Vermont professor and UDL researcher. Arts Connect melds UDL with arts integration practices, but the concept of UDL itself originated in architecture. It used to refer to structural accommodations such as wheelchair ramps that created accessible learning environments for students with physical handicaps.
Then teachers started expanding that definition of "accessibility." "At some point, educators began to take off from the notion of universal education in the designing of rooms, to [instructional] solutions that would work for educating the largest number of people," says Rathbone.
The long-standing theory of multiple intelligences, rooted in cognitive psychology, dovetailed with UDL's concept of giving students multiple access points to a central point of learning and understanding. The paradigm worked as a way to approach students with cognitive as well as physical disabilities.
By the 1980s, UDL was gaining traction in the field of neuroscience. Now, Rathbone says, the UDL paradigm has developed to the point where its distinct principles can be matched to distinct brain networks. In his estimation, it's "pretty current in terms of what we know about how the brain works."
Last fall, Rathbone conducted Arts Connect's initial teaching-artist trainings — held at Saint Michael's College — along with IAA arts integration specialist Angela Chaffee. Together they drilled the history, research and principles of UDL into the 10 artists in the course. The two educators express confidence that an identical or improved course will be held next fall.
"UDL put words and a structure, a framework and guidelines to what I already knew to be great teaching," says Desjardins.
While learning theory in the classroom, the teaching artists observed classes at IAA, wrote lesson plans and got hands-on experience. The practical component, Desjardins points out, was a "UDL moment" in and of itself for her. The principles Rathbone taught in class didn't entirely click for Desjardins, a self-proclaimed "visual learner," until she had an opportunity to tackle them personally.
In fact, Desjardins wasn't new to the group of students she was teaching on the first day of her residency; she'd spent time in IAA's kindergarten classrooms doing research and training during the UDL class. The six-session curriculum she designed using her skills from Arts Connect employed clay as a tactile medium to connect students to a range of academic subjects, concepts and lines of inquiry.
Though the kindergartners were doing an activity with clay that included art-class-appropriate discussions about textures and consistency, the focus of Desjardins' lesson plan was actually science. Specifically, the students were boosting their understanding of the overarching life-sciences concept for their grade level: the difference between living and nonliving things.
An added bonus of the lesson? Geometry. The class also learned the names of unusual shapes such as sphere, coil and slab.
In the class, Desjardins gave the kids verbal and kinesthetic cues to help them remember instructions — one of UDL's guidelines is to provide multiple ways for students to grasp information. "Roll it, squish it! Roll it, squish it!" the kindergartners chanted, clapping their hands and making a game from otherwise rote instructions for crafting a usable clay slab.
Desjardins held up her clay relief tile with the tree and the sun. "Is the tree alive or dead?"
"Dead," a young boy called out.
"Alive," objected one of his peers.
"Alive," Desjardins affirmed. "A tree that's alive. That's what I had in mind, too."
The group was preparing to make its own clay relief tiles; each child would adorn his or hers with either a living or a nonliving thing. But which things were living seemed to be up for debate.
As IAA arts integration coach Judy Klima observed in an earlier class discussion, a group of 5-year-olds — especially an ethnically and culturally diverse group — can tease out a million questions from a statement adults take for granted. Why, for example, is a clam a living thing on the beach but a nonliving thing in a bowl of soup? Why is the kitty alive but not the kitty litter? Everyone agreed when one student said, "All the people in the world" were alive. But the students became momentarily confused when another child added, "Except for all the dead people" — like in the cemetery. This prompted a new question: What's a cemetery?
Desjardins' teaching incorporated student feedback and expression. One student shared a long story of finding clay in a mud bank; another demonstrated how to make a pinch pot. One girl whose family hailed from East Africa shared that her mother used similar "roll it, squish it" techniques to make traditional bread at home.
Klima, who has been an educator in Vermont public schools for more than two decades, says that using an arts integrated approach to education allows kids to arrive at conclusions creatively and in ways that make sense to them. She's encouraged by the Arts Connect coalition because it signals that numerous arts and education leaders have committed to such an approach.
Arts Connect offers new resources to schoolteachers who struggle to maintain a high classroom standard while including students with learning disabilities, Klima goes on.
That's been especially true in the Burlington area in recent years. "Burlington is a refugee resettlement community, and the whole district is really focused on equity and really making sure that all students have equal access to education," Klima says. "And learning through the arts is probably one of the most fundamental ways to access learning. I think [training teaching artists] is absolutely critical for this community. I think it's critical for all communities," she adds, "but it happens to be a beautiful match for Burlington."