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Can Teaching Mathematics With Music Boost Student Achievement?

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Rogers Heights Elementary School teacher Ari Stern sings songs in math class.
Matthew Schwartz/WAMU
Rogers Heights Elementary School teacher Ari Stern sings songs in math class.

Prince George’s County Public Schools are at the forefront of a movement in schools to introduce art and music into classes that haven’t traditionally been taught in song. The result of “Arts Integration,” proponents say, is a class of students who have mastered the material better than they would have without art.

Before this school year, fourth and fifth graders at Rogers Heights Elementary School in Bladensburg, Maryland, didn’t know much about the water cycle. That changed after music teacher Ari Stern wrote a song about it. He recently pulled out his guitar to demonstrate the song for a reporter, strumming jauntily in the key of G.

“Evaporation, sun warms oceans, water vapor rises to the sky! Condensation, cool clouds are forming, tiny droplets hug up high!” The key changed and Stern’s eyes closed as he continued. “Precipitation is falling down — the rain is falling down to the ground — then the water cycle starts again.”

Since this school year started, Stern has also taught arts integration, which uses music, dance, plays and visual arts to help students learn subjects like math, reading and science.

“For me, music has always been an essential element of approaching life,” Stern said. “And so when something is boring, I look to music to liven it up. When something is sad, I look to music to create uplifting feelings. And that can be said not just for music, but for all the arts.”

Stern was hired as a music teacher last year, and he quickly pushed to get Rogers Heights on-board with the county’s arts integration program. Now Stern divides his time between teaching music and collaborating with other teachers to bring music into their classrooms.

Rogers Heights is the 41st school in Prince George’s County to officially inject arts into its core curriculum. Within the next five years, the school district hopes to expand into all 211 schools.

Teaching creativity and collaboration

Principal Barbara Bottoms visited a classroom where Stern was infusing music into a reading arts language classroom. The results surprised her.

“I expected students to be interested,” she said. “But I didn’t expect a large group of students working together. I saw them excited about learning, and I saw them excited about learning reading and language arts through music.”

In a recent math class, Stern stood at the front of the classroom and played sound clips demonstrating the different instruments kids could use in a rock band.

“Which drum kit do you want in your band’s sound?” he asked the class. “What kind of feeling do you want to generate in the audience?”

Then, the kids were shown the price tag. It turns out arts integration isn’t just about teaching students the core subjects; it’s also about teaching them how to work together — in this case, to figure out how to split up their limited funds to buy the best instruments.

“Let’s turn these numbers into something that makes sense,” Stern told the kids. “I’m going to give you now one minute for a quick group discussion. What do you want most of all? How are you going to keep control over your budget while getting the sound that you want?”

Effect on test scores

In an era when standardized tests have been dominating the national conversation, proponents of arts integration says it gives students the ability to move beyond test scores into real learning.

“What happened before, when we were working with the standardized tests, it all became the ‘drill and kill, get ready for the test’ kind of thing,” said John Ceschini, who heads up the Arts Integration program in the county. “And now we see, hey, kids need so much more: They need creativity; they need communication; they need to collaborate. These skills are essential. If we don’t have that, my goodness, how are they going to make it in this society?”

Prince George’s County schools haven’t led the state in educational rankings — the system is often at or near the bottom of Maryland’s 24 school districts. Just last week, the county learned how it did on the new Common Core PARCC test. Students didn’t do so well, scoring lower, on average, than their peers across the state in 10 out of 15 areas. But county officials are optimistic: With the PARCC results as a baseline, they think arts integration can only help.

“I’m not going to say that there’s causation between arts integration and test scores increasing, but I’ve seen it happen,” Ceschini said. “I’ve seen it happen everywhere I’ve been. So there’s a strong correlation between the two.”

A wealth of research shows arts integration helps kids increase their problem-solving skills, enhance their social development, and remember the material better. Scientific studies show the use of arts in education engages the whole brain, improving retention. But students don’t need academic studies to know that it works.

“I think that arts integration helps us learn a lot,” said Victor Muñoz, a fifth grader at Rogers Heights. “When you hear a song, and you hear the rhythm and the beat, it stays in your mind, so that helps you remember.”

Arts integration doesn’t just motivate the students; it also also helps teachers stay more engaged with the material. Joli Butler teaches fourth and fifth grade at Rogers Heights, and also teaches arts integration throughout the school.

“As a teacher, doing arts integration has developed a new passion in me for the teaching,” she said. After teaching the same subjects for nine years, Butler now gets to look at the material in a new way. “It’s allowing me to find those natural connections in music and art and drama and dance. And it’s making me enjoy teaching again. It’s making me enjoy learning again.”

On the ‘leading edge’

Music has been used forever to help kids learn. Anyone growing up in the '70s or '80s will probably remember a scroll of paper sitting on the Capitol steps, singing and dreaming about making it through committee and getting signed into law by the president. But very few school districts have embraced the philosophy of using arts throughout the curriculum.

“Prince George’s is on the leading edge here,” said Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a national coalition of more than 100 education, arts, and governmental organizations. The county is a leader, she says, because it has a strong leader. “You do have to have a strong leader who sends that message to schools that this is important and it is necessary for students to be successful, not just in education, but also in their careers and in life.”

The county’s leader is Dr. Kevin Maxwell. It’s his third year as superintendent here — last year he was honored as Maryland Superintendent of the Year. He has received national recognition for his embrace of the arts, and was named as a White House “Champion for Change.”

Before Prince George’s, he was superintendent in Anne Arundel County for seven years. After Anne Arundel failed to meet annual progress goals, Maxwell shifted gears, focusing the students on arts and arts integration. The results were encouraging: Bates Middle School in Annapolis saw achievement in math and reading among English language learners jump by almost 30 percent.

“It focuses kids on things like innovation, creativity and imagination. And our education can’t just be about rote facts — memorizing things and learning lists of words and vocabulary. It has to be about using them — making them purposeful and useful.”

When Maxwell became superintendent and traveled around the district, he says he was “appalled” that Prince George's County’s elementary school students were seeing an art teacher once every 8 or 9 weeks for 30 minutes at a time.

“I will just be honest, that is not an art program,” he said. “It’s not going to ground our children in the value of the arts. And so we began adding art teachers.”

But it’s tough to add enough art teachers to give 128,000 students a lesson every week. So in addition to ramping up the art program, the district has been infusing arts into the broader curriculum. Maxwell hopes it will encourage kids not just to learn for a test, but to learn for life.

“I think the arts are imperative for us as a culture and as a country,” Maxwell said. “I don’t know what life would be without music. You don’t become lifelong learners by memorizing vocabulary lists. You become a lifelong learner by learning to love words, and learning to love reading. It’s the teaching kids to think, to be creative, to analyze, to project, to predict. I believe that you have to teach kids to value the learning.”

[Music: "A World Without Music" by Archie Bell and the Drells from Archie Bell and the Drells]

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