Interview with Jackie Murphy

When and how did the arts immersion start?
"The arts immersion, a professional development component, started at the beginning of the project in the early 1990s and went through several transformations. Our guiding principle was that all participants—teachers, administrators, artists, staff—would explore challenging academic content together and experience strategies in music, dance, drama, visual arts, and writing that would engage students in learning and increase achievement. Together was key because as a group of professionals, each contributed expertise, whether in art, curriculum content and development, or personal experience.

"Knowing the power of the art and what is possible is most important at the beginning. Thanks to a conversation with Dan Scheinfeld of the Erikson Institute, we focused on one text, exploring all art forms. Whether a science document or a piece of literature, groups were divided by art form and each read and explored the same material. The results highlighted the power of music, dance, drama, visual art, and writing to open up the text through images and evoke deep, meaningful conversation about both the content and the art form. When the groups convened and performed their interpretations; the audience, their fellow participants, were awestruck—at their courage and poise, the depth of their understanding, and, most importantly, that creating this art was possible for everyone!

"Immersion felt literal, diving in, taking risks, fully engaged in the art processes as the subject matter came to life. We were living the language of the arts, experiencing the freedom within form, the decision-making, the focus, the trial and error, the satisfaction. Together we planned for the school year, continuing to build our own relationships and trust as we worked with state standards and created arts-integrated units. We were rethinking curriculum, rethinking the way students learn, creating a new synergy. It was exhilaratingly hard work.

"As the project grew with new schools and new school districts, national pressure to increase test scores amid budget cuts and curriculum restrictions continued to grow. The same questions from teachers and administrators intensified. Will the students really learn the content? Will they be able to write and read better? Will I have time? Will I stray from curriculum? Won't art just add a big project? Will discipline be disrupted? What happens to students who are not artistic? What if I'm afraid of making art myself?"

How do we know it is working?
"It's working when students are actively engaged and feel safe in showing what they know; teachers' expectations are high and their students are meeting them. The classroom is a joyful grappling with concepts and skills. Once I heard Jonathan Kozol say that too much testing, too much scripting of teacher's lessons, too much making it through the curriculum was destroying "the spontaneous joy of intellectual curiosity." In arts-integrated classrooms, in the arts immersion as well, that joy is alive. I remember a study entitled: Effective Pedagogy. Its five essential components were: Joint Productive Activity; Language and Literature Across the Curriculum; Making Meaning by Connecting to Student Lives; Teaching Complex Thinking; and Teaching Through Conversation. The workshops, discussions, and unit implementations fit all of these.

"The arts immersion deepens discussion and builds community through the creation of shared stories. In the workshop we ask the teachers to suspend disbelief and take a risk just like the kids. Words became live ideas through creating images, a physical emotional grappling with content. Not all academic curriculum needs art as a vehicle, but a sustained use of the strategy builds habit of mind. Students know what intellectual curiosity and exploration feel like, they learn to evoke images and ask questions throughout their course work. The art of active learning is a habit of mind that students acquire, and arts-integration offers them the opportunity.

"I'm completely convinced in the power of learning in and through the arts."