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Sandy West worked for 31 years in the Batesville School District, which at one time had two A+ schools. She was happy to be back in school as an A+ fellow. "I absolutely loved it," she said of the arts-infused method. "It put the joy back in teaching," she said.
A month ago, West was at KIPP middle school in Helena, where 87 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunches. She was snapping her fingers in front of a room of seventh-graders while she asked them questions, using the beat to bring them to attention. Her task: to teach the word "infer." Her tool: A short story by Leo Tolstoy and what she called "frozen tableaus," in which the students posed to act out a part of the story. Those watching had to infer what the students' poses conveyed: How the boy on his knees with downcast eyes was the story's beggar, for example, though at no time in the story was the beggar on his knees. The only quiet time during the exercise was when students were reading the story. Afterwards, they got to put their heads together with partners on how to do their tableaus, and then got to jump up out of their chairs and pose. "Some learn by what they read, some by what they hear and some by what they see," West told the kids, and that's all right. The reading, talking and posing addressed all three.
Anna Kryzminski, who teaches the sixth-grade class at the KIPP middle school that A+ director Butler was guiding, said the school's math curriculum gets good results, "but it never gives an opportunity for the kids to do things ... pushing their thinking." It may take longer to complete an exercise in the A+ method, she said, but student retention of information is such that it speeds subsequent exercises.
KIPP is in its second year of A+ training at the elementary and middle-school level and its first in high school. KIPP executive director Scott Shively said one reason the school wants to bring more art, music and drama into the classrooms is that he believes it's key to college success, by helping students integrate socially. Another is to keep KIPP enrollment up: "The target, what we wanted to look at, is increasing the joy factor, and decreasing mobility."
Shively talked about how the logical right brain — fed by academics — must sometimes call on the creative left brain to come up with solutions, and he said a KIPP geometry class was an example in giving the left brain more attention. Students wrote personal ads for the denizens of "Quad City": "Parallelogram looking for a similarly congruent parallelogram," read one ad. To do that, the "students not only have to know the material, but tap into their creative side."
"We've always had a strong reputation for academics," Shively said. "What's been powerful is to see how the campus has come to life in a different way."
In August last year, Leopoulos spoke at a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees about A+, and the idea of arts-infused education was met with enthusiasm by several members, including Sens. Joyce Elliott, Mary Ann Salmon and Jimmy Jeffress, the then-chair of the Senate's committee.
Elliott said there was plenty of evidence that the arts got students "turned on. ... I'm not just ready to get out of the box, I'm ready to burn the box." Salmon said she'd been an advocate of arts-infused education "since I was a teacher a hundred years ago."
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