T he art of learning 8 local elementary schools test pilot program to bolster lessons

Dance artist Erin Leigh works with third-graders (from left) Nolan Hart (green), Dy’lasia Fogle, Berklie Duffy and Lucas Zemaitis at Jennie Moore Elementary School as they create movements to accompany music and poems. The lesson is part of Engaging Creative Minds, a startup nonprofit that aims to enhance public education with arts programming.

Grace Beahm

In the school garden and greenhouse, third-graders are growing strawberries, ginger, tomatoes, blueberries, herbs and more. They are learning how to cultivate, harvest, market and sell the produce.

They are learning about life cycles from their teacher, Catheryne Porter. They also are learning how to tell a story with help from Gene Furchgott of Yo Art!, a local nonprofit and school partner.

Tablet computers come in handy. With them, these students at Angel Oak Elementary on Johns Island — a Title I school — are composing ebooks.

Principal Rodney Moore calls this “brain compatible learning,” by which he means a participatory way to teach that asks students to consider ideas and lessons in a variety of contexts and from a variety of perspectives, an approach “that engages all their senses.”

Sitting at a desk and listening to a teacher explain things is no way to maximize mental absorption, Moore says. You’ve got to get your hands dirty. You’ve got to light the flame of fascination. You’ve got to take a creative approach that makes school fun.

Eight area elementary schools are part of a pilot program organized by the recently formed Engaging Creative Minds, a public-private initiative started by the Charleston County School District that seeks to use the arts to enhance learning across the board.

The idea was born in 2008, when Jim Braunreuther, the district’s arts coordinator, learned about an organization in Dallas called Big Thought.

He persuaded Charles Fox of Fox Music to fund a 2010 talk in Charleston by Big Thought President and CEO Gigi Antoni, who addressed a large assembly of politicians, school administrators and community leaders. Some seed money was secured and more sessions with Antoni were scheduled during the course of 2011.

She spoke about the successes of Big Thought — the way its “creative learning systems” have been implemented through a collaborative program called Thriving Minds, which integrates fine arts instruction with standard school curricula and trains educators and community artists to support “student achievement through creative learning.” And she discussed how this approach could be implemented in the Charleston area.

Organizers assembled a task force, put a startup plan in place and found corporate sponsors such as Boeing and Target, Braunreuther said. Early this year, Robin Berlinsky, who had helped start the Children’s Museum, was hired as director. Last month, Rick Jerue, former president of the Art Institute of Charleston, agreed to serve as chairman of the board.

For the pilot program, organizers set up residencies in which trained artists work with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, based on requests from teachers. Need to get across the concepts of force and motion? Theater might help. Do standards require a certain competence in literary arts? Try employing a dancer to describe poetry. You’ve got to teach Reconstruction, but history is a little dry? A painter can inspire visual expression, then storytelling.

It’s nice, but certainly not sufficient, to invite artists to share their work with students, Braunreuther said. Special guests in the classroom or auditorium might entertain, even educate and inspire, but if they are not helping teachers raise test scores and meet the requirements of core standards, it’s a lost instruction day.

“The arts need to be curriculum-driven,” Braunreuther said. “Kids get passionate about the arts. If we can get them passionate about math, science, social studies, it’s a win-win.”

So Porter, at Angel Oak Elementary, has two choices: She can ask her students to learn and list the steps in a life cycle, or she can get them to grow vegetables (fertilizing with fish guts), work with artists to design ebook stories and ask them to show her what happens in a greenhouse.

The kids do it all, from taking photos with their tablets to page layout and design, supervised by Furchgott and Porter and encouraged to employ different approaches such as persuasive, entertaining or informative storytelling.

Abigail Adajar used alliteration in her title: “Great Green Garden.” Tronasia Alston’s ebook is called “My Growing Greenhouse.” One student told her story through the eyes of an observant owl. Another used human characters. This activity will be handy next year and in fifth grade, when the students dig deeper into ecosystems, Porter said.

At Jennie Moore Elementary in Mount Pleasant, another of the pilot schools, Principal Karen Felder said ECM was a “natural extension” of the curriculum, a professional development opportunity for teachers and a great learning experience for the children.

Staffers from the Children’s Museum armed with Lego pieces visited the school to help fifth-graders understand force and motion (mass, texture, angle, resistance). Visual artist Susan Antonelli helped them understand Reconstruction with crayon-resistant drawings and creative writing exercises. And dancer Erin Leigh worked with third-graders on poetry and expression.

The arts open up possibilities and reinforce lessons, making it more likely that students will retain what they learn, Felder said. “I think it’s because it’s an engaging activity for kids.” For some, school can become a not-very-fun place where obligation overwhelms inquisitiveness and creativity. “You want kids to love coming to school. That’s the piece the arts bring; it allows children to become actively involved.”

Laura Peaden, a fifth-grade teacher at Jennie Moore Elementary, said students are focused when the trained artist is working with them. Work resembles play.

On the hallway walls outside her classroom are hung colorful drawings representing some aspect of the Reconstruction period in American history. Antonelli had the kids identify and draw a figure from that time (usually a human), then write a story from that figure’s perspective.

Teachers were amazed when one student who had struggled with language arts wrote a beautiful story about wartime worry and loss as told by a middle-age woman. The exercise brought forth the inner writer in the boy.

In Nancy Townsend’s third-grade class, Leigh was tasked with explaining how poetry worked. She began with a dance, asking children to guess what the movement represented, what the dance was about. Then she showed them the poem “I Can Fly” by Sheree Fitch, and the students began to put two and two together, while learning a glos- sary of terms Leigh projected on the Smart Board: improvise, tempo, accent, positive and negative space.

Next came the poem “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard. Leigh lingered on certain words — “skims,” “searching,” “touch down” — asking the students to surmise why such words were chosen by the poet. Movement was added.

Wings flicker and still:/Stained-glass windows/With sun shining through.

Leigh, who is trained in dance pedagogy and has worked with children in other cities, said this approach never fails to stimulate young learners. Even reluctant children get involved.

Berlinsky called ECM a “broker.” It draws on community resources, then facilitates classroom partnerships, she said. Artists must apply to be part of the program. If accepted, they are trained and receive payment.

Teachers request assistance with a lesson or concept, which triggers a collaborative residency at that school, one in which the students aren’t the only ones learning.

“Teachers are building a repertoire of ideas they can reuse,” Berlinsky said.

Jerue said the purpose is fundamentally practical.

“We are assisting schools in achieving core standards with arts education,” he said.

It’s all about “engaging kids the right way,” and on their terms, Braunreuther said.

If educators can offer a creative, arts-based experience, one that helps them achieve state and federal goals, children will be excited about going to school. “I’m hoping that in five years people will be begging to be part of this,” Braunreuther said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.