Upon entering my classroom this summer, students would ask immediately: What are we creating today?

My answers varied from comic strips to rhythmic skip counting to 3D self-portraits and morning virtue bracelets. Meanwhile, the sound of students discussing their aspirations and visualizing how to create something tangible has made the Summer Arts for Learning Academy — where I taught this summer — a unique space for learning.

I’ve realized that this spirit of creation nurtured through arts-based learning changes what school can be for students. In the process, it also changes teaching — not just in the summer, but for year-round learning.

The Summer Arts for Learning Academy is a free summer learning program for pre-K to sixth grade Baltimore City Public Schools students to explore an arts-integrated model for education. Coordinated by Arts for Learning Maryland, the academy motivates teachers like me, a Baltimore special education teacher, to pursue the arts-integrated style of teaching in math and literacy with hands-on creativity in partnership with teaching artists. The academy has focused its practices on creating a safe, welcoming, loving and supportive environment for educators to embrace Black and brown children in Baltimore City schools. In my experience, it does this seamlessly in a six-week summer program in a way that supports the ideals of racial justice and equity. There are no mistakes in the arts-integrated approach.

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For example, instead of simply practicing reading from a book, students rehearsed a theater script for an African folktale. They critiqued each other in a well-mannered and constructive way and supported each other in their theatrical skills to make the folktale come to life. Through it all, I observed students take creative control of their learning. I discovered some of my most timid students creating the most intricate self-portraits. I noticed students who demonstrated an “I can’t do this” mindset shift to a positive perspective, and take pride in their abilities and creations. It was a transformation I hope to see during the school year — across the district.

Students’ daily engagement showed their desire to learn, create and explore their creative abilities. I watched them gain confidence and yearn to express themselves artistically. And in the process, I grew as an educator.

At first, the idea of arts integration felt unattainable. But during professional development, I realized this process of building understanding with children was going to be the best thing yet. I began reflecting on all that makes me feel joy in life — movement, music, drawing, crafting, creating, long talks of inspiration, acting, laughing and feeling free to express myself in a way that traditional school hardly supported. I started to develop a list of creative alternatives for engaging students. Shifting my lens of teaching has provoked me to take a different approach to how students learn. The academy allowed me to grow into a better version of myself as an educator.

The Summer Arts for Learning Academy has provided me with a new perspective on integrating the arts into learning. This unique approach to education has supported my growth and a deeper appreciation of how creative skills can affect student engagement and passion for learning.

My teaching practice has been affected by incorporating an artistic lens to promote student self-expression and demonstration of learning. I envision myself starting with art, where opportunities present themselves. Going forward, I will carry the program’s philosophies and values into the school year to create a classroom environment enriched with creativity.

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I hope I’m not alone. The seeds of an arts-integrated model have been planted in me with hopes that this could one day happen year-round for all students.

Elaina Gomez-Alcala is special education teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools and is pursuing a second master’s degree.

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