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Orchestrating a new approach to learning

Over the past several years, the Phoenix Symphony has built a thriving arts integration program in partnership with its local school district.

For decades, the Phoenix Symphony has played an important role in making Arizona one of the nation’s best places to work and live. Not only does it bring world-class performances to the concert hall, but it has always strived to support the community in other ways, too, especially through music education. When it comes to this second part of its mission, though, it has struggled at times. Like many other orchestras across the country, most of its outreach has taken the form of “drive-by” programming: classroom concerts that do not feature much student involvement. Typically, musicians would be bused to a school, perform selections from “Peter and the Wolf,” and then head on down the road.

When he took over as president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony in 2011, Jim Ward pledged to do more to support the region’s public schools. Inspired by the growing movement to integrate the arts into K-12 classroom instruction, he and Kim Graham — the symphony’s new director of education — created a program called Mind Over Music, which aimed to tap the skills and talents of professional musicians to make meaningful contributions to student learning.

The idea was to bring musicians and elementary school teachers together to design and deliver a new STEAM curriculum, incorporating live music into academic lessons. Such an ongoing partnership, Ward and Graham anticipated, would lead to improvements in teacher knowledge, planning, instruction, and assessment; boost student achievement in music and the STEAM subjects; maintain the integrity of music instruction in the schools; and build strong working relationships among teaching faculty, symphony musicians, and education staff. Further, they hoped the program would become a model of successful arts integration, inspiring other arts organizations to build effective partnerships with local educators.

But still, Ward and Graham had to wonder: If you pair professional musicians with elementary school teachers, do you end up with magical classroom partnerships or awkward shotgun marriages?

First steps

Graham found the symphony’s first partner school just a few blocks away: Arizona State University Preparatory Academy, a Title I charter school, embraced the new program, agreeing to a three-year pilot project, with some classrooms participating and others providing a control group for evaluators. A core group of five musicians then signed on to the project, telling Graham they were interested in trying this new kind of outreach. At that point, ready or not, Mind Over Music had become the nation’s first arts integration program involving a professional symphony orchestra. “I had never worked with a symphony before,” Graham recounts. “I didn’t know anything about the restrictions governing unions, pay scales, that sort of thing. [In the last arts integration project I directed,] we used a corps of teaching artists from every genre. Our symphony musicians, however, were professional artists who had never been placed in a traditional teaching position. There was a learning curve for all of us.”

The first step was to pair together the musicians and teachers to discuss curriculum ideas. However, as Jim Ward notes, that created a challenge from the start. “The musicians and the teachers needed to feel confident that it would be a mutual learning situation,” he recalls. “It was hard for each side to admit what they didn’t know.” Despite some growing pains, though, the value of the approach became clear from the very first lesson. “When you hear the kids go ‘Yeeeeeeahhhhh!’ the moment the cello appears in the classroom, it gives you goosebumps,” says Laura Harnish, administrator for assessment in the Maricopa County Education Service Agency.

Dian D’Avanzo could not agree more. A violinist with the Phoenix Symphony, she and her husband Mike, a cellist, joined the program in Year Three. “One of the great early moments,” she says, occurred in a 2nd-grade classroom:

The teacher was having trouble getting the kids to understand map reading. It was difficult for them to grasp the concept of city versus state versus country; they’d visit Tucson and think they’d left the state completely. So we brought in an overhead map of the orchestra, and I showed them where I sit. I said, “That chair is my house, and I live in Violin City, while Mike is over there living in Cello City.” We both played our instruments to establish similarities and differences, and then we showed the class that we both sat in the string section. That was our state, we explained, and the orchestra was the whole country. We color coded everything and then asked, “If I go to visit Mike, am I leaving my house?” Yes. “Am I leaving my city?” Yes. “Am I leaving my state?” No. But if I visit someone in the brass section, I am leaving my state. Then we pulled out a map of the U.S., and everything fell into place.

Another lesson had to do with the concept of reading fluency:

Mike and I played a musical passage with no rhythm whatsoever, abruptly stopping and starting. Then the 2nd-grade teacher would read a paragraph from a book in the same disjointed way. Next, we played the music with correct rhythm but no inflection or dynamics; it was absolutely robotic. Then the teacher would read that paragraph again in a complete monotone. Finally, we’d play the music with rhythm and feeling, and suddenly the kids would recognize that we’d been playing “Over the Rainbow” all along, though they couldn’t identify it at first. Then the teacher would read her passage with equal feeling, giving them a sense of reading fluency and why it mattered.

During the first three years of the partnership with ASU Prep, Mind Over Music lessons were held on a monthly basis. Musicians received training on translating academic standards into curriculum, working with special education populations, planning lessons, and managing classrooms.

In the meantime, the symphony commissioned a quantitative evaluation, comparing the treatment and control groups’ progress over time, both on state-mandated achievement tests and on a customized assessment, which measured the effect of the music-based instruction on students’ knowledge and application of STEM vocabulary and concepts. The results were encouraging. After three years, math test scores of students participating in Mind Over Music were nearly 17% higher, on average, than those of students in the control group, and in science their scores were 19% higher. In fact, students who received the music-based instruction saw their scores increase on all parts of the state assessment, while scores of the control group decreased or stayed the same.

Evaluators also measured changes in teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. At the beginning of Year Three, 76% of teachers reported feeling uncertain that music-based lessons could be used effectively to increase student academic achievement in other content areas. By the end of the year, 99% of participating teachers agreed that music is an effective tool for increasing student academic achievement.

However, the methodologies used in these studies were far from perfect. “The original lesson-based assessments were created by individual teachers and musicians and were specific to each lesson. Aggregating the results of a large collection of disparate assessments was a true methodological challenge,” says Laura Harnish, adding that the state’s achievement tests were about to be replaced. Clearly, a new program evaluation plan would be needed for future years.

A mature partnership

By the third year of the program, Valerie Bontrager had replaced Kim Graham (who had moved to another state) as the symphony’s director of education. “I could see the power of the program,” Bontrager says, “but now we had a number of brand new teachers coming on board. We knew we had to find a way to codify the Mind Over Music experience.”

An independent consultant recommended that the symphony collaborate with the Maricopa County Education Service Agency (MCESA), which had a school support division, an evaluation research team, and genuine enthusiasm for the work. With their help, the program accomplished a significant expansion in the 2015-16 school year. Two more elementary schools in Maricopa County were added, and Mind Over Music grew to include 45 teachers, 24 professional musicians, and 1,780 participating students. Perhaps more important was the introduction of a new, structured protocol — based on a set of four key principles — to ensure the quality and consistency of local partnerships.

First, teachers and musicians cannot be half-hearted about their intention to collaborate with each other; if they opt to participate in the program, they must commit themselves to working as a team to plan and deliver a minimum of 10 lessons.

Second, professional development is non-negotiable. Schools must arrange for substitutes so participating teachers can attend workshops on Mondays, which are the only guaranteed days off for orchestra members.

Third, classroom coaching is also non-negotiable. MCESA must provide every teaching team with support from a pair of classroom coaches, including a veteran music education teacher and a veteran STEM teacher.

Finally, participants need high-quality resources. MCESA and the symphony must work together to create an online repository of inquiry-based lesson plans that teachers and musicians can search, download, and add to over time.

Valerie Bontrager sees this last element as the key to the program’s long-term success. “We want to downplay the lectures and teacher talk, so we’ve been sharing lesson plans that are designed to spark organic conversation and student response, and that include built-in assessments to help our teachers and musicians gauge kids’ interest and engagement.” (See the sample lesson below.)

“At first, some of the new classroom strategies seemed a bit strange to the musicians,” Dian D’Avanzo admits. “We didn’t know how to fit what we were doing into these lesson forms.  But MCESA has helped us make adjustments along the way — they were always observing our classes and responding to what they saw.”

MCESA also revamped the program’s approach to research and evaluation, creating new survey instruments and assessments as well as designing a quasi-experimental study of the program’s effect. In Year Four, teachers and classes were assigned randomly to control or treatment groups. Both groups were assessed at the beginning and end of the year, with teachers completing a self-efficacy survey and students taking a battery of standardized tests in language arts, math, and science, in addition to completing a self-efficacy survey, a test of music fundamentals, and a performance-based assessment. The most dramatic results came from the student survey, with the treatment group making significantly greater gains than the control students, indicating that students felt they understood and learned more content when lessons included a musical component.

Looking forward

The Phoenix Symphony plans to expand Mind Over Music to 20 Arizona schools by 2018-19 and then to scale up the program throughout the state and beyond. “There’s a limited number of musicians available,” Jim Ward acknowledges, “and schools have differing needs and interests. Some want a complete program, with a focus on improving their STEM education, and others simply want more arts instruction and are attracted by the ‘cool’ factor. But the beauty of an integrated program like Mind Over Music is that you never have to sacrifice class time for the exposure to the arts. So MCESA is helping us develop a menu of options for schools — with more emphasis on STEM learning or more emphasis on music — and we’ll offer our services to as many schools as we can.”

Another plan is to create a program for symphony orchestras that want to improve their community outreach but don’t have an education coordinator on staff. “We want to be able to provide them with the professional development they need,” Ward says, “along with a start-up guide and a bank of lesson plans. The Phoenix Symphony has figured all of that out for them. All they need to do is find the school.”

Five years after initiating the program, Kim Graham is delighted to hear that it continues to thrive. “For those musicians, Mind Over Music opened up a new way of thinking about how they can inspire the next generation of artists and students. Honestly, when we started the work, people were skeptical that professional musicians would buy into it at all. It’s to their credit that they became so invested in its success,” Graham says.

MICHAEL KAPLAN ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and frequent consultant to the Phoenix Symphony. (Please direct any inquires about the Mind over Music program to Valerie Bontrager at The Phoenix Symphony: [email protected].)

Originally published in April 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (7), 23-28. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.

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